My Dear People,
There is a dramatic shift in Jesus’ teaching method. He spoke to them at length in parables. This is the first time Matthew specifically uses the word parables to describe Jesus’ teaching. While Jesus occasionally spoke in parables before, here he suddenly addresses the crowds “at length” in parables, giving several in rapid-fire succession. This movement from teaching the crowds primarily in a straightforward manner (Matt. 5-7) to a new emphasis on parables (Matt. 13) surprises Jesus’ own disciples, who ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (13-10).
For ancient Jews, a parable was a cryptic saying or story intended to stimulate thought. Parables were sometimes used to communicate God’s judgment on corrupt Israelites for their sins. As we will see, Jesus’ parables in Matt. 13 address the indifference of many in Israel to his ministry (Matt .11) and the opposition of the Pharisees who are plotting his death (Matt 12).
When asked about the purpose of his parables, Jesus tells the disciples that knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but it will not be given to those who do not follow him. Those who have been open to Christ’s teachings will perceive even more: To anyone who has, more will be given. But those with closed hearts will be unable to penetrate the mysteries of the kingdom: from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
In the punch line (v. 13) Jesus sums up the reason he now teaches in parables. Many in Israel refuse to receive his message: they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand. In fulfillment, Jesus points to Isa. 6:9-10, a text that tells how the prophet is sent by God to call the people to repentance but predicts that few will take the message to heart. Like Isaiah, Jesus calls God’s people to repent, but many in Israel will not respond.
Jesus’ first parable, known as the parable of the sower (13:18), draws on images that for some ancient Jews would have been quite familiar not only from the agricultural world in which they lived but also from their Scriptures. In the Old Testament, God was depicted as a sower (Isa 55:10-11; Jer. 31:27-28; Hosea 2:25), and seed represented his Word that would accomplish his purpose, producing an abundant crop (Isa 55:10-13). In the parable, the sower is now Jesus and the seed is his Word—his proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. The differences represent the different kind of responses to his ministry.
First, some are completely unreceptive to Christ. They hear the word without understanding it. This description applies to the Pharisees, who have so misunderstood Jesus that they have accused him of being in league with the devil (9:34; 12:24). The reference to those who hear “without understanding” also points to the town that witnessed Christ’s mighty deeds yet did not repent (11:20-24). These townspeople, and anyone else who fails to grasp the importance of Jesus’ message, are like seed sown on a path and devoured by birds—a symbol for the evil one, Satan (see 2 Cor 4:4).
Second, some in Israel respond to Jesus’ teaching with immediate enthusiasm: they receive it at once with joy. However, when faced with tribulation or persecution they fall away. This might point to the crowds who initially respond positively to Jesus (7:28; 9:33; 12:23) but whose enthusiasm will vanish during his last days in Jerusalem. People who do not persevere through trial and persecution are like seed that falls on rocky ground and springs up at once, but when the sun scorches it, withers for lack of root.
Third, some hear the word, but worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. This description recalls the warning Jesusgave his disciples about the worries of the world (6:25-34). It also points to the problem of the rich young man who walks away from Jesus because of his attachment to his many possessions (19:16-22). All such would-be disciples are like the seed that fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
Finally, the true follower of Christ hears the word and understands it. This points to the disciples who have been given “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom” (13:11); they truly see and hear (13:16-17). The disciples will be explicitly identified as those who “understand” Christ’s teachings in parables (13:51). Jesus says they are likely falling on rich soil. They will bear fruit—an image for the practical living out of one’s faithfulness to God (3:8, 10; 7:17-20; 12:33). Though many do not respond to Jesus, those who do will produce abundant harvest, yielding a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente