On the same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea. And great multitudes were gathered together to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 13:1-9)
The passage above, with which the Church nourishes her believers on the second Sunday of Hatour, is known as the Parable of the Sower, the very first parable our Lord gave to His disciples. Indeed, this parable is known as “the parable of parables,” because it reveals “the mysteries of the kingdom of God” (Mt. 13:11, Luke 8:10, cf. Lk. 4:10). Although this Sunday’s reading was from Matthew 13, the Parable of the Sower appears in the other two synoptic Gospels, as well. Our Church, in Her wisdom, offered this parable twice in her readings for the first Sunday of Hatour: the parable from Mark 4 in the Vespers service and from Luke 8 in the Divine Liturgy.
We will strive to understand the meaning of this parable and apply it to our own spiritual lives through the writings of the early Church Fathers.
The Boat as the Holy Church
Before our Lord spoke this parable, we read in Matthew 13:1 that He entered into a boat and taught the multitude which remained standing on the shore. The Fathers of the Church teach us that the boat is a symbol of the Church. This symbol is something we saw a few weeks ago in the readings of the first Sunday of Paopi from Luke 5. Our Lord was surrounded by a great multitude when He saw two boats on the lake of Gennesaret. He entered one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon Peter, but the other boat was left empty and desolate at the shore. St. Ambrose of Milan teaches that the boat our Lord entered is the Church, the “boat of Christ.” The other boat is the boat of the unbelievers, those who rejected Christ. On the one hand, the “boat of Christ” is called into "the deep," a symbol of the mysteries of God (c.f. Rom. 11:33) while the other boat remains idle and in shallow waters, symbolizing the absence of faith.
Thus, the boat from which the Lord spoke this parable is a symbol of the Church and how our Lord teaches us through the Church.
A Sower Went Out to Sow
The parable begins with the words “a sower went out to sow.” A sower is one who scatters seeds so that they may grow and be harvested later. In this parable, the sower is our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of Man (Mt. 13:37), and the seed is the Word of God. The sower of the Divine Word is God Himself. St. Paul teaches us,
As it is written: ‘He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.’ Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God. For the administration of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also is abounding through many thanksgivings to God… (2 Corinthians 9:9-12).
St. John Chrysostom explains that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, came to us "in the robe of our own bodies," even though He is everywhere and uncircumscribable. St. John teaches us that humankind was expelled from the presence of the True King through the Fall. For generations, He spoke to us out of the Kingdom, but in the "fullness of time," when humankind was ready, He "goes out" to bring them back to God’s presence.
He moreover says,
"He did not go out to a certain site. He rather declares a life and provision that concern our salvation. He became close to us by taking on our own physical shape and form. Since we were unable to enter due to our iniquity, He himself came out to us. Whey did he do so? Is it to destroy the land that begot thistles? No, He actually came out to take care of the land, and sow the ender word. He calls his teachings ‘the seeds,’ and the people’s souls he calls ‘a fruitful field,’ and he calls himself ‘The Sower.’
The Bad Soils
As the sower was working, His seed fell on four different types of soil.
The first type of soil described in the parable is the soil that is part of a path or a wayside. An anonymous early Christian writer wrote that the path represents the world, because our life here in this world is simply a path to eternal life. Our goal is not this world; there is nothing in this world we should want. Our desire should be focused on the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life with God. Some of the seed fell along this path and the birds of heaven came and devoured them. The problem with the soil along this path is the fact that it was hard and compacted, because people trampled along this path. The seed was not able to take root because of the activity along the path. St. Cyril of Alexandria speaks of the wayside saying,
The road is always solid, trodden on by all the passers by, and this is why the sees are not sowed there. Likewise are those who have violent thoughts that are unyielding. The word of God, so divine, does not enter into them, and does not support them so as to be blessed with the joyful fruit of virtue. Such people are like the wayside trodden upon by the defiled spirits, and trampled upon by Satan himself. They therefore, do not bring forth any sanctified fruits because of their stubborn and hard hearts.
Instead, the birds of the air devoured it. St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches us to be careful in understanding what the birds of the air are in this parable; they are not birds, but rather, evil spirits. These evil spirits destroy the seed of the Word of God in people who are more concerned with the world than with their eternal lives. They become so focused on the world and the business of life that the Word of God has no chance to take root in them, and evil spirits ultimately come and destroy the seed in these people’s hearts.
