ColumnsSunday’s Word

The parable of the sower and the seeds

July 12, 2020


Is 55:10-11

From the heavens come rain and snow

Ps 65:10-14

You have visited the land and watered it

Rom 8:18-23

All creation is groaning in labor pains

Mt 13:1-23

The parable of the sower and the seeds


We don’t often pay attention to the images in biblical passages. But biblical writing is literature, among other things. And a technique that literary authors use to great effect is striking imagery. Today both the passage from Isaiah and the passage from Matthew employ vivid images from the world of nature.

The parable of the Sower is the first in a cluster of parables in Matthew 13 that emphasize planting wheat. This is balanced by a less compact cluster of parables toward the end of the Gospel that feature vineyards and harvest. This later list includes the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16), the Two Sons (21:28-32), and the Vineyard Tenants (21:33-46). In the two sets, we have a clever contrast of planting, earlier in the account, and harvesting later. But there is more than that, since the vineyards suggest wine, and the wheat suggests bread. (Hence the drawing for today.)

A parable can be called a narrative metaphor. It makes a comparison in story form. The nature imagery is only an example, Jesus is not teaching farming, he is using farming to teach about discipleship. And while some parables are more elaborate, those drawn from agriculture are usually quite simple. The nature parables typically feature three stages — planting, growth, harvest. There are many variations on the pattern, and it is interesting to see how different parables work the form. The Sower considers the different kinds of soils at the time of planting. It is an image of the different kinds of reception that the teaching of Jesus receives.

Three types of failed response are contrasted with three kinds of success — 100, 60, and 30-fold. In the interpretation of the parable, the three kinds of failed reception — the world, the flesh, and the devil — find a correspondence within the Gospel itself. At one point, Peter is accused of being Satan (Matt 16:23), connected with the seed sown along the path. The lure of riches, suggested by the thorns, aligns with Judas, who betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (Mt 26:14-16). And like the seed sown on rocky ground, which flourishes but fades at the rise of tribulation or persecution, all Twelve abandon Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane (26:56).

In the parable, the seed is the word (13:19, 20, 22) that is heard but then lost. And it turns out that the Gospel we are reading is itself the word, to be accepted or rejected.

Isaiah 55:10-11 is found in the final chapter of that part of the book authored by the prophet whom we call Second Isaiah, since he anonymously added chapters 40-55, and we do not know his real name. Today’s passage provides a concluding observation about the word of God as delivered by the prophet.

The passage is more metaphor than parable. It is one sentence, long, making a careful comparison. The imagery in this case is a rainstorm, something quite welcome in an arid climate. In particular, it focuses on the life-giving aspect of the rain. But the emphasis is on the inevitability, the finality of God’s action. Once the divine word sets about its task, it will not stop till it is accomplished. The alert from the prophet is to notify us that this endorsement stands behind the words that he has just recorded. Pay attention.

Both prophetic Gospel readings speak of themselves as the word of God. The prophet says it will do its work. The gospel says that it will cause a division, with some following and some not. But for those who follow in discipleship the benefit is life, and life giving.

For reflection: The images in the liturgical readings are worth attending to. Often they carry the theme.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.