Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark & Luke

7. The Harvest
Matt 13:24-30; Mark 4:26-29

  context     Greek synopsis     English synopsis     analysis     source hypotheses     variants 

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Variations on a Theme

This pericope 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 (βασιλεία), man (ἀνθρώπος), sleep (καθεῦδειν), grain (σίτον), sprout (βλασταῖ),  crop (κάρπος) & harvest (θερίσμος) -- 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 cycle: 

  • A human throws seed on the ground [4:26].

  • 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: 

Joel 3
13 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 scene 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 lines emphasize?   

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" (κάλος).  Then, instead of insisting that the "man" (ἀνθρώπος) who sowed the seed slept, the Matthean parable describes what happened while "men" (ἀνθρώπους) 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" (ἐχθρος ἀνθρώπος).
  • 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.


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last revised 11 December 2019  


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