"That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: 'A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.'"
This is, maybe, my favorite parable. The scene described is really funny to me.
Jesus is in a boat, on the sea, speaking in riddles.
The parables in this chapter (13) are the result of varied responses Jesus and His message of the Kingdom have received in the previous two chapters (11 &12). His message of the Kingdom has been questioned, resisted, and challenged by the Pharisees, John the Baptist, and even His own mother and brothers.
His Kingdom seems backwards. He's not the kind of Messiah they had come to expect from passages like Psalm 2 or the visions of Daniel.
And Jesus is well-aware of their disapproval, but instead of pandering to his opponents to earn their approval... He intentionally makes His message more cryptic and inaccessible. What a weird guy!
Fortunately, for us, we have verses 10-23, which offer an "explanation" of the parable.
And yet, as I read about the sower who went out to sow, I couldn't help feeling a little irritated. Because it must be noted that -- according to everything I understand about farming -- this guy is not very good at his job. I have to imagine you want to try and get as much seed into the good soil as you possibly can.
There's no explanation given for this sower's liberal spreading of the seed.
So, the fact that this sower has chosen to spread seed onto the path, the rocky ground, and the thorns is flabbergasting.
After all, the seed on the path never had a chance. And the seeds on rocky ground were scorched, just as they began to show signs of life. The seeds among the thorns had the most tragic ending of all... planted in fertile soil, yet choked to death by thorns.
The sower must have seen the thorns there. He must have known the seeds on path and in the rocks were doomed.
It all leaves me asking the question, "Why waste the time or the seed?"
And as I really started to think about Jesus' explanation of this parable, as I started to peel back the layers of the onion, I felt some familiar existential crisis. Why do any of this, God? Why like this, God?
What's Your point?
I've heard this parable referred to as the "Watershed Parable," meaning it is the crucial, dividing moment in teachings of Jesus. From this point on, a person's ability to grasp the message of the Kingdom, especially through the proceeding parables, comes down to whether or not they have "ears to hear" what Jesus is saying in this very first parable.
Can you receive the Kingdom, as it is? Not, as you'd like it to be.
Jesus offers little in the way of comfort, regarding this parable or its explanation. It seems to me that Jesus is simply telling His disciples, those to whom, "...it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven," the kind of responses they can and should expect in their proclamation of the Gospel.
There will be some who never even had a chance. Other who fall away from tribulation and persecution, or their faith is strangled by the cares of this world. And then, there are those who receive the Word and multiply.
What do we do with a text like this? The more I read this parable, the more I start to think that I've never really understood its purpose. Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve given any of the parables of Jesus appropriate care and consideration.
But so many of the commentaries and exegesis I've read conclude that the Parable of the Sower is a text aimed at provoking us to evaluate the condition of our hearts, in order that we may prepare ourselves to receive the Word.
This does not sit well with me.
Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6 further complicates this parable for me. By the time Isaiah is sent, it seems there’s nothing that Israel can do to properly receive the prophet's words at that point. In fact, their hearing of the word seems to provoke the "dulling" of their hearts and "heavying" of their ears, as if that is the intended effect of the prophetic message. (I always find it important to remember that a text like Isaiah 6 is not about Israel's eternal salvation. Just their temporal deliverance.)
There’s nothing ineffective about the Word is in Isaiah 6, it’s just not working in the way we’ve come to expect.
By the way, this would not be the only time in Scripture when God has intentionally hardened a heart.
And if the message, itself, is not provoking this response in the people, then I'd argue it is simply describing the sad state of God's people. God's Word has always been one of deliverance and fulfillment, but the people constantly get in their own way.
I could be wrong about all of this, but I feel the Parable of the Sower has to be more than just "prepare your hearts for the Gospel."
What if we are oversimplifying the mystery? Fortunately, my guy -- Rev. Joel Kosberg -- was able to point me to a book/author that seems to have given this text a good amount of thought. The book is "Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication" and the author is Robert Farrar Capon.
