The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE PARABLES
PARABLES OF THE SOWER AND THE TARES
3rd November 2011
This season I want us to study the Parables found in the Gospels. In the past we have seen six or seven of these Parables, but if we consider that the parables make up a third of the Synoptic Gospels, in other words, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, with about 40 different Parables, then we have hardly touched on this wealth of Christ’s teaching.
What is a Parable? A parable is a story told in a familiar and simple way with a moral lesson as a means to teach us that we need to change our current way of life. It is used as an analogy [comparison] so that one can understand a deeper meaning having a religious and spiritual significance. Every parable requires that we change our behaviour, our thoughts, our beliefs, in fact our complete way of life if we want to be saved and live eternally with God.
Many of Jesus' parables refer to simple everyday things, such as a woman baking bread (Parable of the Leaven), a man knocking on his neighbour's door at night (Parable of the Friend at Night), or the aftermath of a roadside mugging (Parable of the Good Samaritan); yet they deal with major religious themes, such as the growth of the Kingdom of God, the importance of prayer, and the meaning of love.
Jesus’ parables teach a series of moral concepts using the culture relevant at that time and examples from nature which we can identify with. They are just as relevant for us today as they were then, but for us to fully understand we need to examine some of them in the light of the Jewish culture and customs of that time. Another thing we need to do to understand some of the parables is that we must first identify ourselves with the characters, because one of them is me. Jesus is talking directly to me and he wants me to understand how distant my life is from God.
Although the Parables appear to be simple and easy to understand, Jesus told his disciples that not everyone would understand them. When his disciples asked him why he speaks to the people in Parables, he replied: “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” (Luke 8:10) Did Christ then speak in Parables to confuse his listeners? No, as the God-man that he was, he knew that some who heard his parables deliberately refused to understand them. It was not that they could not intellectually understand them, but rather, their hearts were closed to what Jesus was saying. They had already made up their minds to not believe. Christ said that: “in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.” (Matthew 13:10-17) God can only reveal the secrets of his kingdom to the humble and trusting person who acknowledges the need for God and for his truth.
Some Parables are stories whereas some are just one liners so each time we will look at the Parables we will probably see more than one. I want to begin with the Parable of the Sower. All three of the Synoptic Gospels mention it. Matthew and Mark tell us that as Christ sat by the sea, a great multitude gathered round him so that he went into a ship and from there he spoke to them in Parables. The reading we will now hear is from St. Luke.
“The Lord said this parable: A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be? And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand. Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8: 5-15)
The Church assigned the Parable of the Sower to be read in the Autumn because it is the time when most wheat farmers throughout the world sow their fields. Wheat is also planted in the spring, but the winter wheat accounts for ¾ of the world’s wheat crop.
The Lord compares himself to a farmer who sows the earth with seed which as he explains is the Word of God, the word of Grace and truth and eternal life, sown upon the ground of our hearts. In other words Christ himself who is the true Word comes within us in a mysterious and incomprehensible way like a seed with the intention of uniting us to God. The time for this spiritual sowing is the whole of man’s life. If the natural seed of wheat which farmers sow, foresees the nourishment and preservation of the body in this life, the spiritual seed foresee the nourishment and preservation of both the body and soul and man’s participation in eternal life.
The Lord said: “A sower went out to sow his seed.” He didn’t say that he went out to cultivate the field, but only to sow. The Lord begins immediately with the sowing because the preparation of the earth, in other words, the heart is the work of man. Man must first prepare his heart by putting aside his old way of life, the pleasures of the body, his attachment to worldly goods and with true repentance to be able to willingly accept the heavenly seed, the Holy Gospel and the grace of God.
Christ separates those who hear the Word of God into four categories:
In the first group are those who resemble the seed that fell on the road, which was trodden on by passers by and was then eaten by the fowls of the air. The Lord tells us that these are those that hear; but then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. The seed in this group is lost because it remains only on the surface. It cannot be sown deep, because the ground it falls on is hard and barren. These are the men who are hardhearted. There is no room in their hearts for love, humility or any relationship with God. They have no interest in God or his will. Their only interest is what others think of them. That is why the Lord says they are blind and deaf. Their hearts are trodden down and made hard from wicked thoughts, pride, selfishness, lies, hatred, greediness and other sinful passions which occupy the space of their hearts with no room to accept the word of God’s grace. If by chance they hear anything spiritual it remained on the surface because it cannot find room in the heart. The seed is easily seen by the fowls of the air who swoop down to devour it. The fowls of the air are the devil and his demons who always interfere in the lives of men with the aim of preventing their salvation. Through their devious ways they come and steal away the word of God.
The second group of men are those which the Lord likens to the seed that fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. The Lord tells us that these are those who when they hear, they receive the word with joy; and for a while believe, but because they have no root, and because of temptations, they fall away. This group is similar to the first, but with a difference. Notice that it says that the seed sprung up, but then withered away, in other words they believed for a while, but didn’t have enough faith to overcome the temptations of life. This was because their heart was as hard as rock without love for anyone else. They never saw their neighbour as their brother, neither were they troubled by anyone’s pain and suffering. As with the first group their only concern was accumulating worldly wealth and enjoying the pleasures of life. How can the seed enter and take root on this ground of rock? How can the word of God enter and take root in hearts so hard and foreign to heavenly things? In the beginning there is some interest in spiritual matters, but this is very superficial and soon forgotten when faced with the choice of the narrow road of self sacrifice for the kingdom of God or the easy and wide road of worldly passions.
In the third group are people who resemble the seed that fell among thorns and the thorns sprang up and choked it. Of these the Lord says that when they have heard the word of God, they then go forth and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. This group of people accept with enthusiasm the word of God concerning his kingdom. But their main concern is how to accumulate wealth, the pleasures of life, the praise of men and in general everything that is of this world. These all become passions which choke and cover the good seed, the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and do not allow the Spiritual fruits to grow. Although similar to the two previous groups there is a clear distinction between them. With the first two groups the seed either didn't take root or it took root, but very soon after withered. In this group the seed has taken root, it has grown somewhat, but is choked and covered by other things which don't allow it to grow as it should and bring forth fruit. But because it hasn't withered away then with some care it can be helped and be made healthy by pulling out the thorns that are choking it. In spiritual terms the person can with repentance and confession and spiritual guidance slowly pull out the passions that are keeping him from spiritual progress and cultivate his heart so that it becomes a good fertile field bringing forth healthy wheat.
In the fourth and last group are the people who resemble the seed that fell on good and fertile land free from thorns and weeds and was therefore capable of bearing fruit a hundredfold more than the seed that was originally sown. These are the souls that live, work, eat, drink and sustain themselves like all people, but above all things their main interest is gaining the Kingdom of God. That is why they struggle to increase the divine Grace they received as a small seed when they were baptized. They preserve within them God's gift, the spiritual seed, the life giving word of the Gospel. They battle against the worldly idea of what life should be, they root out the passions and every enemy and obstacle that comes between them and salvation with the purpose of allowing the Grace of the Holy Spirit to prevail and reign in their hearts. They do not care about external appearances and worldly success. Their main work and concern is spiritual and deep down in the depths of their hearts like the seed that is buried in the earth. Whatever good they do, they don't publicise it, but with humility they bury it that it might bring forth much fruit. From mere words they proceed to works. They endure the various temptations that come their way and face them with patience, humility, with thanks and glorifying God so that they can become partakers in the life of Christ. With spiritual cultivation, with fasting, prayer, love and the Holy Sacraments, the spiritual ground brings forth its fruit and the person becomes a new man in Jesus Christ. In Matthew and Mark it say that the good seed brought forth, some thirty fold, some sixty fold and some a hundred fold. In other words everyone who receives the word and believes brings forth fruit according to the effort and struggle he has made, but God accepts the thirty fold as he accepts the hundred fold, because the end result is that they all heard the word of God and through their struggles they brought forth fruit.
Special attention should be given to how the Parable ends: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." In other words whoever has the good intention to hear the words of salvation, let him hear and obey them and let him turn them into action and life. Let us accept Christ's word as the only sure way of salvation for man, and that great harm befalls those who refuse to hear and accept it in the depths of their hearts.
Other Parables also make mention of seeds that grow in the ground. In St. Matthew's Gospel immediately after the Parable of the Sower follows the Parable of the Tares. Let's then hear this Parable, but as the word tares is rather archaic, I will replace it with the word weeds which has exactly the same meaning.
