Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chrysostom: The Sower parable (part 2)

Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower (after Millet)

Most of Chrysostom’s extant expositions of the parables come from his series of homilies from the Gospel of Matthew, and they usually follow a similar format. Chrysostom begins by discussing the historical setting of Matthew and its author, as well as its major themes and overall structure of the book. Individual homilies on particular passages begin with a reading and detailed exposition of the passage, including placing the passage into its literary context. He then focuses on the flow and logic of the passage, including the key terms and its meaning in its historical context. Then Chrysostom turns to his own audience, exhorting his congregation to apply the text’s meaning in their daily lives. Chrysostom wants his hearers to follow the requirements of the gospel, turning away from evil and turning toward God’s will, including almsgiving and a devotion to all things spiritual (McKim).

Chrysostom’s understanding of the parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3-9), for example, first places it within its literary context: Matthew says that Jesus “told them many things in parables,” whereas in the earlier Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke more clearly and plainly. That is because, Chrysostom says, the audience for the Sermon on the Mount was “simple people,” whereas this audience for the Sower parable also included scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matt 13:12-15 concerning the parables and those who “do not understand”). Jesus begins with the Sower parable to make “the hearer more attentive,” to “rouse” their minds, and to “make his discourse more vivid, and fix the memory of it in them more perfectly, and bring the things before their sight.” This approach, Chrysostom adds, is similar to the approach of the prophets (Homily 44.3).
Chrysostom basically follows a similar allegorical interpretation of the parable to the one given in Matthew 13: Jesus is the sower who sows the “word of godliness” (his “doctrine”) on the land, the “souls of men.” Three parts of the sown seed perish, and one part is saved, but Chrysostom absolves the sower for responsibility for the seeds that perish by focusing on the seeds: noting that Jesus’s parable does not say that the sower cast the seeds “by the way side” but that the seeds “fell,” which places the responsibility upon the type of ground on which the seeds fell, not on the actions of the sower.

Chrysostom connects this parable to the Jesus’ audience in Matthew, by saying that Jesus taught the parable to everyone “without grudging”: Just as the sower makes no distinction in the types of land on which he sows the seed, but simply and indifferently casts his seed; so [Jesus] too makes no distinction of rich and poor, of wise and unwise, of slothful or diligent, of brave or cowardly; but he discourses unto all, fulfilling his part, although foreknowing the results; that it may be in His power to say, “What ought I to have done, that I have not done?” (Isaiah 5:4). Obedience to Jesus’ commands is the key to producing fruits of the kingdom (Homily 44.5).

Thus Jesus’ disciples should not despair if their hearers fail to respond positively, because the same thing happened to Jesus. He (fore)knew that many would not respond but kept on sowing the seeds of the kingdom anyway. Chrysostom then admits that it is reasonable to question why a sower should sow seed on soil among thorns, on rock, and on the wayside, all of which seem never likely to produce fruit (note above how the Sower is absolved of this responsibility). The reason is that he believes that soil can change, just like human beings can change and respond positively to the good news of the kingdom:

There is such a thing as the rock changing, and becoming rich land; and the wayside being no longer trampled on, nor lying open to all that pass by, but that it may be a fertile field; and the thorns may be destroyed, and the seed enjoy full security. For had it been impossible, this Sower [Jesus] would not have sown. And if the change did not take place in all, this is no fault of the Sower, but of them who are unwilling to be changed: He having done his part: and if they betrayed what they received of him, he is blameless, the exhibitor of such love to man.

Chrysostom concludes that the parable teaches that one’s faith must be put into practice: People who hear the word and respond must become free from gluttony, envy, lust, pride, and the deceitfulness of riches, They also must cultivate virtues so that they may “strike their roots deep” (44.6).

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