More than Matthew, Mark and Luke’s hands played a part in shaping the Synoptic Tradition. The Synoptic writers and anonymous editors before them transformed their sources according to the scribal standards of their day. Sayings and passages were expanded or truncated, and many were repositioned. The process blurred the chronology of Jesus’ life and the context of much of his teaching. For the modern reader, this blurring complicates determining whether a given saying originally dealt with (entering) the kingdom of heaven, (inheriting) eternal life, or (the coming of) the Son of Man. This problem of contextualization impedes the interpretive task, even when it involves popular and oft-quoted passages. For example, consider the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:3-8; Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:5-8). It may need to be revisited and interpreted with a heightened sensitivity to what may have been its original, conceptual framework.
The parable opens with a sower who went out to sow seed. The seed fell in four places: 1) near the path, 2) on rocky soil, 3) among thistles, and 4) on good soil. The fourfold structure is a salient feature. It is not unique to this parable, but can be found in Philo and rabbinic literature, as well. For example, there are in the Mishnah (Avot 5) metaphorical passages which are built upon The Four Types.
The fourfold structure of The Four Types, whether it is found in the Gospels or Mishnah, does not divide naturally into two parts. In other words, some may be inclined to read this parable with a “great divide” mentality by transposing upon it a paradigm crediting only one group with any sort of positive attributes. A more useful approach may be to draw an analogy between grade school marks and the four places where seed fell. The best place for it to fall was on good soil, whereas the worst was near the road. Accordingly, these two places will be assigned the marks of “A” and “F.” They represent two extremes. The middling places, among the thistles and on the rocky soil, may be approximated respectively by the marks of “B” and “D.” Obviously, since the structure is fourfold, one letter mark is absent, namely “C.” (Its domain is divided and subsumed under those of “B” and “D.”) If an expositor insists on reducing the fourfold structure of this parable to a twofold one, the good soil and among the thistles could be paired against the rocky soil and near the path. I once asked an immigrant from Mexico where weeds grow best. He quickly replied, “In the garden.” His words contain an insight for interpreting this parable: seed and thistle compete for the same soil.
Another clue for the interpretive task may be derived from a Greek lexical link. In all three versions of the parable’s explanation (Matt. 13:19-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15), the word merimna (anxiety, worry) was used to explain the metaphorical choking of thistles. Forms of this Greek word were repeated throughout Matthew 6:25-34. Jesus may have been aiming this Sermon-on-the-Mount homily at potential disciples in an effort to underscore the afiscal character of God’s economy, an economy in which his disciples began participating upon entering the kingdom of heaven (i.e., once they had left behind everything and followed). God underwrites his “kingdom economy,” and he does so for the purpose of expanding his benevolent reign. Regard for food, clothing and shelter, however, constricts the range of channels for expanding that reign. Like the choking action of rank thistles on seedlings, partial trust in divine providence devitalizes God’s word (written or spoken).
The seed falling among thistles may represent, therefore, an upright person, who allows worry or the accumulation of wealth to govern his or her life. Such a person may be Jewish or Christian (i.e., one whose inheritance of eternal life is likely); he or she may be honest, generous and amiable; and he or she may be working as a rabbi, priest, or pastor. Nevertheless, while doing so, that person may be devoting considerable effort to saving for a new SUV, larger house, or secure retirement. None of these pursuits ipso facto will bar a person from inheriting eternal life, but it may exempt him or her from entering the kingdom of heaven. In a passage (m. Avot 3:5) dealing with two mutually exclusive approaches to sustenance, Rabbi Nehunya made a conceptually similar point by saying that “the yoke of mundane matters” burdens those who have set aside “the yoke of Torah.” With acceptance of the latter (and presumably lighter) yoke, comes Rabbi Nehunya’s assurance that God will provide all the necessities of life.
At this point, consulting Luke’s story (Luke 18:18-25) of the Rich Young Ruler may provide some useful orientation. This rich man had kept the commandments from his youth. (Jesus’ response seems to support this assumption.) Yet, he sensed that there was something beyond keeping the commandments and inheriting eternal life. When Jesus offered him the chance to follow (i.e., to enter the kingdom of heaven), his intuition was shown to be correct. Echoing the Parable of the Sower’s metaphorical language, one could say that the young man constituted good soil whose potential remained partially unrealized, because of a reluctance to abandon the security and status of his wealth or an attachment to life’s finer pleasures.
Or, perhaps the young man sought to honor his parents by fulfilling their expectations. Maybe he was engaged and ready to establish a family. Responsible people worry about providing for their dependents. Desiring the best for them, they work hard and plan ahead. Seed and thistle thrive in good soil: God’s word or the concerns and pursuits of life quickly germinate and increase in it.
The interpretive approach of this essay assumes that Jesus’ frame of reference for the Parable of the Sower centered on the kingdom of heaven. By the first century, Jewish theologians were expatiating on a range of topics pertaining to eternal life. Jesus emphasized repentance and grace, and their joint role as a catalyst for increasing God’s reign. He communicated and demonstrated the priority of the kingdom of heaven in his ministry. He also recognized that some had the potential to enter that kingdom and produce a fantastic yield. He stood ready to receive them as disciples—but first, they had to leave and follow.