All the events of the Gospels, and the parables Jesus told within them, have a historical context that is often lost on us modern readers. The parable of the sower is no exception. The fact that it is told to us three times, in Matthew 13:3-9, Mark 4:1-20 and Luke 8:4-15, tells us it is a very important message. Even a cursory, devotional reading of the parable gives us a multitude of insights into human nature and how human lives interact with the incoming dynamic of the fantastic news of God’s grace for all humanity. But there was much more going on between the lines and behind the words spoken by our Lord on that day.
The more I read and re-read the parable of the sower, the more I asked the following questions: Why did Jesus tell the parable in the first place? Who was he talking to? When did he tell it? Where was it told? Why did he talk about farming? What happened afterward? These are the questions I will try to answer below. Some of the answers are easily found within the Gospels, so I have included all the links to them. Some of the answers are my humble attempt to fill in the blanks between and behind the scriptures. I hope my guesswork does the parable of the sower justice in your eyes.
Where was the story told?
Jesus was definitely on Lake Galilee when he told this story because the narrative says he had to get into a boat to teach (Matthew 13:2). I suspect this was so that the large crowd could all see him in an amphitheater type environment, and so that his voice could travel to the whole audience across the water. There were no PA systems back then for large crowds so natural tools for amplification had to be employed and the amphitheater approach was the most common. Jesus was therefore most likely in the fishing village of Capernaum on that day, which was his adopted hometown (Matthew 4:13). I will work with this assumption.
When was the story told?
The time of the year was probably just after the grain harvest, during the hot months of July or August. Summertime. The clue is in the previous chapter. Matthew 12:1-8 describes the disciple’s journey through a ripe but unharvested grain field. If that event was in the recent past to the telling of the parable of the sower, then this then puts the timing of the story at just after the annual June wheat harvest. This would mean most of the crowd were now free from the massive summer task of bringing in and thrashing the harvest. They were in the mood to celebrate by coming to listen to their favourite local prophet down in Capernaum by the lake.
If the timing was indeed around July or August, then this gives us another clue as to the time of the day when Jesus told the parable. Jesus most likely didn’t leave the house to teach by the lake until later in the day when the midday heat was fading. Matthew 12:46 says Jesus taught in the morning that day at a local house, possibly his own residence or Matthew’s larger home (Matthew 9:10). Matthew was a wealthy Capernaum tax collector before deciding to follow Jesus, so his home would have been an ideal location to teach.
Then, sometime during this morning teaching session his mother and brothers unexpectedly arrived from Nazareth to see him (Matthew 12:46). My best guess is that he then had a break from teaching to have lunch with his mother and brothers. They had come a long way to visit and would have been honoured guests, especially since his mother was there. No doubt they would have eaten and chatted for some time. Then, when the heat of the day had dissipated and people had finished their days chores, he went down to the cool of the lake to do some more teaching because the crowds were building. That time of day is also when the largest number of people within a few kilometres walking distance would have been free to come.
At this time in his ministry, he had already been to many villages in Galilee with the good news and miracles of the Kingdom (Matthew 8:28, 9:35), and had also sent his disciples out on their first practical to duplicate what he had been doing (Matthew 10:1). Everyone in Galilee knew him. He was therefore at or near the height of his popularity.
Who was present for the telling of the story?
There was obviously the large crowd. That’s a given. But who were they? Well, we know from Luke 8:4 that they came from town after town. They came from surrounding villages.
His mum and some of his brothers would most likely have been present too. (Matthew 12:46-13:1). Why wouldn’t they have stayed to listen to him teach in the afternoon and then stay for the night before the full-day journey 30 kilometres back home the next day?
Luke 8:1-4 also tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna the well-to-do wife of Chuza the manager of Herod’s household, Susanna, and many others were there as well. We are not told who the many others are, but that statement alone would suggest at least another 10-15 people. It also says the whole 12 disciples were with him (Luke 8:1). This included Judas. We are up to 25-30 people just there. The team of women were most likely helping to keep the disciples fed, financed, and looked after (Luke 8:3). So, they probably helped prepare the lunch that day, as only organised women can. It must have been a bit of a travelling roadshow of some 30 or so insiders scattered among the crowd that day.
Why did Jesus choose a story about farming?
Simple. Most of his listeners were farmers. The crowds were huge, but Capernaum was a small village, so the majority in the crowd had to have come in from the surrounding countryside behind this north-eastern tip of Lake Galilee. This district was prime Galilean cropping and grazing land, and still is today. Galilee, with its excellent soil and rainfall, was the breadbasket of Israel. So, most Galileans were farmers and the staple food in that region was wheat. There is a high probability that Jesus himself would have helped with previous harvests for some of his extended family members or siblings in the years before his ministry began. Everyone listening therefore would have intimate knowledge of the essence of the parable.
In our modern world most of us are detached from farming and live in large towns or cities, so we have trouble relating to the nuances of this important parable. However, in the ancient world and right up until the mid-20th century, most people in the world were farmers. You too would most likely have been one of them if you lived in an historical time up until the 20th Century. This is still true today in any country that has not been through an industrial revolution. To learn a lot more about the details of wheat farming in 1st Century Galilee just click on this link to another blog I recently wrote on this topic.
Why did he choose this particular parable?
