Isaiah 55:10-H Romans 8:18-23 Matthew 13:1-23 JESUS was a gifted teacher, with a vivid eye for the world around him, and a storyteller's instinct for the lessons that could be drawn from ordinary life; this comes out spectacularly in the parables, the teaching aid with which he is particularly associated.
Sometimes, it seems, the meaning of the parables he told slipped from memory, and an interpretation got added in the tradition; sometimes, too, the parables failed to convince those at whom they were aimed, and so the notion grew up in the early church that Jesus' message was a secret or semi-secret one, that it was given only to certain people to understand.
So it is that today's gospel, which presents one of Jesus' best-known parables, that parable of the sower, falls into three sections.
First we have the parable itself, preached from a fishingboat because of the crowds; the message is, fairly clearly, that the work of the kingdom of God goes on, even though it may not always seem like it: any sower in Palestine would sow his seed just as described in the parable, because there the sowing preceded the ploughing, and inevitably therefore the seed would fall on many different types of soil.
Nevertheless, the seed is growing all the time, and will ripen into the end product, which (and this is a characteristic note for Jesus to strike) will soon be harvested; and the harvest will be sensationally abundant.
The second section of the gospel reflects a puzzlement about the parables; and it seems that the puzzlement must be later than the original story. It is presented in the form of a question from the disciples about why Jesus speaks in parables at all; the reason, surely, was that stories are an excellent way of presenting a point.
In Jesus' reply, however, another reason is given:
"because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand". It is, literally, a mysterious answer, this one, and indicates to the disciples that they are dealing with the mystery of God's plan for the world.
Here, of course, we are touching on one of the great puzzles of early t hristianity, which is something of a puzzle for us too, in our world of decreasing church-attendance, that they had the truth that would save the world, and yet the world did not want to know.
The only answer they could arrive at was the one which in today's gospel we find on Jesus' lips "to you (the position of the word is very emphatic in the Greek) it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given".
Matthew alone underlines this with the full quotation from Isaiah that is only hinted at in Mark and Luke, and with a congratulation ("happy are the eyes that see .. .") that does not appear at this point in the other gospels.
Now we can more easily understand the third section of today's gospel, the later interpretation of the parable. No longer is the focus of attention on the work of the kingdom of God, represented by the seed that is silently growing in its various kinds of soil; the attention now on the four different ways of receiving the word of God, allegorised by the four different soils.
The puzzle of the mixed reception accorded to the gospel is therefore resolved by the suggestion that some who hear the gospel fail to understand it, and so are susceptible to the attack of the evil one (the path), others (the rocky soil) have no staying-power, and are easily uprooted, while a third group (those in the midst of thorns) are deafened or throttled by worldly preoccupations and the allure of wealth.
The fourth group, that which bears fruit in spectacular quantities, is the good soil, the ones who hear the gospel and try to live it out_