We kicked off our Parable series in Mesa with conversation around the Parable of the Sower, Jesus first teaching in parables.
Jesus taught in parables not so much that we would understand, but that we would know.
A knowing that was deep in the gut, a knowing that caused anyone who was listening to pause and ideally re-orient and re-act differently.
He borrowed anecdotes from common, daily life in the ancient near east - what people picked up in their daily routines and in their culture. They seemed fairly straight forward - but in truth, they were often confusing as hell.
Frederick Buechner thinks of a typical Jesus parable as “a small story with a large point. Most of the ones Jesus told have a kind of sad fun about them.”
The truth is, that well-intentioned people back then had many assumptions about what the good life was all about without really examining whether or not they were seeking the life that was truly life (as one of the earliest Jesus-followers liked to describe the really, truly good life).
One of the first and foundational parables that Jesus told was the parable of the Sower.
This is how Mark, typically known as the oldest of the Gospel writers, remembers Jesus teaching the parable:
Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’
And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’
This is one of the rare instances where Jesus actually tells the group what he’s on about - he literally unfolds and unpacks the parable. And for many it is still clear as mud.
I don’t know about you, but the first time (and most consistent times since!) the parable was told more like this:
Look, there’s this sower out there in the world sowing seeds and some fell on the path where, of course, the birds came and ate up. Some of the other seed fell on the rocky path where, you know, it just didn’t take root. Some more seed fell amongst the thorns and you know what happens when good seed falls amongst the thorns - all is lost. There’s no hope. And then the sower went and spread some of his seed on good, fertile soil and it grew and grew and grew.
And what does this mean? You gotta get out there and spread the word of God. You gotta teach people the Bible and tell them about Jesus. You gotta bring Jesus everyone in the world - especially the tough places where it’s largely hopeless because most people are beyond the pale. Find the people that are ready, and make sure you double down your work amongst them because that’s how the church will grow…
But I don’t think Jesus is that cynical in his parable. I think he’s radically realistic, generous and hopeful.
The way I was first taught this parable confirms Jesus point that while we have eyes and ears, we daily to see and hear and totally don’t get it (Mark 8:18 if you want).
When we remember the parable this way, we turn it into The Parable of the Bad Soils. We pessimistically sit around and judge the real crap soil out there (ie. the really crap people beyond the pail who don’t want to really know Jesus) rather than look at the amazingly abundant generosity going on. And in some ways, we miss the point of who’s doing what and what’s really important.
And we sort of act like the seed just sort of accidentally fell on the three bad soils, that it was not really the intention - that losing that seed was calculated risk. Or even worse, collateral damage. We lose some in order to save a few.
That’s really lame theology.
I like how Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “We chose to move God out of the center and put ourselves there, and ever since then human religion tends to be about the knowledge of good and evil and not the knowledge of life - or the knowledge of God. This can be pretty easily seen in how we read the parable of the Sower. I think we naturally tend to read this parable NOT as the parable of the sower but as the parable of the judgment of the soil. To focus on the worthiness of the soil is to read the parable in judgment. When we approach this text or our lives with only the knowing and judging of good and evil, we miss out on the knowing of God. But to focus on the lush and ludicrous image of how God extravagantly, wastefully, wantonly sows the Word of the Kingdom is to read the parable in joy.”
Guess what? I don’t think this parable is about how we need to get out there and bring Jesus and especially the Bible to the lost world beyond the pale.
I think that Jesus is saying something truly, amazingly good:
Jesus is saying something radically different: The seed is everywhere. Literally everywhere God has infused (or, ahem sowed) the world with the abundant life-giving life of his Son and that no soil or no person is beyond the pale. And he’s being incredibly realistic: some people hear, some don’t. Some people have the courage to change, others don’t. Some people are more vulnerable to outside forces/threats (ahem, the birds) and others don’t just get that deep (ahem, the rocks) while, still, others have a lot of competing goods and desires in their lives and just down have room to let the life that is truly life take hole (ahem, the thorns). And then, you know, every once in awhile you will find a people fertile with possibility - those ready and waiting and able to grow and bear fruit (ahem, the good soil).
