My parish priest uses the example of Matthew 13:18-23 to explain that this one explanation of the parable of the sower was the one that Matthew, wanted to put in his Gospel to drive home some particular point, but Jesus Himself, did not explain His parables when preaching - so there are many interpretations that the listeners (and us) would go home with.

So, does it fall within the scope of a valid understanding of the Bible, that Jesus' parables have different meanings according to ones station in life?

I'd like a Catholic answer, but any decent answer that doesn't start out by negating the premise of the question (which I don't totally understand and therefore cannot defend) would be acceptable.

  • Yes, but I'm not sure how to word this in an answer. I believe the idea behind parables is to not have a single answer - but to have many answers which to reflect on.
    – user1054
    Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 18:30
  • If you want to write about how the parable of the sower could have one explanation that Jesus gave to the disciples, which they seem to have desired to have recorded, as well as a seemingly nebulous anagogical understanding of that parable, I'd appreciate it. In fact, anything non-obvious I'd definitely appreciate!
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 18:33
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    I don't disagree with the concept that one story can be used in different ways. But I'm a little confused. Doesn't Jesus explain his Parable at the end of the passage? Verse 18 says "Listen then to what the parable of the sower means". Based on the context Jesus is still talking at this point, so he does explain it doesn't he?
    – Greg
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 3:16
  • @greg He explained it to His disciples, but not to the crowds. In any event, I think my priest was saying that this was Matthew doing the explaining to his congregation, not Jesus' exact words. But, I don't want to put words in my priest's mouth, I just want to know where that idea comes from.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 13:59
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    @PeterTurner If Jesus explains a parable and it is recorded, then that is the main explanation isn't it? I think the English in the NIV and ESV would both suggest that it is Jesus' words in verse 18, not Matthew's. Jesus starts speaking in verse 11 ("He [Jesus] replied") and continues to speak until the end of 23. The NIV Red Letter bible (where Jesus' words are highlighted in red) also marks verse 18-23 in red. While the translators could be wrong, I would want pretty good evidence to go against them.
    – Greg
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 19:31

4 Answers 4


In perfect Catholic form, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks pretty directly, but somewhat ambiguously if not paradoxically, on interpreting scripture and the Gospels in particular.

Firstly, scripture is still "open" for various and new understanding.

Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.” If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.” (CCC 108)

This doesn't grant us freedom to read into scripture whatever we wish. Our interpretation must fit within the existing framework and beliefs of the Church. But, it does support the idea that various truths can be extracted from the parables within reasonable bounds.

With specific regard to the Gospels, we're fed two slightly contradictory messages:

We can distinguish three stages in the formation of the Gospels:

  1. The life and teaching of Jesus. The Church holds firmly that the four Gospels, “whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up.”

  2. The oral tradition. “For, after the ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with that fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed.”

  3. The written Gospels. “The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus.”

(CCC 126)

Furthermore (actually stated earlier):

In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words. (CCC 109)

On the one hand, we're told that the Gospels are true to the actual events. On the other hand, we're told that details were included and possibly fabricated to aid in our understanding. That in mind, I think the most reasonable understanding is that the events actually occurred, that Christ clarified things for his disciples, but that all truths revealed by the parables were not necessarily written in the Gospels.

What the CCC has to say with specific regard to the parables supports this notion:

Jesus’ invitation to enter his kingdom comes in the form of parables, a characteristic feature of his teaching. Through his parables he invites people to the feast of the kingdom, but he also asks for a radical choice: to gain the kingdom, one must give everything. Words are not enough; deeds are required. The parables are like mirrors for man: will he be hard soil or good earth for the word? What use has he made of the talents he has received? Jesus and the presence of the kingdom in this world are secretly at the heart of the parables. One must enter the kingdom, that is, become a disciple of Christ, in order to “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” For those who stay “outside,” everything remains enigmatic. (CCC 546)

Those who wish to enter the kingdom, the disciples of Christ, will given the secrets of heaven. It's not at all a stretch to assume, then, that those closest to Christ were given specific explanation -- as the Gospel says.

TLDR: My best understanding is that Christ clarified the parables in the greatest detail necessary to the faithfully seeking disciples; but that each Gospel author recorded only those explicitly revealed interpretations He was aware of (obviously) and which were relevant to the community he wrote to.

And for what it's worth, I do not suspect the the Gospel writers "synthesized" Christ's actual words; more likely for synthesis are the number of loaves and fish fed to an edited number of people on a hill.


This is a great question that opens the discussion of what the nature of scripture actually is. Your priest sounds like a thoughtful and well-educated man and he's pushing you to think more critically about this biblical passage.

What you are describing is based off of the work The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias. The Basic premise is that the Gospel parables, in this case the parable of the sower, represent different "layers" of tradition. The theory goes that the parable itself likely is an authentic saying of Jesus—which was left open to interpretation (cf. "He who has ears, let him hear") However, when the Gospels were written (here probably the parallel in Mark 4) an additional "layer" was added to help explain the parable to those hearing the gospel read aloud. In this case the "explanation" is labeled the "Early Church" layer, because the it represents how the early church interpreted this particular saying. Of course the Matthew passage is basically the same, Mark was probably just written first, but that doesn't mean both authors had to use the story to make the same rhetorical points in their gospels.

