Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Sower with Setting Sun
Vincent Van Gogh Museum
Van Gogh’s ‘Sower with Setting Sun’ develops a reciprocal relationship between the figure of a sower, on the left, and a tree, on the right. This humble sower and his labour are blessed by a sun which sets behind the figure like a halo.
By planting the tree to the right of the sower and suggesting that it occupies a place beyond the forefront of the picture, Van Gogh’s painting opens up a depth of space that extends not only away from us but also opens up space moving towards us.
The sower, in fact, seems to be moving off the bottom of the picture, descending into the earth.
Framed by nature, Van Gogh’s sower is a lonely figure, perhaps reminiscent of a figure of death. His art is almost always radiant with hope. In the presence of the tree, which grows up right out of the place below the actual horizon of the painting to which the sower’s hand descended, we have an image of resurrection.
This tree, which grows up beside the river, fills the space with evidence of life and growth.
In the background, to the right, there is a house. Perhaps it is the sower’s house. It may evoke the rest and joy of home.
Van Gogh’s painting, speaks Christ’s words in the Gospel of John Chapter 12, “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds”.
Speaking of the resurrection of the body, the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians Chapter 15 that a seed sown in weakness is raised in glory; it is sown perishable and raised imperishable.
1 “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
10 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’”
The Parable of the Sower was narrated on the same day that Jesus had a confrontation with the Pharisees and called them “brood of vipers” (Matt. 12:34; Matt. 3:7) and Jesus met his family (Matt. 12: 48) who were looking for him. The Pharisees and the Family of Jesus respond to him in different ways: the Pharisees reject Jesus, and some members of his family show a rather cool acceptance of his teaching. The Gospel of Saint Matthew says that Jesus went to the seaside to teach about the mysteries of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13). In today’s Gospel we see the first of the Parables Jesus told and the basic question Matthew is trying to answer is: “why do some people not accept Jesus?”
Jesus with the crowd: v. 1-35
Parable of the Sower: 3-9
About parables in general: 10-17
Explanation of the Parable: 18-23
Other Parables: 24-35
Jesus alone with his Disciples: 36-52
Parable of the Weeds 36-43
Parables of Treasure, the Pearl and
the Net: 44-50
Notwithstanding the rejection of the Pharisees and the lack of acceptance by many others, Matthew presents Jesus as a popular and successful preacher. A crowd ready to listen to his teaching for long periods of time follows him wherever He goes.
A question arises in our minds immediately as we see Jesus teaching:
Were there just a few followers of Jesus?;
What are the reasons why so many search for him, follow him and listen to him?
Do they listen to him because He was just a good speaker?
What we will find in the Gospel of Matthew is that the crowd represents the majority of Jews who, decades after the death of Jesus, will not accept him as the Messiah and stand out to persecute and kill Christians.
In ancient cultures parables were often used as a recurrent source of popular wisdom. One of the difficulties a foreigner has in the learning of a second language is precisely the using popular wisdom in the correct sense. When one does it, s/he shows a real mastery of the new culture.
There are many things we can say about the use of parables in the New Testament and many scholars have written extensively about Jesus using Parables.
While the first discourse of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount has become an inexhaustible source of Christian wisdom, in this third great discourse, Jesus uses for first time the term ‘parable’.
We need to understand that before Jesus, teachers and preachers did not commonly use this literary gender, however, for him the use of parables was a favourite teaching method.
Part of the message of today’s Gospel has to do with the reason why Jesus used parables to teach the crowds and to instruct his Disciples.
Did Jesus use parables because he did not want his listeners to understand his message?
Did he use them just to amuse or entertain his audience?
The answer to these questions is ‘no’, for many good reasons:
· First of all, because of his intentionality and urgency to proclaim the Kingdom of God (Luke 12:49);
· Second, because many had already developed high expectations about him as being the Messiah, and not just being a popular street preacher;
· Third, because a popular story-teller does not represent any threat to the religious authorities, and will not be persecuted to the point of being killed.
But there are other questions that we could address as well:
Did Jesus teach without being understood?
Has he failed to convey the message about his teaching to the great crowd?
If so, why do the crowds follow him?
There are many baffling things about the Gospel! It seems as if Jesus was saying: “I am going to teach them in a way that they will not understand …” and, if so, we may ask again: “Why does Jesus want to teach them at all?” And once more: “I do not want them to be converted” while Conversion was the goal of his preaching.
It is through parables that important lessons are conveyed to simple hearts. They are stories taken from the common lives of people and refer to the life experience of the listeners, and at the same time contain a meaning that speak of a deeper reality that is otherwise difficult to grasp.
