Commentary on Matthew 13:1-9
Parables of the Kingdom
Today we come to the third of the five discourses of Jesus found in Matthew’s gospel. It consists entirely of parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, as Matthew calls it. It might be helpful to go back to Monday of the 10th Week and look again at what is said there about the meaning of ‘Kingdom of heaven’. Briefly to repeat, we are talking about, not a place and still less a place in the future life, but a network of people and communities who are committed to all that God is and stands for, as revealed to us through the life and teaching of Jesus. They are those who work that God’s will be done on earth, which is the establishment of the Kingdom.
These parables then are images that Jesus gives to help us understand how we are to enter into and become part of that Kingdom, of that kingship of God to which we adhere with all our heart and soul.
Our passage begins with Jesus leaving the house. Our reading leaves out the first phrase “That same day”. What day? and What house? It seems that Matthew is linking the parables of the Kingdom with the scene we had yesterday about those who are on “inside” and those on the “outside”. The house – whose ownership is never referred to and we know that Jesus had no house of his own – seems to refer to any place where people are gathered together with Jesus. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). And wherever people are closely related with Jesus, not just physically but intentionally, that is to be on the “inside” and it is also to be part of the Kingdom.
We are told that the crowds wanting to listen to Jesus were so great that he had to use a boat moored near the shore to speak to them. In the Gospel, the boat also often represents the Church or the Christian community from which Jesus continues to speak his message to the world. We are also told that he spoke to them in parables. Once again, Matthew uses his favourite number by having seven of them. (Just to remind ourselves: there are 2×7 generations in Jesus’ genealogy, 7 Beatitudes, forgiveness not 7 but 77 times, 7 ‘alas’ in the condemnation of the Pharisees and his gospel divided into seven main sections – infancy, five discourses, passion.)
For three days, that is, for the rest of this week, we are going to be considering the first and the longest of the parables, the parable of the sower. First, today, we have the parable itself, then tomorrow some explanation of the role of parables in Jesus’ teaching and, finally on Saturday, an interpretation of the parable.
The parable itself is very straightforward. It speaks about a farmer sowing seed in his field, a typical Palestinian field of the time. It is obviously a very mixed patch of ground. There are paths going across it where people have long established a right of way. There are bits of rock sticking up above the ground with small hollows where water can gather after rain. Ploughing was done after the seed was sown so there are weeds and brambles growing wild all over the place. And then there are parts of the field which have good, fertile soil.
This image largely describes too the field in which Jesus the preacher and teacher is working. It provides very mixed soil and much of the seed does not go very far in producing fruit. All this has been described in what we have already seen of Jesus’ mission among the people, the religious leaders, his own family – and his disciples. It is these latter who are the fertile soil, these are the ones who will enter, who are already entering the Kingdom.
A parable in the Gospel usually makes just one point. In this case the message is that God’s plan will succeed, even though there seem to be setbacks. It was an important message for the early Christians to hear as it is for us today. It is a word of encouragement when Christians see how little success they seem to have at times in their evangelising work. The message is not to worry; God’s Word will prevail, it will always find fertile soil in which to grow and multiply. Indeed, in the past, some communities did fail but overall the Christian communities grew and the message spread to every corner of the world.
And then there is the final exhortation: “Listen, anyone who has ears!” Listening and hearing are not the same. To hear is to be physically capable of picking up sound. To listen presumes attention and awareness; it implies understanding and acceptance and, ultimately, implementation of what is heard.
Am I ready to enter the Kingdom? What kind of soil do I present for the Lord’s Word? Am I really listening to him in the fullest sense?