Why did Our Lord Jesus Christ teach in parables? The answers to this question vary. To many, these earthy stories are like supernatural versions of Aesop’s Fables or Grimm’s Fairy Tales: great stories with a solid moral lesson, only even better because, well, Jesus told them.
Others would say that the parables employ figurative language — as extended similes — to teach obscure and hidden things using easily understood figures. And that answer, too, sounds reasonable.
But neither of these is the reason Jesus Himself gave for teaching in parables. He was asked by the disciples why he taught the multitudes this way (Matt. 13:10), and He answered the question in a way that might mystify us:
Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven: but to them it is not given. For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound: but he that hath not, from him shall be taken away that also which he hath. Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And the prophecy of Isaias is fulfilled in them, who saith: By hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand: and seeing you shall see, and shall not perceive. For the heart of this people is grown gross, and with their ears they have been dull of hearing, and their eyes they have shut: lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. (Matt. 13:11-15)
These challenging words should be pondered and explained, but before I explain my own ponderings on them, it will be good to consider their context. Our Lord says these things after telling the Parable of the Sower, which prompts the disciples to ask him why he teaches in parables. After His jarring reply, above, Jesus tells the disciples how blessed they are for seeing and hearing His Person and His divine teachings, things which the saints of the Old Testament longed for but were not given the grace to witness (Cf. Matt. 13:16-17).
At that point, Jesus goes on to explain to them in detail what the Parable of the Sower means. In summary, there are three categories of bad soil and then there is the good soil, which, in Matthew’s telling, is also threefold. The bad ground comes in these varieties: the wayside soil, hard from being trampled on by the husbandmen, represents those who hear God’s word and do not understand it, the demons taking the word from their hearts; the rocky soil, where the seeds first take root and then quickly wither because they have not much soil, are those who receive the word joyfully but fall away when persecution comes; lastly, the thorny ground, where the seeds take root and grow only for the plants to be choked by the thorns, represent those who are too taken with the cares of this world and “the deceitfulness of riches,” which render these men spiritually “fruitless.”
It would seem that these categories of men fail respectively in faith, in hope, and in charity.
Finally, there is the good soil, which Jesus distinguishes into a further three categories, showing thereby that there are different degrees of spiritual fruitfulness, i.e., of earthly merit and its consequent heavenly reward: “But he that received the seed upon good ground, is he that heareth the word, and understandeth, and beareth fruit, and yieldeth the one an hundredfold, and another sixty, and another thirty” (Matt. 13:23).
And now, to explain those challenging words of Our Lord I cited above (Matt. 13:11-15). The short review of the Parable of the Sower was first necessary because that parable tells us something about the “method behind the madness” of this manner of preaching, for the Parable of the Sower is reflexive; that is, it is a parable about parables — and, by extension, about hearing the word of God in general. Considering those harsh words of Matt. 13:11-15 in light of the three categories of bad soil Jesus Himself explained, we may conclude that He preached to the multitudes in the (unexplained) enigmas of parables because they were the bad ground. By contrast, the disciples, whom Our Lord here calls “blessed,” are the good ground. There is a parallel, then, between Matt. 13:11-15 and Matt. 13:19-22 and another parallel between Matt. 13:16-17 and Matt. 13:23.
Cornelius a Lapide, in his Great Commentary admits that there were probably among Our Lord’s auditors at Capharnaum some who were of good will and therefore who truly constituted “good ground,” and that these would have humbly asked Our Lord or the disciples for some explanation of the parable. Yet these were not representative of the majority, who were not, due to their own ill will, worthy of the sublime truths they were being taught obscurely and in a manner beyond their reach.
We should keep in mind, too, that to the Apostles, the nascent ecclesiastical hierarchy, it was “given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 13:11). They could and did teach those mysteries later to the four corners of the world.
This episode unfolded in time as a part of Our Lord’s larger public ministry, and many of His hearers likely had other opportunities to hear His teaching, or subsequently the preaching of the Apostles. Even among those who clamored for the crime of deicide, there were those who later “had compunction in their heart” at the preaching of Saint Peter on Pentecost day (Acts 2:37). Their hard-packed, stony, or thorny ground was, in time, harrowed by their own sins, by the preaching of the Apostle, and by the remorse they felt for their part in the horrors of the Passion. Above all this was God’s grace at work.
