Matthew 13 is an interesting chapter and is a place where the Parable of the Sower is given. However, in the same chapter are two more sowers. They are described in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.
Parable of the Sower
Sower One who shares the Word of God
Seed God’s Word
Parable of the Wheat and Tares
Good Sower Son of Man (Christ)
Evil Sower The Evil One (Satan)
Good Seed Wheat
Evil Seed Tares (Darnel Ryegrass
Parable of the Mustard Seed
Sower Not identified… but presumably God/Christ
Seed Kingdom of God
On the other hand, one can reverse it and compare the different roles:
Role of God
Parable of the Sower The One who has the message that brings fruit
Parable of the Wheat and Tares The One (Son of Man) who sows the good seed
Parable of the Mustard Seed The One who initiates the Kingdom of God
Role of Satan
Parable of the Sower The one who snatches the message from people
Parable of the Wheat and Tares The one who plants the bad/evil seed
Parable of the Mustard Seed Not in this parable
Role of the “Righteous”
Parable of the Sower Those who hear and understand the message
Parable of the Wheat and Tares Those who were planted by the Good Sower
Parable of the Mustard Seed Not stated. Presumably part of the mustard plant
Role of the “Unrighteous”
Parable of the Sower Those who fail to respond to the message
Parable of the Wheat and Tares Those who were planted by the Evil Sower
Parable of the Mustard Seed Not stated. Presumably not part of the mustard
Some personal reflections on Matthew 13
1. The chapter gives us good reason for caution in “locking in” meanings for symbols. In Matthew 13, seeds have three different meanings depending on the parable. Arguably, there are four meanings, since there are two different seeds in one of the parables. Likewise, there is more than one meaning for sower as well. This is imporant to remember since there is a temptation to find consistent symbolic meanings in the Bible. One only has to look at so-called “Christian Numerology” to find those who think that numbers must have a symbolic meaning and that meaning must be consistent throughout the Bible (and sometimes even beyond). An awful lot of bad theology comes out of this idea.
I recall a preacher noting the uses of symbols in Matthew 13. He suggested that the birds in the Bible are consistently symbols of evil, so in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the “REAL” message is that over time, the Kingdom of God would become more and more evil. However, if one rejects a consistent use of symbols the more obvious understanding is that the Kingdom of God will start small and insignificantly, but will continue to grow and spread and become too big to ignore.
I also recall another (same?) preacher stating that yeast is always a symbol of sin in the Bible. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is really the flour in which sin becomes introduced and then grows/expands. I can see why some commentators might prefer that understanding. Since seeds (wheat berries) were earlier described as being linked to the righteous in the same chapter, then flour could be linked to Christians (or technically speaking, ground up Christians). For some, I suppose, it may also be less troubling to see the woman as being linked with Satan (or a Lilith character) rather than with God. Some get bothered by feminine imagery of God. But, again, if one rejects consistent symbols, the more likely understanding is that the yeast is the kingdom of God, the flour is the world, and the kingdom starts out small and insignificant but interspersed in the world, it begins to grow and transform the world.
2. One must be careful to avoid reading too much into parables. While the “one parable, one message” view may be too restricting, it is often tempting to take the parable off onto tangents that they were never meant to go.
For example, Who can be saved based on the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and Tares? In the latter of these two, it seems as if one is born saved and another is born unsaved. A somewhat hyper-Calvinistic view may be seen as described here. There is no suggestion that tares can become wheat. An obvious problem here, however, is that if one applies this understanding consistently, then mankind is essentially two species (“wheat” or “darnel/tares”) with one being created by God, and the other being created by Satan. It does not seem likely that Jesus is suggesting that Satan is a literal Creator of humans.
In contrast to this extreme, one might address the other extreme in the Two Ways. In it, humans are one “species” with a choice between a narrow and a wide path. One might take this as an extreme Arminian viewpoint. God makes the paths and people decide which path to follow.
But then if one takes those two parables as describing two extremes, a more mediated view might be argued from the Parable of the Sower. The message of God’s Word is given to all. People may be different types of soils with no suggestion of being two unrelated species. There appears to be God’s initating work of salvation, and man’s response. Still there is uncertainty about the details of the process. The Bible seems to generally not give a lot of clear information on the mechanism or process, so this parable appears to me to best reflect a sound, if uncertain, soteriology.
That being said, none of these parables are really about the process of salvation.
3. Parables are both described as making truths clearer, and also disguising truth. Matthew 13 tries to describe some very complicated relationships such as the word of God to mankind, and the Kingdom of God to the world. As such, parables can be quite helpful— connecting the abstract to the concrete. However, there is a temptation to read one’s own theology into the story. Additionally, one needs cues to know how to understand the symbols. Both the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the Parable of the Sowe are interpreted directly by Jesus. In some cases, this does not happen, so it is understandable that so many bizarre interpretations occur. Thus one needs to look at the broader themes within the Gospel text, as well as see what the listed purpose of the story is.
Ultimately, to use parables, one needs to:
- Apply them to link difficult, abstract ideas to what is more concrete. (Abstract does not inform abstract. Concrete is less valuable to inform concrete.)
- Provide cues as to the meaning of the symbols (One cannot assume that symbols are obvious or are the same as used elsewhere.)
- Have a broader context to make clear the purpose of the story. (If the story does not inform a larger message, it doesn’t have much of a purpose.)
- Have a clear interpretation to prevent misinterpretation. (However, if the story does not “make sense” with the interpretation, the story has no real point for existing.)