Meditation: The Parable of the Sower

by Linford Ranck

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our redeemer.”[1]

Dear beloved community at St. John’s, I am drawn to reflect on the Parable of the Sower and its explanation in this week’s Gospel reading in Matthew chapter 13, verses 1-9; 18-23.[2] I hope that you have also verses 10-17 of Matthew 13 in front of you, for that passage is where I focus my meditation today.[3]

Recently I found myself wincing in hesitant agreement when a biblical studies professor told me she finds this NT parable almost incoherent, if not ad hoc. For the scholar the difficulty lies in chapter 13: 10-17, the verses which the lectionary leaves out. These verses, embedded between the Parable proper and its explanation can strike one, in the words of a modern reader, “a bit like a riddle in a folktale, where to get the answer wrong means perdition.”[4] When the disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables Jesus answers, “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” The same narrative in Mark’s Gospel employs a seemingly harsher response to the disciples query. Jesus says, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parablesso that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding;’”[5]

It might be helpful to think with scholars who suggest that NT parables fit within a common rabbinic and Hellenistic rhetorical genre in which parable serves first of all to exegete the revealed Word.[6] As Toni Alimi also alluded in his sermon on Sunday, the parable’s primary function is hermeneutical. Unlike the later rabbinic sages, the Gospel writers are not so concerned with exegeting Scripture per se as they are concerned with Jesus as the exegete/exegesis of the Divine Will and the imminent in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth. In his parables Jesus both as Son of God and as human teacher exegetes the function, nature, and population of this kingdom. 

If we understand parabolic discourse then as a hermeneutical lens through which the Kingdom is revealed to us, what is the message of the Parable of the Sower? I think a central motif entails the question of who constitutes Jesus’ family in the Kingdom of God. Crudely put, who can we safely say falls inside or outside the Kingdom’s purview? Christ breaks wide open these very human and quite reasonable questions at the end of chapter 12, right before the parable begins, when the inspired Gospel writer relates the story in which the disciples tell Jesus that his “mother and brothers are standing outside.” Jesus replies by first asking, “Who is my mother, and who is my brother?” before claiming that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”[7] I like to think this incredible monologue here at the end of chapter 12 serves as the introduction and the backdrop to the Parable of the Sower in chapter 13. 

All this might help us with the troubling verses in chapter 13:10-17, those verses that fall between the parable proper and Jesus’ explanation. Jesus, after having stated that his family are those that do the will of God, and then having compared God’s will to a seed that bears fruit, here tells his disciples that they are insiders in the Kingdom (v.16), and yet still implies that they miss an essential part of it, for he goes on to explain the parable to them as if they are outsiders who really aren’t privy to the Kingdom’s secrets. This begs the question, are the disciples on the inside or the outside? The Markan account of the same narrative makes Jesus ask his disciples outright why they don’t understand this parable, after telling them literally that theirs is the “secret of the kingdom of God,” unlike those on the outside to whom everything is said in parables.[8] As one discerning reader styles this interpretive conundrum, “Christ tells his followers that he speaks in parables so as to hide from his outsiders what it turns out his 12 insiders cannot understand either.”[9]

Thank you for accompanying me through this perhaps somewhat rambling exegesis. But what application might the Parable of the Sower and its broader literary setting have for us today? Among other applications, it seems to me that this parable and its central theme of insider/outsider status shows us that the borders of the Kingdom, or the family of God, are blurrier, grander, and more marvelous than we disciples can imagine. Questions about who is in and who is out are beside the point, for every baptized Christian yet finds herself at times inside and outside the Kingdom. 

And yet we are all heir, individually and corporately, in a Christian legacy of exclusion and name-calling. Despite this parable and others that tell of a Kingdom with unpredictable boundaries, Christians ironically have a history of anathemizing other Christians whose beliefs and actions seem to fall definitively outside the Kingdom. For example, many of us at St. John’s of European descent have Christian ancestors who came to America because European Christians on every side couldn’t fathom the possibility that Catholics, Lutherans, Mennonites, etc. may be part of the same spiritual family. Even closer to home, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Whalley Avenue was formed because Episcopal Christians in New Haven couldn’t see how BIPOC might have the same status in God’s family as whites. 

I am not suggesting we shouldn’t take a stand for robust theological statements and orthodox liturgies — rather that we should bear in mind that perhaps the Kingdom, like yeast’s action in dough, somehow pushes beyond our theological, ecclesial, and social alliances. For myself, this means believing that the Kingdom of God extends to those wealthy suburban Christians who seem to think church means little more than a social gathering. It means trusting that the Spirit actually does work in denominations and individuals who oppose my spiritual gifts and calling simply because I’m gay and seek a partner of the same sex within the holy sacrament of marriage. It means somehow seeing my brother among religious groups who deny the existence of structural racism or think COVID is a media hoax. 

I am grateful for the ways St. John’s embodies a “generous orthodoxy” in its imagination of the Kingdom, and I pray that we can continue to encourage one another in bearing the precious seed that reaps a harvest of loving kindness, hope, and faith. 

[1] Drawn from Psalm 19:14, NIV. 

[2] All quotes from Matthew drawn from the NIV. 

[3] With gratitude to Sally Hansen for cheerfully serving as a sounding board for parts of this meditation.

[4] Frank Kermode, quoted in David Stern, Parables in Midrash: Narrative and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 201.

[5] Mark 4:11-12, NIV.

[6] See David Stern, Parables in Midrash.

[7] Matthew 12:46-50. 

[8] Mark 4:11-14.

[9] Emphasis mine. George Stade, book review entitled “Frank Kermode, Interpreter,” (The NYTimes: May 27, 1979)

To listen to or read other meditations by members of St. John’s, visit our website.

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