Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark
Matt 13:24-30; Mark 4:26-29
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Variations on a Theme
proves the suggestive power of graphic imagery. For after the interpretation of the parable
of the sower Matthew & Mark introduce
a second agricultural parable. Each
author recalls the image of a man scattering
seed, but this time --
instead of focusing on the fate of the seed -- the parable concentrates on explaining why
further human intervention is not needed before harvest time. In
both cases this second parable is introduced as an illustration of the
motif that a few lines earlier was identified as the focus of Jesus'
message: the kingdom of God (Mark) or Heaven (Matthew).
Yet there is little other
similarity between the harvest parable presented by Matthew & the one told
in Mark. Apart from seven scattered words
-- kingdom (basileia), man (anthrópos), sleep (katheudein),
grain (siton), sprout (blastai), crop (karpos)
& harvest (therismos) -- these graphic synoptic narratives share
no common phrasing. Indeed, they differ so much in plot that they are really two distinct parables.
Mark: Automatic Produce
The plot of Mark's harvest parable
is short, consisting of four simple observations about the agricultural
A human throws seed on the
As he sleeps & rises, the
seed grows without him knowing how [4:27].
The ground automatically
produces a crop in stages [4:28].
When the crop is ready, he
dispatches a sickle to harvest it [4:29].
Someone who knew the Hebrew
prophets by heart might notice that the concluding words of the parable [Mark 4:29]
are close to language that Joel used to herald the
final judgment of the nations by the God of Israel:
||Put in the sickle
||for the harvest is ripe.
||Go in, tread,
||for the winepress is full.
||The vats overflow,
||for their wickedness is great.
Since none of that
eschatological prophet's other ominous wording or imagery (winepresses, war, swords, spears,
darkened stars) is echoed here by Mark, however, it stretches the
imagination to suggest that this harvest parable was designed as a cryptic reference
to the cataclysmic crises associated with the end-time. The parable's
author invokes the graphic image of a sickle-bearing reaper set to harvest what
he himself has sown. Joel does not. The Hebrew prophet takes a common
ancient annual agricultural ritual out of its normal context & uses
it to describe the slaughter of the wicked in a fierce battle. The
Markan parable, on the contrary, employs harvest imagery within its
natural context to indicate the successful conclusion of the normal process of
an agricultural cycle.
Rather than herald imminent divine
intervention, this parable has been structured to stress the sower's inactivity
until the crop is ready. Notice that the author emphasizes that, once the
seed is sown, the farmer has nothing
to do with its growth before harvest time. To produce
a good crop, he does not even have
to know how the botanical process of germination & growth works. The ground itself automatically
sustains the process of fruition even without any human intervention. To
benefit from this natural gradual organic cycle, a human need only wait for
the crop to mature & then act quickly to harvest it. So, this parable
deliberately limits action on the part of the farmer to the perimeters of the agricultural year.
While the author of this panorama exaggerates the degree of ignorance & inactivity on the part of ancient
farmers, the parable recalls a common scenario in near eastern
agriculture before modern science & technology made fertilization &
irrigation of waste areas possible. By itself, there is nothing particularly exceptional
about this depiction of the rather relaxed routine of a farmer during the summer
growing season. It is noteworthy only because the author
invokes this mundane annual pattern of primitive agriculture as somehow
analogous to the kingdom of God.
The way in which this parable is
introduced by Mark raises many questions about how precisely this bucolic
is comparable to the divine realm. Is the farmer, who is described as
ignorant & inactive, to be likened to God or, perhaps, to Jesus himself? Is
God's kingdom comparable to the harvest or to the season of waiting for the
grain to mature? Is it characterized by a sudden reaping, as the punch line
suggests, or rather by an absolute lack of need for outside intervention in a
world ruled completely by automatic natural processes as all the previous
While one may try to answer such
questions by invoking other descriptions of the kingdom of God in the gospel
of Mark or elsewhere, it is important to note that Mark himself does not supply
readers with any interpretation of this parable, unlike the longer -- but
logically simpler -- parable of the sower. Instead, he just produces yet another
seed parable as illustration the kingdom of God.
