“parables.” Matthew 13:3 is the first use of “parable” in the New Testament. A parable is a story that illustrates one or more points, principles, or instructive lessons that the speaker wants to make. Parables typically use familiar situations from everyday life or use things that are well-known or commonly believed. A parable differs from a fable. Parables use human characters and situations that are known and understood while fables generally use non-human characters such as plants, animals, and inanimate objects. Jotham made his point in a fable when he said, “The trees once went out to anoint a king over them” (Judges 9:8; cp. Judg. 9:7-20). Parables also differ from allegories. In an allegory, each major part of the allegory has a counterpart in real life; there is no single important point like there is in many parables. However, many parables have aspects of an allegory in that they have more than one important point that has a counterpoint in real life.
Rhetoricians have argued for years about parables—whether they use similes or metaphors, or whether they make one point or can make several—and they are still arguing. The reason for the lack of rhetorical clarity with parables is almost certainly that in centuries past no one analyzed parables—or cared to analyze them—the way that rhetoricians and grammarians try to do now. The people like Jesus Christ who used parables used them to make a point or points, and sometimes the parable was only a sentence long and sometimes it was a whole story; sometimes the speaker used similes, sometimes metaphors, and sometimes the figure hypocatastasis; sometimes many points were significant but often there was only one major point. The student of the Bible will find much more value in learning the meaning of each parable—the point or points it makes and why, when, and to whom it was spoken—than trying to figure out if the parable really is a “parable” based on man-made rhetorical definitions.
Often a speaker will use a parable because the point that he or she is trying to make is immediately understood and quite easily remembered by the audience. But Jesus Christ used parables in a very unique way: he used them in such a way that the spiritually mature usually understood what he meant, but people with no spiritual understanding—the curiosity seekers; the doubters; the proud—did not understand what he meant. This caused some consternation among his disciples. They wanted the audience to understand Jesus, so they asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matt. 13:10). Jesus answered that he spoke in parables because “To you [disciples] it is given to know the sacred secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them [the audience] it is not given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance, but whoever does not have, from him will be taken away even that which he has. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, neither do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, Hearing you will hear, but will never understand, and seeing you will see, but will never perceive. For this people's heart has grown fat, and their ears are dull of hearing, and they have closed their eyes, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return to God, and I heal them” (Matt. 13:11-15).
We are now some 2,000 years after Christ and his parables are doing now what they did in Christ’s day; confusing the spiritually immature, and blessing the spiritually mature.
[For more on the figures of comparison; simile, metaphor, and hypocatastasis, see commentary on Rev. 20:2].
“The Sower.” The parable Jesus tells in verses 3-8 is almost universally referred to as “The Parable of the Sower” because that is what Jesus called it (Matt. 13:18). However, it could just as well be called “The Parable of the Soils,” because the parable is not primarily about God who sows the seed; nor is it about the seed itself, which is the Word of God (Mark 4:14). The parables have different names in different Bibles and commentaries because they are not named in the Bible itself: different scholars named the parables according to their best understanding of the subject of the parable.
In the Parable of the Sower, the people would have likely thought that the “sower” was God, but Jesus could have been referring to himself as he did in the parable of the weeds of the field (Matt. 13:27). The parable is about the people who hear the Word of God; the kind of soil they are. Each person determines the kind of “soil” they are: like the path (v. 4); like rocky places (v. 5); like thorny ground (v. 7), or good soil (v. 8). It is misreading this parable and misunderstanding life to read the parable and say, “we are what we are,” and we are stuck that way. Christ did not teach about the types of soils so we can discover what kind of soil we are but cannot change that. He taught about them as a warning, so people who need to change can change.
It is a powerful lesson that the first parable in the New Testament is Jesus speaking about people being different kinds of soil. Jesus was always trying to get people to focus on God and thus be saved and also have great rewards in his coming kingdom. He knew that in the huge crowd he was addressing all kinds of people were there: “path people,” “rocky soil people,” “among-the-weeds people,” and “good soil people,” and the goal of his parable was to wake people up to the kind of soil they were being, and get them to change and be good soil. No wonder he ended his parable with, “Anyone who has ears had better listen!” Today, some 2,000 years after Jesus taught the parable, it should still be having the same effect Jesus meant it to have: waking each person up to the necessity of being a “good-soil” person.
Jesus’ explanation reveals the lesson.
[For more on the future kingdom of Christ on earth, see Appendix 3, Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth. For more on rewards in the future, see commentary on 2 Cor. 5:10, “good or worthless”].
“Pay attention.” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. Ordinarily it would have been good to translate this as “Listen,” but since the parable ends with a command to “listen” (v. 9), it would have seemed an undue emphasis to double up on that word, thus the translation here, “pay attention.” See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).