The issue of authorial intent and its role in determining church doctrine is a touchy issue. However, since you ask for a Catholic answer, I would hasten to add that this fits well within the Catholic tradition—that is, Catholic dogma has always been and continues to be an active and living tradition informed by the scriptures, but not to the exclusion of reason, nor previous tradition.

The Bible is just the very earliest part of this traditioning process.

N.B. I'm not Catholic.


The parable is a story form used to convey spiritual truth to those listeners who had “ears to hear”. Others were mystified by the parable. The Master explained the parables to The Twelve, and they passed the explanations on to their disciples. Nothing was written in the Gospels in order to stop Gnostics, and Docetists using these explanations to draw people away from the emerging Christian religion. The explanations were instead held in the memories of the “messengers” who “kept” Jesus words safe from heretics. [Messenger = Greek “Apostlos” . Apostles were the “messengers of the Gospel of Jesus.”]

Once the emerging Church solidified their position c. 325, the Bishops felt it safe to offer an understanding of the parables to their clergy. Recently translated into English (from Latin), we can read their understanding and check our inspirations (from hearing the parable with the spirit,) against their writings to make sure that we are on the right track.

Consider the Parable of The good Samaritan Luke 10:25 - 37, KJV. The Lawyer's question is

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit ‘eternal life’? The story The Master told includes the answer. But this answer is not obvious from the text, and most readers miss it entirely because their spirit is far from God - they are mostly criticizing the behavior of the two clergy, and their heart is far from love for them. Neither do they understand the role of the priest and the levite in the story - the metaphorical meaning. And many have no idea of the relationship between the Samaritan and The Master. Most non-religious think this is a story about being kind towards strangers, but this is far from the spiritual meaning. The meaning was first for the Jewish lawyer about his making a choice regarding salvation and eternal life. And the spiritual realization about who was his neighbor.

Catholic teachers (mostly Bishops) understand the story. Some have written commentary on this parable. The Church Fathers taught the meaning. Cardinal Ratzinger taught about the parable and wrote about it. All of them agree on the metaphorical nature of the story, what it is really about, and who the key players represent. The understanding since the 3rd. cent. has been consistent among the Fathers. It is the Spirit that provides this consistency.


Is it POSSIBLE for a parable to have two meanings? Sure, the idea is not inconceivable.

The idea that a writer or speaker could have more than one point in mind when telling a story isn't particularly radical.

But the parables are all very short. How much meaning can you cram into a couple of paragraphs? Do you have any examples of two different meanings that could reasonably be derived from the same parable? I can't think of any off the top of my head.

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    All scripture can be understood in light of the 4 senses of scripture (literal, metaphorical, moral and eternal). The parable of the sower is literally good advice for farmers, is a clear metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, is a good moral tale about what kind of ground you want to cultivate in yourself and is a foretaste of the apocalypse, since all the plants will eventually die, but only some will fulfill their purpose. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm wondering if there's more than one moral (not necessarily contradictory morals)
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 13:03
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    Mmm, I'm afraid I disagree. The parable of the sower is surely not intended to be advice for farmers. It assumes some things about farming as a basis for the metaphor, but if the audience didn't already know or readily accept that, then the whole point about different kinds of hearers would be lost. Jesus would first have had to convince the audience that, e.g. seeds don't grow well in rocky soil, before he could use that as a basis for the analogy. I sincerely doubt any farmer has ever read this parable and said, ...
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 8:48
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    "Zounds! I shouldn't try to plant seed in a weed-patch! I never thought of that!" Likewise, the parable says nothing about all the plants eventually dying. There is no indication that Jesus had any such point in mind. Just because Jesus compared people who hear the Gospel to plants doesn't mean that you can take literally ANYTHING that is true of plants and apply it to people who hear the Gospel. That parable has one clear message: to discuss the different reactions people have to hearing the Gospel.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 8:51
  • ACC: The meaning of any parable is subliminal. The communication is not aural it is spiritual - Spirit to spirit. "When two or more are gathered together ..." the Holy Spirit will provide the understanding spiritually, if you are receptive, and you will discover a spiritual truth that cannot be described in words. As The Apostle said: "the letters kill, the spirit gives life." There is only one spiritual truth revealed by any parable, though it may be revealed at different depths, depending on the recipients ability to receive spiritual truth.
    – Waeshael
    Commented Aug 7, 2013 at 14:18
  • The words were to remind the speaker of the key points to be made in telling the parable, and sentence structure, and emphasis, and colloquialisms, and mystical terms provided the triggers to understand. e.g when The Lord said "I saw you under a fig tree," it meant (in Aramaic) I have known you since conception. Which introduces the truth that the Holy Spirit is present at conception, and remains throughout life (unless rejected - the ultimate sin.)
    – Waeshael
    Commented Aug 7, 2013 at 14:22

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