Therefore, we can conclude that the crowds followed Jesus, precisely because he taught with authority and He was condemned because his teaching was well understood. The religious leaders were afraid many would follow Him and abandon the Jewish Religion, and thereby provoke a change of regime and overthrow of Roman Rule in Palestine.
The Parable of the Sower
This is a parable that can be described as enigmatic: people do not immediately understand what Jesus is saying, so much so, that even his closest friends need an explanation. If we were to listen to this story for the first time without any religious background, we would most probably feel perplexed about any deeper meaning to such a simple story.
When we travel in the country we like seeing large fields of wheat, barley and sunflower. However, what Jesus had in mind when he told this parable were the rather steep hills of Galilee which were so difficult to cultivate and farm.
We should not be surprised if a great quantity of the seed does not bear fruit at all. However, what is most striking about Jesus’ parable is that for him a good soil can yield even as much as 60 or 100 per cent.
Jesus blesses his listeners because they follow him and patiently listen to him standing on a sandy beach under a scorching sun (!). They want to understand and bear an abundant harvest, even if they do not grasp the full meaning of his words. On the other hand, others have already refused to listen to him and will remain without producing such a harvest. Jesus divides the latter into three categories:
1. Those who can be compared with a path that does not allow seed to grow;
2. The rocky ground: those who listen to the word but do not apply it to their lives;
3. The thorny ground: those who listen and accept the word but allow their attention to be diverted and remain without bearing a harvest.
The First Christian Community
Thinking about the Christian community to whom Saint Matthew writes this Gospel, we find that this parable enlightens their search for meaning. Jesus makes a distinction between persecuted Christians who have accepted the faith and their persecutors who will remain barren, and will have whatever they posse taken away from them. Jesus inspires and encourages the persecuted Christians with blessings: fruitfulness and reward beyond measure.
Christians will feel bewildered and in despair under the pressure of persecution. They may wonder why others cannot understand what they have known of Jesus. This experience matches with the experience of Jesus who spoke the same words to everybody but some had their eyes and ears closed and would not listen or understand. There is a reason for everything in God’s plan: as the Jews are determined in killing Jesus and through his death Jesus saves us, the present sufferings of the Christian Community of Matthew will eventually bear fruit. Even if with the human eye such Christians are not able to see this, God has a divine plan for the fruitfulness of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and will bear a plentiful harvest.
This Parable is also written for us today. It is our turn to think and reflect what Jesus wants to tell His Church nowadays when the Christian Community will gather for worship to listen to these words:
· Are we ready to follow the mandate to plant the seed of God’s Word in a rather indifferent, not to say not aggressive society?
· Are we willing to accept the Paschal Mystery, ready to accept persecution and rejection in the defense of the values of the Gospel?
The Parable has meaning for the believer who listens with a sincere humble and honest heart to better understand the person of Jesus Christ and of His Church; but, it remains unclear and veiled for those who obstinately refuse the Gospel or despise Jesus and his Word, preferring rather to ridicule it or consider it as irrelevant or outdated.
Think of a student who learned the basic vocabulary and grammar of a foreign language. If s/he does not learn new words, and put the grammar into practice, as time goes by the student will not only be unable to remember what s/he had learned, but realize that whatever s/he had, has in effect been taken away: all the acquired knowledge and practice has disappeared.
So it is for each one of us: if the Word of God is not our daily bread, if we do not nourish our encounter with Jesus, one day we may realize that we have grown far from Him and, God forbid, forgotten about his Love and Mercy.
Jesus, you sow yourself
The Word of Truth, generously
The Word of Life, graciously
Defend us from the Evil One
Who seeks to snatch us away
Fortify us for hard times and costly discipleship
That we may endure
Deliver us from distraction
From worldly desires and
All that would lure us and choke us with false promises
Enrich us with every blessing of your Spirit
That we may be good, good soil
Forever faithful and fruitful for you
The Christian Community of Matthew experienced that the message of Jesus and his salvation was accepted by only a few people, and the Church was a minority among the Jews, the great majority of whom rejected the message and persecuted them.
Why has Christian Europe stopped being Christian?
Even in the South, in countries where the Church has grown exponentially in later decades, there is marked decrease of participation.
What is Jesus teaching us as Members of his Church which is experiencing a serious decline in numbers?
How does this affect us?
We contemplate God’s generosity to sow His Word even in the fields that will not yield a harvest.
We contemplate God supporting the growth of the Gospel in our hearts, in the Church and in the world.
We contemplate God instilling courage in us when we make tough decisions and suffer because of the Gospel.
 2 Sam. 12:1-15  Cf. JEREMIAS, Joachim, “The Parables of Jesus”.  Isa. 6: 9-10: “And he said, ‘Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Psalm 78: 1-3: “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us”.  Mark 1: 14-15 “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’”.  Mark 1:22: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”  John 12: 24: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”.