"The Lord said this parable: The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the weeds also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it weeds? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the weeds, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the weeds, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn." (Matthew 13: 24-30)
In Matthew there are two more parables before Jesus sent the multitude away which gave the disciples the opportunity to ask him to reveal the meaning of the parable of the weeds. Jesus said:
"He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the weeds are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the weeds are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear." Matthew 13: 37-43
Although Jesus gives us the meaning of the Parable there is still much more we can say. Christ said this Parable immediately after the Parable of the Sower because of the similarity both have in the sowing of seeds in the ground, but there is a great difference in the fact that in the first parable the sower sowed only the good seed, the word of God. In this case we have a sowing of good seed and a sowing of bad seed. Also in the first Parable the good seed refers to the word of God whereas in this Parable the good seeds are the children of God and the weeds are the children of the devil.
Christ is speaking of this world and the Kingdom of heaven he refers to is the earthly Church. The field as he says is the world which he created and in this field are the faithful members of the church. He then tells us that while men slept, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. In his explanation of the Parable Christ doesn't mention the meaning of "while men slept." Here Christ is probably referring to men who were assigned to look after the field. In this case it would be the teachers of the Church, the bishops and priests who have the responsibility of preserving the church from false teachings. Are they then to blame for falling asleep giving the opportunity to the evil one to sow the bad seeds amongst the good? There is in fact no such accusation because farmers keep watch and check their crops just before the harvest, but no one would even think or expect to keep watch on a field that had only just recently been sown. While men slept can only therefore refer to the night and that the enemy sowed his bad seeds secretively in the darkness of night without being seen or perceived by anyone.
Christ could just as easily have said that the weeds were blown into the field by the wind, but he wanted to stress the fact that it was purposely done by the devil. What are these weeds? They are false prophets, false apostles, false teachers and the many heresies that pretend to be Christian. Note that the truth came first and then the lies, the good seeds was sown first and then the seeds of delusion. The devil first witnesses what is good and tries to imitate it with his version. Thus first we had the prophets and then the false prophets, the Apostles and then the false apostles, Jesus Christ and then the antichrist.
As the weeds grow with the good seeds no one seems to notice because the stems of both as similar, only in the fruit can the difference be seen. Just as the weeds are harmful for the good seeds to grow and bring forth healthy fruit, so also are the heretics who might outwardly appear similar to the Orthodox, but not according to their virtues, in other words their fruit. As the weed looks similar to the wheat so also the delusions of heretics can at times resemble the truth.
The Parable says that the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it weeds? The householder is of course Christ the Lord and Master of the world, but who are the servants? They are not the angels who in the Parable are the reapers of the harvest. The servants here are pious but over zealous Orthodox who appear to be angry and confused and scandalized that God allowed the weeds to grow side by side with the wheat. It seems they are shocked by the multitude of weeds that had been planted in the field. If the weeds were few and scattered just here and there or around the edges of the field it wouldn't have caused such a surprise, but the weeds were everywhere choking the good seeds.
That the servants were overzealous can be seen from their eagerness to go and gather up the weeds. They are eager to lift up their swords and wage war against the heretics and destroy them from the face of the earth, but the Lord doesn't allow this. He doesn't reprimand the over zealous servants, but helps them to understand why such an action would be very wrong and harmful. The roots of both the wheat and the weeds are so entangled with each other that there was a true danger that while the weeds are being rooted out some of the wheat would also be rooted out. Here is an important lesson - that we don't raise up arms against heretics or those who try to harm us. As Christ allowed the weeds to grow side by side with the wheat, we also must learn to live with people of other faiths. There is also the possibility that, in time, the weed might become a wheat. Matthew who wrote this parable into the Gospel was originally a weed, but later became a wheat. So also Paul and the thief began as weeds, but through God's word were transformed into wheat. There are always over zealous people ready to take drastic action for their faith believing that that is God's will. This part of the parable is especially aimed at them. People should not run ahead and anticipate the judgement of God, because through such actions they can cause more harm than good. They do not have enough knowledge and are not in a position to know everything. How then are they to discern what is good and what is bad? Neither are they aware of any consequences that might befall the good if the bad is removed suddenly. It is also possible that a good plant might resemble and be mistaken for a bad plant. This also happens in the lives of people: good and bad people live so closely together that the violent removal of the one might cause harm to the other.