Matthew: Deferred Separation
Not only is the harvest parable that Matthew
presents here more than twice as long as its Markan counterpart (143 Greek
words vs. 60 used by Mark), the scene it describes is far more dramatic &
complex. Substantive divergence in the narration of the two parables begins in
the opening line, when Matthew characterizes the seed the farmer spread as
"good" (kalos). Then,
instead of insisting that the "man" (anthrópos) who sowed
the seed slept, the Matthean parable describes what happened while
"men" (anthrópous) in general were sleeping.
Matthew's distinction between singular &
plural humans, as well as his use of an abstract adjective ("good") to
describe the seed, might be dismissed as insignificant were it not for
the fact that these minor differences from the wording of the Markan harvest
parable set the stage for a totally different characterization of the sower
& development of the parable's plot, as the following outline shows:
- A human sows good seed [13:24].
- While humans sleep, "his
enemy" sows weeds [13:25].
- So, weeds grow among the grain [13:26].
- The landowner's perplexed servants ask why
there are weeds in his field [13:27].
- The owner identifies the weeds as the work
of "a human enemy" (echthros anthrópos).
- The servants suggest weeding the field [13:28].
- The owner points out that pulling weeds
risks losing the grain [13:29].
- So the owner decides not to separate weeds
& grain until the harvest [13:30].
Here, as in Mark's harvest parable, the farmer
does nothing between sowing & harvest. But unlike the Markan farmer, the
sower in Matthew's parable is not characterized as ignorant. On the
contrary, he knows where the weeds come from & he knows that
it is unwise to uproot them prematurely, even if his servants do not. Thus,
this parable portrays the farmer as alert & circumspect in contrast to other
humans. He recognizes that the presence of weeds does not threaten the
survival of the seed that is good by nature. So his inactivity during the
growing season is part of a deliberate plan to rescue his grain from weeds when
the plants are fully mature & can easily be separated by winnowing. Far
from simply gathering what the earth produces, the Matthean farmer has
mastered the forces of nature enough to know how to extract what is useful
from what is worthless. The edible grain ends up in a storehouse, while the
inedible weeds become fuel for fire.
Since winnowing had become a normal part of
near eastern agriculture long before the time of Jesus, one might argue that
Matthew's parable represents a harvest in first century Palestine more
accurately than the Markan parable which portrays the human being as little
more than a primitive gatherer. But that is the only detail in which the
scene described by Matthew is more realistic than Mark's.
No one in an ancient
agrarian culture really thought that weeds were the product of subversive activity by
a human enemy. So the figure of the "enemy" who works in the night
has to be seen as a mythological personification of a natural force that
counteracts human efforts. Moreover, the servants in this parable seem to assume
that the farmer's field should have produced only the same type of
grain that he scattered. Contrary to the Markan parable, this
presupposes that human activity is totally responsible for the forces
of nature. Rather than the earth producing whatever it contains, as in
Mark's picture, in Matthew's parable it produces only what some human sows: if
not the owner, then necessarily an enemy. So the Markan parable's description
of the growth process is far more realistic than the mythological worldview on
which the plot of Matthew's harvest parable depends.
On the other hand, as analogy for the kingdom
of Heaven (or God), Matthew's parable of weeds in the grain field is far less
problematic than Mark's naturalistic description of automatic growth.
For a portrait of a farmer who sows only what is good, always knows what is
happening & in the end determines the fate of everything that appears in
his domain, preserving the good & destroying the work of his enemies, is
much closer to traditional Jewish -- and Christian -- views of God than is
Mark's portrait of a farmer who has minimal influence over the processes of
nature & does not know exactly how things happen.
A further distinction between these two
synoptists' parables is that Matthew offers an allegorical
interpretation of this harvest parable, whereas Mark has none.
11 January 2019