PERHAPS THE EASIEST GOSPEL PARABLE to understand is the parable of the sower, found in each of the synoptic Gospels. The fact that the Lord Jesus Himself explains the parable certainly explains why this is so; still, it is up to us, the Church, to apply this parable to later developments in the history of faith, including those of our own day.
What is “the Word about the Kingdom”?
As the Lord explained the parable, the seed is variously described as “the word about the kingdom” (Matthew 4:18), “the word” (Mark 13:14) and “the word of God” (Luke 8:11). At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, we are told that the message which He initially preached was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He began forming His disciples by explaining what it would take to enter this kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5-7).
To speak of the kingdom of heaven was not unusual in a Jewish context; what was unexpected was that Jesus identified the coming of the kingdom with His own presence (see Luke 4:21). Because of His coming, He proclaimed, the age of God’s kingdom had drawn near.
After Christ’s death and resurrection, the Scriptures tell us, the Holy Spirit came upon the assembly of Christ’s disciples. Immediately, Peter began explaining to the bystanders what had happened. His address shows us how “the word about the kingdom” was explained in light of the paschal event: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). To repentance is now joined baptism in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit: the personal entry of believers into the mystery of Pascha and Pentecost.
The word about the kingdom was increasingly identified as “Jesus.” As Peter told the Roman centurion, Cornelius, “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).
As the Gospel spread among the Gentiles, chiefly through the ministry of St Paul, we find “the word about the kingdom” expanded to include the mystery of the incarnation. Encouraging the Philippians to imitate Christ’s humility, St Paul writes: “ Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians :2:5-7). The word about the kingdom now was expressed as “God became man.” Later Fathers, reflecting further on the Scriptures, would expand this word even further: “God became man that man might become God.”
As the early Church grew over the first few centuries, the rite of baptism came to include an explicit profession of faith. To the above mentioned teachings were added a number of Scriptural doctrines, such as Christ’s Ascension and the resurrection of the dead. Some of these local creeds were employed in the composition of a Creed for all the Churches at the first two ecumenical councils. “The word about the kingdom” had developed into the Nicene Creed.
The Ground Which Receives the Seed
After the Lord Jesus described the seed, He turned His attention to the soil in which the seed was sown. In the development of faith God’s initiative must be accepted by the “soil,” the human heart in which the gift of faith is planted. The soil cannot be forced to bear fruit; neither can the human heart be obliged to accept the Gospel message. Both must cooperate if the heart is to bear the fruit of faith. Later generations would describe this cooperation with the Greek word synergy.
Some seed, the Lord says, falls by the roadside and is trampled underfoot by passersby. It never has the chance to take root because the ground is packed hard by the foot traffic on the road, As St Cyril of Alexandria observed, “All whose minds are hard and unyielding and, so to speak, pressed together, do not receive the divine seed…. They do not accept the words that would produce in them the fear of God” (Homily 41 on Luke).
There are people who come to church, perhaps for some special occasion such as a baptism or memorial, who are not intent on listening to the message of the prayers, the readings or the sermon. They are simply sounds which have no meaning to them. The seed has been sown, but it bounces off the hardness of their hearts which are closed to any sentiment of faith.
The Lord indicates that, when seed falls among the rocks, it springs up for a while and then dies because it is shallow, having no root. Commenting on this passage, St Cyril of Alexandria noted that “There are men whose faith has not been proved. They depend simply on words and do not apply their minds to examining the mystery. Their piety is sapless and without root. When they enter the churches they feel pleasure, often in seeing the multitude assembled. … When they go out of the churches, at once they forget the sacred doctrines and go about in their customary course, not having stored up within themselves anything for their future benefit. If the affairs of Christians go on peacefully and no trial disturbs them, even then they scarcely maintain the faith and that, so to speak, in a confused and tottering state. When persecution troubles them and the enemies of the truth attack the churches of the Savior, their heart does not love the battle and their mind throws away the shield and flees” (Homily 41 on Luke).
In the parable the Lord teaches that some hearts are like fields full of brambles, thorns and weeds. Several Fathers have pointed out that these hearts have been beset by the passions (greed, gluttony, lust and the like). Even if the word of God touches them, the passions which they have entertained for some time are stronger and they choke any movement towards repentance which the believer might have entertained. Their attempts at repentance are weak and shallow. Their intentions are good but not strong enough to overpower the pull of the passions on their hearts.
Why Parables at All?
Christ makes a distinction between those whose curiosity might be roused by a parable and his committed followers who might be expected to understand His teachings. It takes a commitment of faith to make a hearer able to understand the mysteries of the kingdom. People who have already come to see Jesus as Lord and Messiah are already well disposed to incorporate His teachings in their lives. Hearers who have yet to do so are not ready to grasp the heart of His teachings.
In the age when the Church developed the catechumenate for instructing new believers, a similar process was employed. People’s attention was captured during the time of “pre-catechesis.” Once the hearer displayed a measure of faith, they were instructed in the history of God’s saving works. Not until the new believer had professed the Church’s faith and had been baptized, was the doctrine of the holy mysteries presented. We see traces of this process in our liturgical cycle surrounding Pascha. During the Great Fast our Scripture readings focus on the ethical teaching of the Wisdom books and on the basis of salvation history recorded in the Torah. Only after baptism at Pascha does the new Christian hear about the holy mysteries, the heart of Christian experience.