The Lord feels that the best solution is to allow them to live side by side until the end of the world: Both the good and bad growing until they reach maturity; both preparing themselves for the harvest. Special note should be given to who the good and bad are: the bad are not necessarily wicked and evil people. Let us not forget that they were planted into the field where the children of the kingdom were planted and outwardly resembled them, so the parable is talking about people who resemble the true Christians which in this case are the many denominational groups who call themselves Christians. Everyone in the field hears the word of God and his commandments, they all have the Bible to guide them and many partake of the same spiritual table as the true children of the kingdom. The main difference between them is that the true Christians have the grace of God which they received at baptism and the false Christians deny themselves this grace by blindly remaining in a heresy they believe is from God but in reality is a demonic deception. The angels who are the harvesters are able to discern between the good and bad because the grace of God shines bright in the true children of the kingdom whereas the false children remain in darkness. The weeds are gathered up first so that the good wheat doesn't pay witness to the punishment that awaits them, but neither are the weeds witness to the glory that awaits the good. The weeds, he says, will be cast into a furnace of fire and there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
We should not assume that the place of punishment in the future world is literally a furnace of fire. The Lord uses this terrifying image to show the frightful nature of the punishment. We have seen many times before how God loves all people and sends his grace upon all men. God is light and like the sun we see in the sky, light has two properties, illuminating and caustic. If one person has good vision, he benefits from the illuminating property of the sun, and he enjoys the whole creation. But if another person is deprived of his eye, if he is without sight, then he feels the caustic property of light. If then our spiritual eyes are healthy we see God's light and participate in his glory whereas if our spiritual eyes are blind then we feel God's light as heat and fire. Therefore the same love of God, the same energy will fall upon all men, but it will work differently according to the ability of each to perceive this love. There is truly a punishment, but this is not a punishment from God, but rather a self imposed punishment. The wailing and gnashing of teeth is used to describe the eternal pain and suffering caused from being deprived of God's light. No other words could stress or draw an image to describe the depth of such suffering. On the other hand the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. In other words they will partake fully in God's light and will themselves become light.
We have time to look at one more short Parable. In Matthew, immediately following the Parable of the weeds, Christ gave us the Parable of the Mustard seed. "The Lord said: The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof." Matthew 13: 31-36
This Parable often leads people to ask if the mustard seed is in fact the smallest of all seeds and if Jesus is God incarnate and knows all things then how could he make such a false statement. Firstly the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds there are indeed many seeds much smaller and secondly Jesus was not making a scientific statement of absolute fact.
Jesus was speaking proverbially, that is, he was using the mustard seed as a comparison. Of the known seeds of that time used by the Jews as a herb, it was the smallest especially when compared to the size of the seed and its fully grown plant. One would expect a small seed to produce a small plant and a big seed to produce a big plant. There are different kinds of mustard plants and some remain small, others became bushes while others grow into a tree of about 8 to 10 feet high. Christ therefore, was not making a botanical statement of fact, but instead was drawing attention to the comparison of the "smallest" to the "largest" and using it to illustrate how the Kingdom of heaven will expand in the world from a very small beginning to a huge presence. The Kingdom of heaven is the Church which began as a small seed and through the apostles grew and became known throughout the whole world. The mention of birds lodging in the tree's branches could be just a reference to show how big the mustard tree can grow or it could refer to the people of God who take refuge in the Lord's church and there not only find shade in its branches but also spiritual nourishment, rest, comfort and protection.
Elsewhere, Christ uses the mustard seed to illustrate faith. He said: "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." (Matthew 17:20)
What Christ is saying is that if we have even the smallest amount of true faith similar to the size of the mustard seed, it will take root and very quickly grow in strength and size that whatever we ask of God it will be granted. The emphasis on is not on the quantity of faith someone might possess, but on the quality. True faith according to Christ's very words should also be accompanied by the gift of miracles, he said: "He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do." (John 14:12) If we then believe that we have great faith in Christ why cannot we perform the smallest of miracles? Is it because our faith is not a true faith? When people ask me how I received my faith in Christ, my first thoughts to myself are "do I truly have faith, can I move a mountain even a fraction of an inch? I cannot so although I may appear to have faith, something is missing; somewhere my faith is not true.