Lectionary Year A
July 14, 2002
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

IV: Broader Context


The hearers of this parable would definitely comprehend the terms Jesus utilizes. They were familiar with seeds and planting and ground favorable for harvests and unfavorable, too. Their faith development, as juvenile as it is in early first century, could readily appreciate the style of teaching by parables. They were largely uneducated, so this elemental manner of instruction could work for them. They needed 101 courses in what Jesus meant to teach. This pericope covers the introductory elements in faithfulness for the earliest Christians, especially, the second part, verses 18-23. Jesus gets good evaluations as a methodological instructor.


2 Corinthians 4:18
"because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary (proskairos), but what cannot be seen is eternal."
Hebrews 11:25
"choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God (i.e. Moses) that to enjoy the fleeting (proskairos) pleasures of sin."

In Greek philosophy:
"limited by time," "determined by the momentary situation," "passing away," "temporary," short-lived," "subjected to the qualitative limitation of temporality."

In the NT:
On the one hand, "proskairos" characterizes the present situation of being which is bound to perish, i.e. being has not reached its final state/destination. In this sense, the problem does not pertain to being's finiteness, but to its incompleteness. On the other hand, "proskairos" means that being is necessarily time-bound, which in itself can become an oppressive state of being.

[TDNT, vol. III, look under "kairos."]

James 1:11
"For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away."
John 15:6
"Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers ... ."


II Esdras 8:41 tells of a farmer sowing many seeds in the ground and planting a multitude of seedlings. They will not all take root or come up in due season. It likens such eventualities to people in the world who have been grounded (in the faith), but not all will be saved. Sirach 40:15 tells that the offspring of the ungodly will produce few branches for they are planted on sheer rock and have no roots. These chapters in the Apocrypha tell of life's hardships.
Perhaps the most significant quote from the Old Testament in this passage comes in the paragraph between verses 9 and 18, where we read from Isaiah 6. Do I sense an "aha!" coming on here? Do the hard paths, the rocky terrain, the birds, the shallow soil, the scorching sun and the thorn patches symbolize life's hardships? Hardships happen. Is Jesus acknowledging them for finite believers and moving us beyond without denying their threatening existence?
Old Testament & Judaism in general, too, would face realities, to be sure, yet, just as certainly, would they strive to move on beyond. Their industriousness could get a boost by this parable Jesus told. Could early Jews hear Jesus' opposition to their loyalty to the Law when he referred to thorns into which some seeds fell?

[Strack/Billerbeck, Mt 13:1-9, 18-23; vol. 1, 653-666]

13:3: "And he told them many things in parables ... ."
Rabbi Eleazar is supposed to have said: "In the beginning, the Torah resembled a basket that did not have any handles until Solomon came and attached handles to it." The same (handle-making/attaching for/to the Torah) goes for Ecclesiastes (Quohelet). To "make handles for the Torah" means "to test its words," "explore them and meditate upon them," and to "to open a gateway" into unfamiliar territory. Between the times of Solomon and Ecclesiastes, there seems to have been a "draught" with respect to the use of "parable/mashal" in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hillel (20 B.C.) and Rabbi Meir (150 A.D.) are the only two who are recorded to have made some us of this "genre."

13:8: "... some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."
The fertile soil of Palestine was well-known and highly praised. It was considered the "land of milk and honey." Rabbi bar Chana said: "I myself have seen how the entire land of Israel overflowed with milk and honey ... ."

13:22: "... but the cares of the world and lure of wealth choke the word and it yields nothing."
The Rabbis speak of two kinds of lives: the "life of eternity" and the "life of the fleeting hour." The more wealth one finds in a particular household, the more common it seems to leave the synagogue (worship service) early in order to go home, prepare a festive meal and enjoy the "fruits" of the table. This is regarded the "life of the fleeting hour of this world." The "life of the future world/eternity" is characterized by prayer and obedience to God. As Solomon built the Temple, his prayer to God supposedly was: "Lord of the world, whenever a human being prays to you and asks you for wealth (or ability/capability to do something), and you know that it will be harmful to him or her, do not grant his or her wish." For the ancient rabbis it was clear that "whoever keeps the Torah in times of poverty, will also keep it in times of wealth; and whoever neglects the Torah in times of wealth, will also neglect it in times of poverty."


Scattered throughout the Mediterranean world as the Hellenists were by the time Matthew was written, they would certainly be familiar with varieties of terrain on which farmers sought to farm, etc. So, this parable speaks language with which they could have been conversant. As philosophers, the Hellenists could certainly appreciate the differences between listening only and hearing for understanding. However, would these Greek Speaking Jews value the hundred, the sixty, the thirty fold in the concluding verse? They surely valued their traditional upbringing, so, the various surfaces the seeds fell on would be identifiable by them even before Jesus offered explanation in verses 18-23. However, would they buy Jesus' explanations/identifications as allegories of those surfaces? Furthermore, would they admit they could have come from less than favorable sources such as the rocky terrain, etc.? Not likely. So, would this parable be wasted on the Hellenists? I think not. Their intellectual curiosity could get into this story's ideas.

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