Here's what he says, both in regards to the Parable of the Sower and the parables of Matthew 13, as a whole:
"Jesus... seems to be more reasonably understood as giving a simple description of the way things are. 'If you grasp the fact that the kingdom works in a mystery,' he seems to say, 'then that very grip will give you more and more understanding; but if you don't grasp that, then everything that happens will make it looks as if your plausibility-loving understanding is being deliberately taken from you.'"
He continues, in regards to Jesus quoting Isaiah 6, "...it is another one of those sad, head-shaking reflections on the way things are. Jesus thinks about the obtuseness he sees all around him -- about the unlikelihood of anybody's getting even a glimmer of the mystery, let alone a grip on it -- and the passage from Scripture pops into his mind as the perfect summary: 'Isaiah really had it right,' he thinks, and then he simply recites the verse out loud."
His point (I think): This parable is descriptive, not prescriptive. Meaning, this is what happens. Not, do something differently, so that this does or does not happen. That makes a profound difference in what we take from reading this parable. It can also prevent us from imposing our own additional interpretations onto the parable.
The Word sown ALWAYS achieves its purposes, but the reception of those purposes are not always realized in those that receive the Word.
For Capon: The sower is God the Father. The seed is the Word. And the Word is Christ, Himself. And Christ, Himself is the very Kingdom of Heaven. We are what springs up from the sown Word.
All the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven, contained even hidden, in the mystery of the Son. In Him, the Kingdom is consecrated and established eternally. And it is on the basis of Him, singularly, that one either receives or does not receive the fullness of the Kingdom.
Furthermore, Capon asserts that the seed is already sown. In all places, for all time because Christ reigns as King over all the earth, among all people. He calls this the "catholicity (universality) of the kingdom", which challenges the notion of Gospel proclamation as being the act of "bringing Jesus to the pagans." God the Sower has done the work. For Capon, Christ is already there. Proclamation resides only in telling them what Christ has done. Capon describes this as The seed has been sown in every kind of soil, which means no person falls outside the scope of the parable.
And so, for one reason or another, any person of any and every tribe, background, or mindset, are confronted by its truth.
Capon wisely notes that for a Kingdom claiming to be cosmic in scale, the illustration of seeds being sown is comical. Seeds are unimpressive; you don't think much of them when they're initially sown. Once they are sown, they are never seen again, and what springs from the ground looks nothing like what went into the ground in the first place. The god we would create for ourselves would never work this way.
I return to my existential crisis from earlier -- "Why like this, God?" But that seems precisely the point that I should not grasp the mystery. Or, at least, that I should accept that is a mystery, and by doing so, I would grasp the Kingdom more fully.
My expectations of God's work are not binding to Him.
Fascinatingly, Capon points out that regardless of the outcome, the seed in each instance does what a seed is meant to do. There is no inherent inability with the seed. The Word works. It always does what it is meant to do. Therefore, the power of the Word is not contingent on what Capon describes as "circumstantial cooperation."
Regarding the hostility or "antagonism" of the soils/their surroundings, Capon argues that these things are deliberately part of the soil that God uses for the sowing of the Word. He has manipulated ("finessed") evil into the "divine ecology". So, whether it is bird, sun, or thorn, God's will is done... unthwarted by the evil one.
Rather, what comes from the plant, born of the seed, either embraces or limits its own ability to become what the seed always intended for it. (So we're clear, you and I are the plants.)
WELL, this post has gotten away from me. I started writing this a couple of hours ago, and I had no idea where this journey would take me. I hadn't even encountered Capon until I was a few hours into writing! And there's still so many others to consult and internal wrestling that needs to happen.
Yet, I feel that Capon is closest to the mysterious nature and equally puzzling interpretation of the Parable of the Sower:
Perhaps the best thing we can do is "get out of the way" of the Word.