(1, 2) The same day . . . out of the house.—In St. Mark the parable of the Sower follows the appearance of the mother and the brethren, as in St. Matthew, but in St. Luke (Luke 8:4-15; Luke 8:19-21) the order is inverted. In this case the order of the first Gospel seems preferable, as giving a more intelligible sequence of events. The malignant accusation of the Pharisees, the plots against His life, the absence of real support where He might most have looked for it, the opposition roused by the directness of His teaching—this led to His presenting that teaching in a form which was at once more attractive, less open to attack, better as an intellectual and spiritual training for His disciples, better also as a test of character, and therefore an education for the multitude.
That our Lord had been speaking in a house up to this point is implied in the “standing without” of Matthew 12:46. He now turns to the crowd that followed, and lest the pressure should interrupt or might occasion—as the feeling roused by the teaching that immediately preceded made probable enough—some hostile attack, He enters a boat, probably with a few of His disciples, puts a few yards of water between Himself and the crowd, and then begins to speak.
(3) A sower.—Literally, the sower—the man whose form and work were so familiar, in the seed-time of the year, to the peasants of Galilee. The outward frame-work of the parable requires us to remember the features in which Eastern tillage differs from our own. The ground less perfectly cleared—the road passing across the field—the rock often cropping out, or lying under an inch or two of soil—the patch of good ground rewarding, by what might be called a lucky chance rather than skill of husbandry, the labour of the husbandman.
Why speakest thou unto them in parables?—The wonder of the disciples probably included many elements of surprise. Why in parables instead of, as before, the direct announcement of the kingdom of heaven, and the call to prepare for it by repentance? And why to them, when they were not students with intellect sharpened in Rabbinic schools, but plain peasants and fishermen, slow and dull of heart?
To know the mysteries.—The Greek word, like “parable,” has passed into modern languages, and has suffered some change of meaning in the process. Strictly speaking, it does not mean, as we sometimes use it—when we speak, e.g., of the mystery of the Trinity, a truth which none can understand—something “awfully obscure” (the definition given in Johnson’s Dictionary), but one which, kept a secret from others, has been revealed to the initiated. Interpreted by our Lord’s teaching up to this time, the mysteries of the kingdom may be referred to the new birth of water and the Spirit (John 3:5), the judgment to be exercised hereafter by the Son of Man (John 5:25), the power of the Son of Man to forgive sins (John 9:6), the new ideas (no other word will express the fact so well) which He had proclaimed as to the Sabbath (John 12:8), and fasting, and prayer, and alms (John 6:1-18). Those ideas had been proved occasions of offence, and therefore, for the present, the Teacher falls back upon a method of more exoteric instruction.
The ethical sequence described runs thus: The man hears “the word of the kingdom,” a discourse, say, like the Sermon on the Mount, or that at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). He does not “understand” it (the fault being moral rather than intellectual), does not attend to it or “take it in.” The “wicked one” (note the connection with the clause in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil,” or the evil one) snatches it away even from his memory. At first it seems strange that “the birds of the air” in their multitude should represent the Tempter in his unity; and yet there is a terrible truth in the fact that everything which leads men to forget the truth is, in very deed, doing the work of the great enemy. On the other hand, the birds, in their rapid flight and their gathering flocks, may well represent the light and foolish thoughts that are as the Tempter’s instruments. The “way-side” thus answers to the character, which is hardened by the wear and tear of daily life, what we well call its routine, so that the words of Truth make hardly even the most transient impression on it.
This is he which received seed.—Our translators try, unsuccessfully, to combine the parable with its interpretation. Literally, and far better, here and in the following verses, this man it is that is (the seed) sown by the way side.
Tribulation or persecution.—It is hardly necessary, or indeed possible, to draw any sharp line of demarcation between the two. “Persecution” implies, perhaps, a more organised attack, and therefore greater suffering; “tribulation,” the thousand petty annoyances to which every convert to the faith of Christ was exposed in the first age of the Church, and to which, it may be added, even now most men and women who seek to be Christians in deed as well as in name are at some time or other in their lives exposed. The words explain the “time of temptation” in St. Luke’s report (Luke 8:13).
By and by he is offended.—The adverb is the same as the “anon” of Matthew 13:20, and means “immediately.” The rapidity of the renegade matches that of the convert. Such a man finds a “stumbling-block” in the sufferings he is called to endure, and turns into a smoother path.
It is allowable to fill up the outline-sketch of interpretation which thus formed the first lesson in this method in the great Master’s school. (1.) It may seem strange at first that the disciples were not told who in the work of the kingdom answered to “the Sower” of the parable. The interpretation is given in the parable of the Tares (“the Sower of the good seed is the Son of Man”), and, in part, it may be said that this was the one point on which the disciples were not likely to misunderstand Him; but in part also, we may believe, this explanation was not given, because, though the parable was true in the first instance of Him and of His work, He meant them to learn wisdom from it for their own work. True, they were reaping what they had not sown (John 4:38), yet they too were in their turn to be sowers as well as reapers. (2.) It is obviously one important lesson of the parable that it teaches us to recognise the possible existence of “an honest and good heart” (the first word meaning “noble,” “generous,” rather than “honest” in our modern sense) prior to the preaching of the word. Such characters were to be found in those living under the Law, or without the Law (Romans 2:14), and it was the work of the preacher to look out for them, and win them to something yet higher. What made the ground good, is a question which the parable was perhaps meant to suggest, but does not answer. Theologians may speak of “prevenient grace.” The language of John 4:37-38 leads us to think of the work of “the Light that lighteth every man.” Here also the law holds good that “to him that hath shall more be given.” (3.) It lies in the nature of such a parable that it represents the phenomena of the spiritual life only partially. It brings before us four classes of hearers, and seems to assume that their characters are fixed, incapable of change, issuing in results which might have been foreseen. But if so, then the work of the “word” thus preached would seem to be limited to order and progress, and the idea of “conversion”—the change of character—would almost be excluded. We must therefore supplement the parable in its practical application. The soil may be improved; the way-side and the stony places and that which contained the thorns may become as the good ground. It is the work of every preacher and teacher to prepare the soil as well as to sow the seed. In the words of an old prophet, which might almost seem to have suggested the parable itself, they are to “break up the fallow ground and sow not among thorns” (Jeremiah 4:3).
It is scarcely necessary to discuss at any length the botany of the parable. What we call mustard (Sinapis nigra) does not grow in the East, any more than with us, into anything that can be called a tree. Probably, however, the name was used widely for any plant that had the pungent flavour of mustard, and botanists have suggested the Salvadora persica as answering to the description. (See Bible Educator, I. 119.)
The interpretation of the parable lies almost on the surface. Here again the sower is the Son of Man; but the seed in this case is not so much the “word,” as the Christian society, the Church, which forms, so to speak, the firstfruits of the word. As it then was, even as it was on the day of Pentecost, it was smaller than any sect or party in Palestine or Greece or Italy. It was sown in God’s field of the world, but it was to grow till it became greater than any sect or school, a tree among the trees of the forest, a kingdom among other kingdoms (comp. the imagery of Ezekiel 31:3; Daniel 4:10), a great organised society; and the “birds of the air” (no longer, as before, the emblems of evil)—i.e., the systems of thought, institutions, and the like, of other races—were to find refuge under its protection. History has witnessed many fulfilments of the prophecy implied in the parable, and those who believe that the life of Christendom is an abiding life will look for yet more.
The greatest among herbs.—More literally, greater than the herbs—i.e., belonging to a higher order of vegetation.
Descending to the details of the parable, it is at least open to us (as an application of it, if not as an interpretation) to see in the woman, as in the parable of the Lost Piece of Money (Luke 15:8), the representative of the divine Wisdom as working in the history of the world, or of the Church of Christ as embodying that wisdom. The three measures of meal admit, in like manner, of many references, of which we cannot say with certainty that one is more likely to have been intended than another. The descendants of the three sons of Noah, or the Jew, the Greek, the Barbarian, as representing the whole race of mankind, or body, soul, and spirit, as the three parts of man’s nature, which the new truth is to permeate and purify, are all in this sense equally legitimate applications.