Soil can change; just ask a farmer. Souls can change; just ask a priest.
Regular readers are aware that the Brothers and Sisters from Saint Benedict Center in New Hampshire attend the Maronite Rite with some frequency (see, e.g., here). In the Pre-Anaphora of the Maronite Divine Liturgy (corresponding to our Roman Offertory), the following lovely words are sung from the vantage point of Our Lord:
I am the Bread of Life. From the Father I was sent as Word without flesh to give new life. Of the Virgin Mary I was born, taking flesh as man; as good earth receives a seed, her womb received me. Priestly hands now lift me high above the altars… .
The words I underlined show that whoever wrote this sublime liturgical text beautifully juxtaposed the mystery of the Annunciation with the Parable of the Sower — and all just moments before the Eucharistic consecration. How’s that for an Angelus meditation!
Just as there are varying degrees of bad soil, there are varying degrees of good soil, too. Mary’s is the best — the richest, the most perfectly prepared soil, for it is the mystical “garden of delights” heralded by the terrestrial paradise of Eden, as Saint Jerome and Saint John Eudes assure us.
There is so much to the Parable of the Sower, and indeed there is much more to Our Lord’s use of parables in general than what I have written about here. I refer the reader to the masterpiece of Cornelius a Lapide that I have already referenced. I will close these lines with one lovely passage from that work, but before doing so, I would like to turn tropological.
In the medieval quadriga, the four-fold manner of interpreting Holy Scripture, the tropological sense is that reading of the Bible that “turns” the passage upon the reader so that he may examine himself in it as in a mirror. How can we turn this parable upon ourselves? We can and we should, by becoming spiritual “soil scientists” and seeing how it is we respond to the seed of the word in the Gospel. Do we receive it well? Even those passages that are challenging? Even those passages that fulminate against our very favorite vices? A good examination of conscience might reveal to us that we have become hard, stony, or thorn-choked and therefore fruitless; our faith, hope, and charity may need reviving. The fertilizer of prayer and penance may be necessary to break up the clods, while the purging action of toil and good works may be necessary to trim back the thorns that would choke the life of grace in us. We have been commanded to bear fruit (Luke 13:9, John 15:4). Are we doing so?
Soil can change from good to bad and back again. Change is a constant in this vale of tears, but not all change is good.
Here is one of Cornelius a Lapide’s insights into the Parable of the Sower, which beautifully ties in the parable to the Catholic doctrine of grace and free will:
Just as a father and a mother cooperate in generating offspring, so too, for the production of fruit, there must be a meeting of earth and seed, in such a way, however, that the earth draws from the seed all of its power to produce this or that kind of fruit. Similarly, for good works there must be the concurrence of the word of God, which is both an external force and even more so an internal force, and of man’s free will, which must cooperate with the word of God, in such manner, however, that the will derives all its power of producing a spiritual, supernatural and divine work from the word and grace of God, in order that they may be pleasing unto God, and may merit eternal life. This is taught by the Council of Trent, session 6. In like manner, from free will the fruit derives liberty, that is to say, the fact that it is a free work and not compulsory nor done of necessity. For the interior word, which God speaks in the soul, stirring it up and strengthening it for acts of penance, patience, charity, religion, etc., is nothing else but the grace of God itself, illuminating the understanding, and strengthening the affection or the will, and inflaming it to the divine works of virtue. This interior word, or grace, God customarily adds to the external word of preaching, thus enlivening, so to speak, what would otherwise be without grace and inanimate, incapable and powerless to perform such works. Therefore, what the preacher speaks outwardly in the ear, God must speak inwardly in the heart, if it is to bear fruit.
All three Synoptic Gospels relate the Parable of the Sower. In this piece, I have relied exclusively on Saint Matthew’s account in chapter thirteen of his Gospel. I recommend to my readers the parallel passages in Mark four and Luke eight. They all provide ample matter for meditation.
Perhaps it’s because I have recently been thinking more than I am accustomed to about such things as animals, plants, and soil, but Our Lord’s agricultural similes are more meaningful to me lately. I hope that’s a good sign. If the parables of Our Lord grow on us, maybe we are good ground.