Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

4. Understanding The Sower
Matt 13:18-23 // Mark 4:13-20 // Luke 8:11-15

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     parable     analysis     source hypotheses  

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Intended Audience

The aphorism on hearing appended to the parable of the sower assumes that this description of broadcasting could be understood by any of Jesus' original audience who had ears. Likewise, Jesus' reply to his disciples' question about his use of parables asserts that they did not need parables to understand the subject of his message (God's kingdom). Yet, all the synoptic gospels append to these passages a detailed commentary on the broadcast seed which presupposes that the meaning of this parable is not immediately obvious. 

The logic inherent in these three pericopes indicates that there has been a change in audience. The audience for which this interpretation was intended is not the Galilean masses for whom Jesus originally formulated the parable, nor is it the band of intimate associates who lived with him daily.  Rather, it was for the readers that the gospel writer had in mind in composing this cluster of pericopes. These were not Jesus' contemporary Palestinian Jews but members of a Christian community a generation or more after Jesus' death who were no longer familiar with the circumstances for which he had composed the parable & did not know quite what to make of it. 

Implied Author

The gospel of Thomas provides evidence that the parable of the sower could & did circulate in early Christian circles without any explanatory comments. Yet, all of the synoptic gospels record substantially the same explanation in exactly the same place -- not directly after the parable itself, but after a discussion of Jesus' rationale for using parables that claims Jesus' disciples were familiar with his message. The logical gap in this sequence indicates that this series of pericopes is an artificial literary composition by a particular author.  The fact that two other writers reproduce this sequence despite its logical seams is good evidence that they simply copied the same text.

Unlike Jesus, whoever composed this parable interpretation obviously thought that the proper meaning of the parable could not be grasped without an explicit explanation. Thus, he acted like any preacher in presuming to explain an element of Jesus'  teaching to his own audience.  But by ascribing this interpretation directly to Jesus the author of this pericope created the impression that Jesus' disciples were unable to interpret the parable on their own. So, the interpreter was clearly more concerned with readers accepting his explanation than in defending the reputation of Jesus' original disciples.

Form: Allegorical Exegesis

This interpreter treats the parable of the sower as an allegory rather than an illustration.  Instead of the story making a single point it is taken as a text whose various images need clarification.

Just about every element of the parable's description of sowing is explained, but in terms of the reaction of an audience rather than the agricultural imagery itself.  By drawing an analogy between the broadcast seed and a spoken message, the interpreter diverts the focus of the parable from its natural climax (the bountiful harvest in the good soil) to an exposition of reasons for people not accepting Jesus' teaching. Note that Matthew & Mark do not even bother to explain the immense size of the harvest but simply repeat the conclusion of the punch line of the parable itself.  

By changing the parable's focus from the picture of the sower scattering seed to an analysis of the character of the various types of soil into which the unproductive seed fell, the interpreter actually alters the plot of the parable. He diverts the audience's attention to an issue he was concerned about -- why some people abandon Jesus' teaching -- rather than the optimistic conclusion of Jesus' picture of broadcasting. 

Note that Matthew & Mark interpret the parable's description of the sun that scorched the seedlings in rocky soil as an allusion to troubles & persecution "on account of the word."  Since persecution for adopting the Christian message arose only after Jesus' execution, this explanation of the parable's imagery is clearly intended for the readers of these gospels rather than for Jesus' own audience. 

Note also that only Matthew mentions God's "kingdom," which the preceding pericope identified as the theme illustrated by Jesus' parables.

Varied Performances

Although all three synoptic gospels present essentially the same interpretation of the parable of the sower, there is actually very little verbatim agreement between the texts of all three [blue text].

  • Mark's version of this pericope is the longest:

 Greek words  Matt   Mark   Luke 
 Introduction 7 15 5
 Interpretation 121 137 102
 Total 128 152 107
  • Mark introduces this interpretation with 2 rhetorical questions that call attention to the problems the audience is having in comprehending Jesus' parables. Matthew & Luke do not.  Their introductions are shorter but worded differently.

  • There is extensive verbatim agreement [blue + teal text] between Matthew & Mark's versions of the allegorical interpretation of this parable, whereas Luke's paraphrased summary often deviates from the wording of one or both of the other synoptics.

  • However, Mark & Luke begin by equating the seed with "the word" [Greek: λόγος]; Matthew does not [see Mark 4:14 & again 4:15 par].  Yet, from the explanation of the rocky soil on, Matthew & Mark both explicitly identify the element broadcast as "the word," while Luke neglects to name this element in explaining the thorns.

  • Neither Mark nor Luke echo the well-constructed syntax [temporal clause + main clause] of the opening sentence of Matthew's interpretation of the parable [Matt 13:19] but instead prefer a more cumbersome itemized series of equations.

  • Luke & Mark share some other phrasing that is not found in Matthew:

    • Mark 4:15//Luke 8:12: the adversary "takes away the word" [Matt 13:19 has "snatches away what is sown."]

    • Mark & Luke regularly use plural subjects & verbs where Matthew uses the singular.

  • The only places where Luke shares wording with Matthew that is not also in Mark are:

    • Matt 13:19//Luke 8:12 identify the "heart" as the place from which the adversary removes the word while the earliest texts of Mark do not. But note that most later mss. of Mark do use the word "heart" in this context.

    • Matthew & Luke use a literate Greek construction [singular article + δε + prepositional phrase + participle] in referring to the seed among thorns [Matt 13:22//Luke 8:14] & in good soil [Matt 13:23//Luke 8:15]. Mark uses more cumbersome grammatical constructions to identify the seed in:

      • thorns [Mark 4:18]: καὶ ("and") + plural distributive pronoun ("others") + copulative verb + plural article + prepositional phrase + participle;

      • good soil [Mark 4:19]: καὶ + plural demonstrative pronoun ("those") + copulative verb + plural article + prepositional phrase + participle.

  • Unlike both Matthew & Mark, Luke does not end his interpretation by repeating the concluding phrases of the parable describing the immense size of the harvest.


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last revised 28 February 2023


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