Historical Cultural Context
The “Inside” Story
Parables paint culture-based scenarios. Yet every one in the ancient world knew that the parable teller intended the scenario to refer to something more or something other than was described.
In today’s parable, the first question is, who is the sower? In the ancient world, sowing preceded plowing. Still, the manner of sowing described in this parable is sloppy and wasteful. If the sower is a landowner, the peasant audience would despise his waste of precious seed.
If the sower is a tenant farmer or a day laborer, the peasants would sympathize with his careful sowing which ends up wasting seed anyway because conditions are so difficult.
The impossibly extravagant harvest gives a clue to the identity of the sower. On average, one might expect a four- or five-fold return on sowing. Thirty-, sixty-, and a hundredfold boggle the imagination.
If a wasteful landowner realized such a profit, Jesus’ parable is hardly good news to the peasants who made up 95 percent of his audience.
But if the sower were a peasant, then the good news is that the crop will satisfy the landowner, provide seed for next year’s sowing, pay all taxes, and still leave enough for the peasant to feed the family.
Moreover, since it is clearly God and not human effort that produces this humongous harvest, the “something other” or “something more” that the parable intends is now very clear. The scenario describes sowing and farming, but it really points to a loving and provident God who looks after needy peasants.
Ingroups and Confrontation
The parable reveals yet another dimension of peasant life in the first century. Jesus tells his disciples that parables are “ingroup” or “insider” language (see Mt 13:10-16).
Normally, one’s ingroup consisted of one’s household (including servants and slaves), extended family, and friends. All others, even in the same village, were the outgroup. Still, the shape of both groups was rather fluid and changed often. For instance, if a village came under attack from outsiders, the entire village banded together as a new ingroup.
Natives of the same village or quarter of a city who might be outgroup to each other at home become ingroup to each other when they find themselves in a remote location. That Jesus of Nazareth had a house in Capernaum (Mk 2:1), and that the first people from Capernaum whom he called to follow him responded so readily indicates the extent of Jesus’ ingroup network at that place (Mt 4:18-22 and parallels).
All this discussion about ingroups and insider language is very jarring to modern believers who tend to hold Luke’s idyllic view of the early followers of Jesus as living in loving harmony (Acts 2:42) and being constantly under attack by enemies. Hostility permeated this culture and colored everyone’s behavior.
The difference between Americans and their Mediterranean ancestors in the faith is that Americans generally seek to avoid face-to-face confrontation. Hostility and competition take place behind the scenes, out of sight.
In the final verses (Mt 13:18-23) of this reading, Matthew interprets Jesus’ parable by identifying the seed as “the word of the kingdom” and exhorting people to hear, understand, and act upon the word. The challenge is quite familiar to American believers. It’s not enough to “talk the talk,” one must also “walk the walk.”
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University