Sowers and Seeds (Matt 13.18-29)

Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral, 4 August 2019

A variety of interpretations

Matt called it ‘the parable of the sower’ – but some have called it the parable of the soils (although in fact there is a greater stress on the hindrances – birds, weeds, scorching sun); others on the message (“the normal result of God’s word is failure” – Schniewind); while yet others the focus is on the harvest.

Was Jesus telling his disciples to be more careful where they sowed? Alister McGrath in a recent essay wrote: “The church’s evangelistic tasks extend beyond the mere ‘sowing of the seed’. What can be done to break the ground an d make it receptive to the seed taking root? How can weeds be removed, to give the growing seed more space and light? What can be done in the face of external threats?

A message of encouragement.

My own conviction is that this is a message of encouragement. Yes, there will be difficulties, there will be opposition, there will be losses, there will be setbacks, but there will be blessing – there will be a wonderful harvest – God will bring in his kingdom. Listen to Jesus Matt 13:8: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. The normal yield for each plant to produce was 10 other grains – but here were plants producing 30, 60, or even 100 grains. This was a bumper harvest — more than plenty to enable a farmer to forget any loss of past years.

In the first place Jesus was speaking a word of encouragement to his disciples: for in spite of the crowds, opposition was mounting.  But it is also a word of encouragement to us. As unproductive pockets of soil belong to sowing, so opposition and failure belong to the efforts of the people of God. But cheer up:  there is a bumper harvest coming!’

A challenge to listen

It is possible that that it was not just addressed to those who were following Jesus, but to those who had yet to commit themselves to the cause of Jesus. Matthew. at the beginning of this chapter, wrote: “Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach” (Matt 13.2). Within such a context

  • it ceases to be the parable of the sower and becomes the parable of the soils.
  • it ceases to be a parable of encouragement and becomes a parable of challenge.
  • whereas the message to the disciples was ‘God is at work – there will be a harvest, and a bumper harvest at that’; the message to the crowds = ‘For heaven’s sake listen’.

A harvest may be guaranteed, but not, alas, in the heart of every hearer. The seed, said Jesus, is “the word of the kingdom” (13.19) – but as this word or message is preached, people’s responses will be varied. So, says Jesus, “Let anyone with ears, listen!” (13.9).


Matt 13:24-30 (NRSV): 24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

I hate weeds. In Palestine ‘bearded darnel’ (lolium temulentum) was poisonous and an absolute killer. What made things worse was that this bearded darnel was well-nigh indistinguishable from wheat until the ears began to show. By then it was too late to do anything, for these weeds had become so intertwined with the wheat that they couldn’t be uprooted without damage to the wheat. This was the stuff that some lousy fellow sowed in his neighbour’s field. It may sound an unlikely story, but it was a well-known form of agricultural sabotage in the ancient world; there was even a Roman law dealing specifically with the crime of sowing darnel in a wheat field.  Like so many of his parables, this story was almost certainly based on a true incident. Jesus used this ‘dirty trick’ to teach spiritual truth.

  • Traditionally it has been suggested that Jesus was calling for tolerance – as if he were saying ‘Let the weeds alone’. Interpreters assumed that Jesus was speaking of the church; and that he was warning some of his more enthusiastic followers not to be too zealous in sorting out the sheep from the goats, or in this case the weeds from the wheat. That was God’s job, not theirs. They were to take a more relaxed attitude to church and accept that the church would always be a mixed body; that there would always be sinners rubbing shoulders with saints.
  • But that is a misinterpretation. Jesus calls here not for tolerance, but for patience. Jesus is here speaking not about the church, but about the world: see 13.38: “the field is the world”. In this world there are two forces at work: a force for good and a force for evil; there is God and his Kingdom on the one hand, and Satan and has kingdom on the other.

Jesus was telling his parable to people at a particular moment in time. He was almost certainly referring to the attacks upon him by the religious leaders of his day; perhaps he was referring to Herod’s silencing of John the Baptist. Jesus was very conscious of the pressures upon him. Perhaps some of his followers wanted Jesus to be more of a Zealot and declare war on his enemies. If so, then Jesus was calling them to be patient and entrust the future to God who in his own time will bring in the Kingdom.

Perhaps too there was a word to those who had yet to respond to the message of the kingdom: there is time still to open your lives to God.

For reflection and discussion

  1. What do the two parables say to you?
  2. How depressed are you by the massive church decline in the UK? To what extent are you reassured by Jesus’ promise of a bumper harvest?
  3. How helpful do you find Jesus’ classification of soils? If the beaten path represents people with closed minds, what does rocky ground represent? According to David McKenna, s ‘shallow growth’ is “the result of a spiritual growth that is emotionally exhilarating, but intellectually rootless’ (David McKenna). What are today’s cares which threaten to lead to stunted growth?
  4. How do you respond to Jesus’ call for patience? Is there no place for church discipline?

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