Amos N. Wilder, one of the greats of 20th century biblical scholarship, wrote that in the parables the reader meets Jesus the layman, for whom human destiny is at stake in ordinary, creaturely existence, domestic, economic, social (Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel, p. 82). Here the lives of ordinary people from a distant time and culture come alive in a way true of little ancient literature. Jesus was familiar with a rural Galilean milieu: outdoor scenes of farming and shepherding, and domestic scenes in simple one-room houses (Lk. 11:5-8). The homes of the rich are seen only through the kitchen doorthe view of servants and slaves. The farming is hill-country farming, done in small patches amid stone fences and briars (Mk. 4:5-7), not that of the broad lowland plains. There are donkeys, sheep, wolves and birds; seeds, wheat and harvests; lilies of the field and fruit trees; patched wineskins and household lamps; children quarreling in the marketplace and shady merchants. People are threatened by drought and flood, and the din of war is never distant. Jesus sees life through the eyes of the anawim, the poor and humble of the land (see The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 1366).
In the parable of the sower (really a parable about different sowings), the seed is sown in a seemingly silly waythrown on the ground and then plowed under. Not surprisingly, the three-fourths of the seed that lands on a footpath, on rocky ground and among thorns produces no grain. The surprise and shock of the parable is that one-fourth of the seed produces truly extraordinary results, even to a hundredfold, abundantly making up for the loss. Jesus wants his followers to know that God’s kingdom is that way: extraordinary results come despite apparent failure.
Building on the image from Isaiah of the word of God as rain that nurtures a fruitful seed, Matthew wrestles with the failure of the word. In an enigmatic set of sayings, he states that this failure is not due to God’s word but arises from unwillingness to listen and be converted. The fates of the seeds are an index of ways in which followers of Jesus can fail, yet with the same assurance that the rich soil of hearing and understanding will produce astonishing results.
In the initial parable we are in touch not only with a Jesus who offers images of hope, but one who expresses his own hope as opposition mounts. As for Jesus and Paul (second reading), so for ourselves creation becomes a text that leads us deeper into the mysteries of God. In the allegory of the responses, even human failures will not overwhelm the power of God’s word to take root in rich soil. Like all parables, these leave us with questions. As we look around our world, where can we find images and messages of hope amid repeated loss and ever-recurring human failure?