The second type of soil is called “rocky ground” in the parable. The seed grew quickly in this rocky ground, but ultimately, because there was not enough soil, the sun quickly burned whatever grew from these seeds. This refers to people who yield a quick initial response to the Word of God, but lack depth in spiritual life. They have no roots, but rather, only an external image of growth. St Cyril of Alexandria says about them,
There are others who have the faith but they do not care much about it in their hearts; this is just words to them. Their religion has no roots in them. They enter the church, and are glad to see big numbers assembled there, all ready to share in the holy sacraments. But they do not do this as a serious goal and a sublime will power. When they are out of the church, they instantly forget the holy edification. When the Christians are in peace they keep the faith, but when persecution is waged, they think of running away asking for safety. Jeremiah speaks to such people, saying, "Order the buckler and shield, and draw near to battle!" (Jer. 46:3) For the Lord’s hand that defends you can never be defeated. St. Paul, the knowledgeable one, says, "But God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." (1 Cor. 10:13)
The third type of soil is described as having thorns. The seed of the Word of God fell on this soil and grew. However, something else fell on this soil, as well – the thorns – and choked the seed. The thorns represent the “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Matt. 13:22). St. Clement of Alexandria writes about these thorns, saying, "We should not blame the money, but rather the misusing of it. It is also not a virtue for man to be poor, but the virtue is in practicing the meekness of the spirit, which is not cling to money." St. Cyril of Alexandria says,
The Redeemer sow the seeds, and these face hearts that apparently seem strong and fruitful. But after a short while the cares and hardships in life choke it. The seeds then wither and fade. As Hosea the prophet says, "They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind. The stalk has no bind; it shall never produce meal. If it should produce, aliens would swallow it up." (Hos. 8:7) Let us be smart sowers. Let us not distribute the seeds except after cleaning the earth of its thorns, so we could say with the psalmist, "He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his heaves with him." (Psalm 126:6) Everyone who sows seeds on an earth producing thorns and thistles is exposed to two losses: the seeds that become ruined, and the great effort. Let us know well, the divine seeds can never flourish unless we uproot from our minds the worldly cares, and rip off from ourselves the proud and vain riches, "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry noting out." (1 Tim 6:7) Of what use is our possession of the vain fleeting things? "The Lord will not allow the righteous soul to famish, but he casts away the desire of the wicked." (Prov. 10:3) Have you not noticed that the corrupt evil, such as greed, covetousness, wickedness, drunkenness, frivolity and pride, all of these choke us? As the Redeemer’s apostle says, "For all that is in the world the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but the who does the will of God abides forever" (1 John 2:16).
In a sense, the trap of this type of soil is one of priorities. The Word of God can grow in us, but through misplaced priorities in the things of this world, such as riches, the lusts of the flesh, and pride, we allow thorns to grow, as well. Over time, as we begin to favor the things of the world over the things of God, the thorns will choke the seed of the Word of God in us.
The Good Soil
In contrast with the three soils mentioned above, the good soils are those souls "who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience" (Lk. 8:15), the one who "understands" the word that he receives (Mt. 13:23) and treasures it in his heart. The Gospel likens such a man to a sower himself: "He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully" (2 Cor. 9:6). The book of Proverbs is replete with such images of sowing good and evil:
- "The wicked man does deceptive work, But he who sows righteousness will have a sure reward." (Proverbs 11:18);
- "A perverse man sows strife, And a whisperer separates the best of friends" (Proverbs 16:28)
- "He who sows iniquity will reap sorrow, And the rod of his anger will fail." (Proverbs 22:8)
As St. Paul writes, "Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life." (Galatians 6:7-8). So the good soil reflects the good man who also sows the seed of Scripture in his heart. St. Cyril writes about this good soil:
It is a rich ground, fruitful and produces a hundredfold! Good and fruitful are those souls that receive the word in depth and keep it, and take care of it. It is said about those souls what the Lord said by one of the prophets “And all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land’ says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:12). When the Divine Word of God falls on a soul that is pure, it produces deep roots and brings forth wheatears carrying increasing fruits.
May the Lord grant us all to hear the Word of God and treasure It in our hearts, to bring forth fruit one hundred fold, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.