The Parable of the Sower and the Seed| National Catholic Register

Starting today and the following two Sundays, the Gospel will focus on Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of Heaven, found in Matthew 13. This week, we’ll hear the Parable of the Sower and Seeds. Next week, we’ll hear the Parable of the Wheat and Tares. The week after that, we’ll hear parables of buried treasure and the pearl of great price.

“The Kingdom of God” is, for Matthew the devout Jew, the “Kingdom of Heaven.” (Devout Jews do not directly write the Divine Name, sometimes writing “G-d”.) In these parables, Jesus teaches us important lessons about heaven: different peoples’ reactions to its offer; the presence of good and evil in this world; and the priority heaven should be for us. In my opinion, these are some of the Lord’s most beautiful parables. Let’s turn to the first.

In the Parable of the Sower and Seed, a sower goes out into his field to sow seed. Imagine it is early spring, perhaps early in the morning. He scatters the seed in his bag across the land. 

What becomes of that seed? The seeds have different fates. Some fall on the path made through the field. Some land on hard ground, rocky or clay soil. Some seeds germinate in the midst of weeds, with which they must compete to survive. Finally, some of the seed finds itself on fertile soil. They all yield a harvest. Even there, however, outcomes differ: some seeds are more productive, yielding greater bounty, some less so. 

Jesus explains the parable to his Apostles. (There are short and long forms of today’s Gospel. The former contains just the parable; the latter, the parable with Jesus’ explanation of it. I encourage reading the latter, allowing Jesus to explain in his own words what he means to those of us blessed to “see and hear … [what] many righteous people and prophets longer to see … and hear …”). 

The seed is God’s Word, the Gospel, the Good News that “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” 

Have we ever stopped to consider what an amazing message Catholicism presents? It’s nothing less than “God so loved the world” that, despite man’s sin, he gave his Son to make it possible for us to be free from sin and live with him forever. That’s what “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” means. That message should stir every heart. 

But let’s also be honest: it doesn’t. That’s what St. Paul calls the “mystery of sin” and what St. John speaks of as the paradox of men preferring darkness over light. To come into the light means to give up deeds of darkness and — put simply — some people just don’t want to.

God’s Word is always fruitful: it always sprouts. (Isaiah 55:11, part of the First Reading). God’s Word is active and alive, but it is also a “two-edged sword” by which it judges what really lies in the human heart (Hebrews 4:12). 

And that is just what Jesus does in this parable. He judges the fate of the seed, his Word.

Some falls on the path. The path is beaten, there for the sower to make his way through the field without trampling the seedlings. Because it is a “beaten path,” the seeds lying there are tempting morsels for herbivorous birds. They only need to follow the sower to have a ready breakfast. So, too, with the hearer who does not understand God’s Word: the prowling devil has someone ready-made to devour (1 Peter 5:8). 

Some seed falls on rocky or hard soil. In contact with the ground, it readily sprouts. But it does not put down roots. Instead of reaching down into the moist underground, its shallow roots lack the water it needs when the noonday sun burns it. So, too, with the Christian whose initial reaction to God’s Word may be enthusiastic but, instead of putting down roots deep in the faith, to be nourished by “living water” which quenches all thirst (John 4:13-14), he remains content with “feelings” and “experiences.” When God tests him — as he does all his true sons and daughters (Zechariah 13:9) — he collapses, unprepared for the dark night of the soul.

Other seed lands among weeds. (We’ll focus on wheat competing with weeds next week). It, too, sprouts but, amidst the competition of life, its life is choked off. So, too, with the one who hears the Word of God but also the siren calls of the world, the flesh and the devil: the latter are more alluring. Spiritual goods are greater, but man is a bodily as well as spiritual being, and physical sensations have a more immediate impact. So, as amazing as the Christian message may be, man who is free chooses something else. In the “struggle for existence,” those seeds chose a path toward eventual extinction.

Finally, there are seeds that nestle in the furrows of good soil, put down roots, and use their environment as best as they can. Even here, there are different outcomes (a vital message to a modern world that confuses equality of opportunity with equality of outcome). Some yield thirtyfold bounty, some sixtyfold, some a hundredfold. The same can be said of the Christian who makes every use of God’s graces to grow in his love of God. Still, there will be differences because we all have different capacities to love. The great Dominican Walter Farrell compared it to a glass: some glasses objectively contain more water than others, but every glass that is filled to its brim is subjectively fulfilled.

So, what are you doing with the seed of God’s Word — his Gospel — sown in you? Are you putting down roots? 

Today’s Gospel has been illustrated in art many times. My favorite is, unfortunately, the one I can find the least information about. Other than being a product of the “English school,” I cannot identify an artist or date, though I would venture sometime in the 19th century. It best illustrates all the elements in the parable — birds, rocks, weeds, soil — in an agricultural setting where the sower sows seeds while another prepares future furrows.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder painted in the 16th century one of the more famous renditions of this scene. I’ll admit it’s not my choice in part because the Biblical element seems somewhat overwhelmed by the larger landscape (at least how it would appear in print here).

Sir John Everett Millais, a 19th-century English artist initially connected with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, made a wood engraving of the Parable of the Sower. It is part of his set of illustrations of all of the parables, a superlative work over which he labored for seven years. The sower is set in the background, passing from the scene after having sown his seed. From the left, birds already swoop down. (As the birds who devour the seed are analogies of the devil, their coming from the left makes sense). The soil is clearly rocky, and there are weeds in the foreground. The overall topography doesn’t seem promising but, considering man’s place in a world after the Fall, honest. 

When one considers the engraving’s size — a little over 5 by a little over 4 inches — one marvels at Millais’ skill. The engraving is held by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, though not on view.

My choice to illustrate the Gospel is also held by the Met (and also not on view): an engraving from 1534-35 by whom we would today call a “German” artist, Georg Pencz. (There is, of course, no “Germany” yet.) Pencz, whose artistic influences included the great engraver Albrecht Dürer as well as stints in Italy, was among the “Little Masters,” a group of distinguished engravers in southern Germany. It’s unclear to me what Pencz’s religious leanings were, as Lutheranism and more radical Anabaptist movements were already growing in Germany.

Pencz’s sower is captured at the moment of scattering seed. His sowing is generous: he carries a full bag of seed, while another sits on the ground behind him. He stands in the foreground. His extended right arm just doesn’t sow seed: it leads us to consider their fate, what is going on in the field. Already, three birds are pecking away at the seed, while three more swoop in from the left. The land (in comparison to Millais’ terrain) is plowed in neat furrows but, again, there are still weeds and brambles on the left. The sower’s foot and some rugged rocks are juxtaposed. Is the sword on the right, next to the seed bag, just for protection, or is it the “two-edged sword” of God’s Word? And, in the distance, stands a house. Is it “just” the farmhouse — or the heavenly home to which, at the Ascension, Our Lord went to “make a place for” us?

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