This is how my favorite Episcopal priest and food columnist for the New York Times thinks of this parable:
Do you see what that says? It says, first of all, that the Sower is God the Father, not Jesus. What Jesus turns out to be - since he is the Word - is the seed sown. But note what that in turn means. It means that on the plain terms of the parable, Jesus has already, and literally, been sown everywhere in the world - and quite without a single bit of earthly cooperation or even consent. But can you tell me that Christians in general have ever for long acted as if that were the case?
Have we not acted instead as if the Word wasn't anywhere until we got there with him? Haven't we conducted far too many missions on the assumption that we were "bringing Jesus" to the heathen, when in fact all we had to bring was the Good News of what the Word - who was already there - had done for them? Haven't we, in short, ended up just as he said we would as a result of his explanation of the Sower? We see and hear and still don't catch on.
What Robert Farrar Capon goes on to argue in his incredibly important books on the Parables (collected in one volume called “Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus) is that Jesus kicks off his teaching curriculum around the parables with 5 key points in mind, that are found throughout each of the parables:
That God is always available, at all times for all people. He describes this as catholicity (while we may simply say “global,” or “universal” reality of God’s presence.) We often default to think that God is only in some places, some times for some people. So, when you hear someone say “Man, God totally showed up during that song!” Or “Seriously, I’m going to such and such conference to experience God,” that’s what people are implying: that God either wasn’t there before or God is only there while others in the world have to take an extended smoke-break until he has the time to show up. The reality and promise of Jesus is that the Divine presence is everywhere, always, for everyone.
God works in mysterious ways. The ways we think or assume aren’t the ways of God. We’d prefer to talk about a blueprint plan with 3 easy steps, just add water and bam - there’s your result. But Jesus prefers to talk about seeds that disappear into the ground, and rise up to bear beautiful crops. That Jesus is somehow present whenever two or three are gathered. That Jesus is somehow present in the stuff of this world, bread and wine and water. And, of course, Jesus prefers to demonstrate not by jumping off the cross and proving his power but by dying, entering into the earth, and rising again - much like the mystery of sowing seeds. A different sort of power is at work, not the power we’d prefer, perhaps…
Actuality. What’s actually going on? What’s real life like? Not in the abstract - but in the real world? Because Jesus is concerned not with the bye-and-bye but with real world matters. Real soil. Real people. Real hopes. Real dreams. So, some birds snatch away the seed on the path - guess what? This may be regrettable, tragic even. But the seeds will continue to do their work through those birds (Google or Bing ednozoochory and have fun). The point is that the seed goes on to do its work regardless. There aren’t any magical tricks or shortcuts or hocus pocus moves unlock the power of the seed. There’s just real world cultivation, possibilities, and consequences.
Hostility. There are outside forces (birds) and competing things (thorns) and just downright, shallowness (rocks). There is, in the words of the famous hymn remembered by Capon “a love that will not let us go.” And yet, the real world is pregnant with immense possibility and fraught with endless challenges, and threats…
… so, how are we to live? How are we to respond? How then shall we live? What does real fruit look like in our lives?
In order to respond to Jesus’ parable of the Sower we can’t forget (in fact, we must remember well) how John kicks off his Gospel on the Word:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
We point to the Word - the Logos as the Greeks called it, the Dabar as the Hebrews talked about it - that thing that gives real lasting, sustainable, beautiful power and life in the world. That thing that two thousand plus years ago was seen as the Divine force in Jesus. We follow in the tradition of John the Baptist pointing out the Divine right here, right now in our midst.
It might be mysterious and confusing and hard to see - but we can feel it in our guts, right? Yeah - that there? That’s the life that is truly life… that’s been here all along and is for everyone no matter what.