Jesus draws from commonplace agricultural conventions to illustrate his kingdom principles, as one might expect from a teacher sensitive to rural Galilean hearers. Whereas the later rabbinic parables often focus on such settings as royal courts (compare 22:2; see comment on Mt 18:23), Jesus most often told stories about agriculture and the daily life of his common hearers (as in 20:1).
Other ancient writers employed the seed image; perhaps most significantly, 4 Ezra declares that just as not all the seeds a farmer sows survive or put down roots, so not all people will persevere to eternal life (4 Ezra 8:41). But whereas the harvest would be completed in the end time (Mt 13:39; 3:12; 21:34; compare 9:37-38), Jesus portrays the present as a time of sowing to prepare for that harvest.
The sower must sow widely to ensure a good harvest. It made more sense, in a field like the one in Jesus' parable, to plow up the ground before sowing; this was a frequent practice in ancient Israel (Is 28:24-25; Jer 4:3; compare Hos 10:11-12; K. White 1964). Later literature, however, repeatedly speaks of plowing after sowing (although some plowed both before and after sowing); farmers who knew their fields apparently felt comfortable sowing first, then plowing the seed into the ground (Jub. 11:11; Jeremias 1972:11 and 1966b; see especially P. Payne 1978:128-29, contending that both practices occurred). Because we cannot know the conditions of given hearers' hearts before we preach, Jesus uses the second analogy of sowing before plowing; we must sow as widely as possible and let God bring forth the appropriate fruit (compare the agricultural counsel in Eccl 11:6).
Not all ground will yield good fruit. The path probably represents one of the footpaths running through or around the field (A. Bruce 1979:195). Some of the grain accidentally fell on or beside it, exposing the seed there to hungry birds (compare Jub. 11:11). The sower's field in this parable also includes some land where the soil is shallow over rock. Palestine includes much land like this; though seed springs up quickly on such soil, which holds its warmth, the seed readily dies because it cannot put down roots (Argyle 1963:101).
The fruitful soil yields enough to make up for the useless soil. Italy and Sicily averaged fivefold or sixfold return on grain sown; irrigated fields in Egypt averaged around a sevenfold yield for wheat (N. Lewis 1983:121-22). The average Palestinian harvest may have yielded seven and a half to ten times the seed sown. Thus harvests yielding thirty to a hundred times the seed invested are extraordinarily abundant (Gen 26:12; Jub. 24:15; Sib. Or. 3.264-65), and one rarely exceeded one hundredfold (P. Payne 1980:183-84). The fruit from the good soil more than makes up for any seed wasted on the bad soil.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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