A remarkable various-reading gives, “by Esaias the prophet.” It is found in the Sinaitic MS., and had been used before the time of Jerome by a heathen writer (Porphyry) as a proof of St. Matthew’s ignorance. Old as it is, however, there is no reason for receiving it as the original reading. The mistake was probably that of a transcriber, misled by the word “prophet,” and writing the name after the precedent of Matthew 8:17; Matthew 12:17. If the mistake had been St. Matthew’s, it would stand on the same footing as the substitution of Jeremiah for Zechariah in Matthew 27:9. The Psalm is assigned by the superscription to the authorship of Asaph.
The harvest is the end of the world.—Strictly speaking, the end of the age—i.e., of the period that precedes the “coming” of the Son of Man as Judge, which is to usher in the “world,” or the “age,” to come.
The reapers are the angels.—What will be the actual work of the ministry of angels in the final judgment it is not easy to define, but their presence is implied in all our Lord’s greater prophetic utterances about it (Matthew 25:31). That ministry had been brought prominently before men in the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Daniel, in which for the first time the name of the Son of Man is identified with the future Christ (Matthew 7:13), and the Messianic kingdom itself brought into new distinctness in connection with a final judgment. Our Lord’s teaching does but expand the hints of the “thousand times ten thousand” that ministered before the Ancient of Days when the books were opened (Daniel 7:9-10), and of Michael the prince as connected with the resurrection of “many that sleep in the dust of the earth” (Daniel 12:1-2).
All things that offend.—Literally, all stumbling-blocks; the word being explained by the clause that follows as including all that work iniquity. It lies in the nature of the case that the interpretation should recognise only the great broad divisions of good and evil, leaving the apportionment of rewards and punishments, according to the varying degrees of each, to be filled into the outline afterwards.
In the interpretation of the parable, the case described is that of a man who, not having started in the pursuit of holiness or truth, is brought by the seeming accidents of life—a chance meeting, a word spoken in season, the example of a living holiness—to the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, i.e., to Christ Himself, and who, finding in Him a peace and joy above all earthly treasure, is ready to sacrifice the lower wealth in order to obtain the higher. Such, we may well believe, had been the history of the publicans and the fishermen who made up the company of the Twelve. The parable had its fulfilment in them when they, at the bidding of their Lord, “forsook all and followed Him.” Such, it need hardly be said, has been the story of thousands of the saints of God in every age of the Church’s life from that day to this.
Things new and old.—Our Lord’s own teaching was, of course, the highest example of this union. There were the old eternal laws of righteousness, the proclamation of the true meaning of all that every true teacher had included in the idea of duty and religion, but there were also new truths, such as His own mission as the Head of the divine kingdom and the future Judge of all men, and the work of the Spirit as regenerating and sanctifying. As the years passed, and new facts, such as the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, supplied the ground-work for new doctrines, these also took their place in the store-house of the well-instructed scribe. But the words applied also to the manner no less than to the substance of the teaching. Now the old familiar words of Lawgiver and Psalmist, now the gracious words such as man had never heard till then, now illustrations freely drawn, in proverbs or parable, from the world of nature or of men—these too were part of the treasure of the scribe. In that union the scribe of later times, every true teacher of the minds and hearts of men, may find the secret at once of reverence for the past and of courage for the future. So long as they bring forth out of their treasures “things new and old,” we may hope that religious conservatism will be more than the “froward retention” of a custom or a formula, and religious progress more than a reckless love of novelty for the sake of its newness.
And his brethren.—See Note on Matthew 12:46.
Joses.—The authority of MSS. is in favour of the reading, “Joseph.” It was, of course, probable that the name of the father should be borne by one of those who were in some sense his children. Joses. however, was probably but a softened form of the same name.
A prophet is not without honour . . . The words in St. Mark include “among his kindred.” The proverb seems to have been one often on our Lord’s lips, and obviously tells of a prolonged experience of indifference and unbelief in all their many forms. In John 4:44, it appears, in a context which presents some difficulty, as giving the reason why our Lord, on leaving Judæa, went into Galilee.