The well-known parable of the seed and the sower is the first of seven parables in Matthew 13. These are known as the “Sermon of Parables” (Mt 13:1-53), and this sermon, as a whole, is the third great sermon recorded in the first Gospel, the previous two being the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) and the Mission Sermon (Mt 10:5-42).
There are about 40 parables in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Fourth Gospel contains no parables), and each expresses some truth about the mystery of the Kingdom of God. They impart, Jesus told the disciples, “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” and are meant to enlighten those who hear with faith, while frustrating those without faith, “because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Yet the parables are not secret codes for a certain select, but are challenging calls to conversion. Parables, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis said, “are means used by God’s mercy to reach the obtuse and hard-hearted, to give them something they can grasp that will perhaps initiate in them a process of conversion.” They reveal by concealing, and in doing so they test our humility and our willingness to really hear and know the Word of God.
The first four parables in Matthew 13 (verses 1-43) focus on how the kingdom grows and the transforming power of God’s Word that brings about such supernatural growth. The final three parables (44-50), are concerned with the complete and radical choice demanded by the reality of the kingdom, which requires a full commitment of the heart, soul and mind.
Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah describes how the goodness of God is evident in the rain and snow that waters the earth, thus providing the means of natural life — seed and bread — for everyone. Likewise, the word of God goes forth to all men and it “shall not return to me void.” So the word of God is likened to a seed; similarly, Jesus made a direct connection between the seed and the “word of the kingdom.” The seed that is sowed is not just a collection of words about the kingdom; it is the Word sent by the Father to dwell among men.
This seed is also the entire body of the teachings of the Incarnate Word, as well as the Good News of his saving death and resurrection, by which the Kingdom is established and revealed. “In the word, in the works, and in the presence of Christ, this kingdom was clearly open to the view of men,” states the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. “The Word of the Lord is compared to a seed which is sown in a field; those who hear the Word with faith and become part of the little flock of Christ, have received the Kingdom itself. Then, by its own power the seed sprouts and grows until harvest time.”
This parable of the seed and sower describes the slow growth and the straining of the Church here on Earth. The path is the world, which is fallen and fractured, containing every sort of distraction and temptation. It contains much rocky ground and many thorns. Creation, as St. Paul observed, “is made subject to futility,” desiring to “be set free from slavery to corruption.” But the world is also a place of authentic choice and of new life for those who are receptive to the seed. Those who truly hear, Jesus said, will be healed; they are, in the words of St. Paul, partakers in the “glorious freedom of the children of God.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.