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An Ecological Reading of Matthew 13:1-9 (Elaine Wainwright)

An Ecological Reading of Matthew 13:1-9 (Elaine Wainwright)

ELAINE WAINWRIGHT takes a close look at the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1-9 and points to aspects which provide a fuller understanding of our relationships in creation. 

Matthew 13:1-9 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!”

Context for Hearing the Parable
In our reading this month we have a different type of text; a parable. However, before we encounter the parable, the gospel narrator provides a context (Mt 13:1–2), telling us the time (“that same day”) and the place (out of the house and beside the sea). Noticing the time and place helps us to read with Earth and its interrelationships. Verse 2 tells us the relationships are complex as human crowds gather about Jesus, he gets into a boat, he sits down in the boat, and the crowds stand on the beach.
The boat and beach are contexts, or the grounding, for the teaching and the hearing of teaching that constitute this section of the Matthean narrative. Indeed, in relation to hearing, this small section concludes with the words of verse 9: “Let anyone with ears listen!” This invites us to learn a new way of hearing.

The first word of Jesus from his place in the boat to the crowds gathered around him on the beach, is the attention claimer idou — which can be translated as “look”, “see”, or “listen!” We cannot hear parables without being attentive. However, an ecological reading entails a new, different type of attentiveness, a new seeing and a new hearing. In it we will learn to understand the basileia/kin(g)dom of the skies through our senses, through learning from Earth and all its interrelationships. Understanding the basileia is the core message of the Matthean Jesus’ preaching, and the beginning of the parables in Mt 13:24; 31; 33; 44; 45; 47.

Setting of the Parable
The first words of the parable describe a very familiar scene to listeners: “A sower went out to sow”. At the layer of possible first-century meaning-making, the sower might be a slave or tenant farmer on one of the large Herodian or Roman estates, or might be working on their small plot. Whatever the context, the sower belonged to society in a variety of ways and knew the seasonal rhythms for planting and harvesting. Listeners would immediately recognise the context of the parable just as contemporary readers with an ecological consciousness appreciate the rhythm of agriculture or gardening.

Appreciating the Sowing Process
As the parable unfolds, readers/listeners sense that the seed is being scattered (a familiar method in first-century Galilee). The parable then draws readers, both first- and 21st-century, into the ecosystem or ecocycle of sower and seed. Birds are fed by taking up the seeds on the pathway. Weeds take up their groundspace, leaving in some places insufficient space for the sower’s seed. The sun, the wind and the rain — elements that are not named in the parable — enable the seed to grow. Some plants will wither under the sun if their roots are not deep enough while others will be choked out by other plants. The seed that falls on the ground prepared for it bears fruit abundantly.

There is a complex agricultural process at work which the sower understands. And Jesus calls his audience to listen to the process. And it is to this process that contemporary ecological readers are called to listen. It is nothing complex or extraordinary. There is no breaking of expectations or turning the world upside down. The hearer of the parable is simply called to listen to the process of seed being planted and growing, involving the human and other-than-human in right relationships.

The parable reaches a climax in verse 8 when the seed falls on the good soil that had been prepared for it. Yields vary from 30-, 60- or even 100-fold per plant.
Often scholars and preachers speak of these as extraordinary yields but it may not have been the case. Varro, an ancient writer on agriculture, describes yields of “tenfold in one district, 15 in another, even a 100 to one near Gadara in Syria”. Also, we have a first-century coin of Agrippa 1 (Herodian king) showing three ears of grain springing from one stalk to symbolise the fertility made possible in and by Herod and his participation in the empire. There are two sources of abundance vying within this final verse.

Hearing the Parable Today
The call to “listen” at the end of the parable and in verse 18 to “hear then the parable of the sower” invites readers to attend to and learn from Earth’s processes. This is what it means to hear the parable. We know Earth’s processes are material and that social and socio-economic realities interweave with them as well.

These two forces swirl through the final verse of the parable of the sower and listening takes on a further dimension calling the ecological reader to discernment: Is the source of life for Earth and us, or the Empire? We might ask how we might evaluate each.

I think Stephanie Nelson, in her study of the agrarian poems of the Greek poet, Virgil, captures what may have been evoked by the parable of the sower: “because farming is inescapably a part of human life . . . it may provide a clue to what is most basically human, and so a clue to our place within the cosmos.” Listen! Hear! 

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 216 June 2017: 22-23

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