Not long before he told this parable he had returned to the lake and had been walking through some grainfields (Matthew 12:1-8). While doing so he was confronted and reprimanded by several Jewish religious leaders for allowing his disciples the “sin” of eating some of the grain on a Sabbath. It was quite the confrontation. This event must have stirred his awareness of the parallels between grain growing and what it actually takes to accept the Kingdom of God into one’s life and stick with it. Knowing that wheat seed was broadcast by hand in that era, and they had all been walking on a thin beaten path next to a small field of grain at the time of that confrontation could have made Jesus think…hmm. We don’t know for sure if this confrontation inspired his thoughts about the parable of the sower, but it’s feasible.
Who was the story directed toward?
First, he was obviously addressing that very crowd on that afternoon. Some of them were not listening, not caring, passively opposed to him, or outright antagonistic and looking for fault. They were the beaten path. Others were full of enthusiasm but only for what they could get, healings, miracles, multiplied fishes and loaves or great teaching. They were his shallow soil. Others were full of enthusiasm but would eventually be pulled back into their old ways by worries, finances or cares (Mark 4:19). They were the weedy soil. Some in the crowd that day would overcome all obstacles and see many others in their extended families, local villages and beyond also become followers of the Messiah. They were the good soil.
Second, his brothers were present, and we know that some of them had a very dim view of their big brother’s life and ministry (Mark 3:21, John 7:3-5). They actually thought he had lost the plot and John records that they had previously sneered at him sarcastically. If his brothers had indeed stayed to listen to his teaching by the lake that day, then was he not subtly highlighting their stubbornness when he was talking about the birds of the air stealing the seed that landed on beaten paths (Matthew 13:4)?
Third, there would also have also been a few ultra-religious, legalistic folk and their combative synagogue leaders in the audience who were jealous of him and in two minds about what to do with this upstart prophet from up north. They had only recently reprimanded him for healing a man on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14). They had also recently called him the prince of demons for delivering a poor soul from oppression (Matthew 12: 9-37). Were these religious folk also targeted by him when he was talking about the seed that landed on a beaten path and eaten by the birds?
Fourth, and more of a motivation to tell this story to this audience, would be his desire to highlight the fickle nature of the many Galileans who had become his followers but had already fallen away. These were the crowds that had seen the miracles (Matthew 12:15), who had experienced firsthand the grace of God, and yet still not repented! Jesus had only recently scolded three local Galilean villages, Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin, for their lack of faith, repentance and perseverance (Matthew 11:24). Bethsaida and Chorazin were within 10 kilometres of Capernaum where Jesus was. Were folk from those villages in the audience and were they the very people he had in mind when talking about shallow soil and weedy soil? Were theirs the shallow hearts that were already turning back and withering because the local synagogue leaders were hassling them. Or were theirs the selfish hearts growing cold because of the farming cares of their little world (Matthew 13:22)? I think Jesus knew his local audience well.
Fifth, he could have also been prophesying about the future in a few years and decades when the infant church would start to grow but come into a time of intense persecution via the Jewish religious establishment and then by the Romans. This could also have been part of the Matthew’s personal motivation to include this parable in his historical narrative as it would have been so relevant to the infant church at the exact time he was penning his gospel.
Sixth, Jesus could have also been looking ahead prophetically through the centuries and training the future worldwide body of Christ to be careful when they decide to follow him so as to make sure they put down deep roots and pull out all the weeds from their lives and hearts. Life has been tough through most of history for those who will make a strong, genuine stand for the Lord. Were these people on Jesus’ mind too?
Seventh, Jesus was already seeing some people who had accepted the Good News of the Kingdom start to produce fruit in their lives and he wanted to encourage more of it. There was an anonymous believer who was “caught” by the disciples driving out demons in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38-40). Then there was the woman at the well who saw her whole village come to faith (John 4:1-28). The disciples themselves had seen a great harvest when they were sent out on practical training so they could learn to heal people as their master was doing (Luke 9:1-7, Luke 10:1-17). They returned with phenomenal stories of miracles and demonic deliverance. Was he giving them the encouragement to continue?
What Happened Next?
In Matthew 13:53 it says that when Jesus finished his teaching that day he moved on from there and came to Nazareth and taught in their synagogue, but to much cynicism. Given the fact that his mother and several brothers had come to Capernaum to see him, we can safely assume that he accompanied them the next day or so back to Nazareth, a full day’s walk from the lake.
Why? Probably because his mum asked him to come and catch up with the family he had grown up with. Mum’s do that sort of thing. Was she sick of her other son’s negative comments and wanting her Jesus, whom she knew in her heart to be the Messiah, to come and convince the others of his divinity? In Nazareth he would have spent time with his four brothers Judas, James, Simon and Joseph, and his three or four sisters whose names are not recorded (Matthew 13:55-56). However, the town as a whole still rejected his ministry and authority (Matthew 13:57). Maybe something sunk in because by the time we get to Acts 1:14 in the upper room Luke records that Jesus’ mum and some of his brothers were there as part of the 120.
So, there you have it. We will never know for sure the exact details that lie behind the parable of the sower, but I trust this analysis fills in a few of the many gaps and gives you a better understanding of what was going on in the lead up to the telling of the parable, and immediately afterwards.