People often encounter the same experience in different ways. Discussions on social media illustrated this starkly in the spring of 2015, when millions argued over “The Dress.” Many saw a two-tone dress of indigo and black material. Almost as many saw instead a dress that was white and gold. Because the photo was poor, the viewer’s brain had to supply important information about light and shadow. Those who assumed the photo was taken in bright light saw a dress of indigo and black. Those who assumed low light saw a dress of white and gold. So deeply do we rely on our brain’s ability to supply information in this way that those who saw the dress one way found it very difficult to perceive it in the other.
‘Whoever has ears ought to hear!’ (Mt 13:9)
Which of Christ’s teachings baffle you? How can you open yourself to their deeper truth?
How can you share this truth with others?
Such disparities of perception are a human reality, although most are not as vivid as “The Dress.” Matthew plays on this reality in today’s Gospel. Although he calls this the parable of the sower, in Matthew’s hands it is not a story about a sower at all. It is not even primarily a story about soil and seed, as it is in Mark and Luke. Instead, Matthew uses this parable to introduce a reflection on faith.
Matthew’s community struggled to understand why so few believed in Jesus. How was it possible, they wondered, that friends and loved ones heard the same message but did not grasp its implications? In today’s Gospel, Matthew suggests that some people were simply ready to believe and therefore found in Jesus’ words the mysteries of the kingdom.
On its own, the parable of the sower is not one of Jesus’ clearest parables. The explanatory paragraph that follows shows that many early Christians found it difficult to understand. Parables like those of the prodigal son or the lost sheep required no added interpretation, but with the sower, Matthew, Mark and Luke each add an explanation from Jesus’ private teaching.
Matthew gives a fuller account of that private explanation than do Mark or Luke, a fact that highlights the importance he places on the parable. He positions the parable in a part of his Gospel that relates increasing hostility to Jesus. In addition, Matthew is writing for an audience of Jews whose belief that Jesus was the Messiah has alienated them from family and community. This parable, and the expanded interpretation of it, help Matthew explain how people encountering the same Jesus came away with such different perceptions.
“Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.” Matthew suggests that Jesus preached a difficult parable to seek out any who were able to hear him. Whether their readiness came from spiritual desperation or simple open-mindedness, they recognized a deeper truth that others missed.
Without this readiness, one could listen all day to Jesus but make no sense of his message. By contrast, for those who were open to the deeper truth of Jesus’ words, the mysteries of the kingdom were revealed. The barest movement of faith produced an effect that was entirely transformative. Just so, we need to be ready to hear God’s truth even in the words that challenge us the most.