Sowing Through Story

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The Parables are not where Jesus begins his teaching. Matthew records the first parable in Chapter 13:1-9. He explains to his disciples why he will use parables to teach in verses 10-17. Then he explains the meaning of the parable in 18-23 before he jumps right into another one. The same process is recorded in Mark 4:1-20 as well as Luke 8:4-14.

An interesting consideration here is that this parable, which is recorded as the first parable in each gospel (except John), is not about the Kingdom of Heaven specifically, but about the subterranean reality of Jesus’ message (logos) within the heart and mind of humanity as it relates to belief. This is not conversion to religion (as it’s often taught), but faith as a result of seeing (perceiving) and hearing (understanding) “something more” (i.e. “he who has ears…”).

“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.”

Here are four observations:

  1. Soils are both different people and times.

The vast majority of scholars interpret this parable as the spiritual effect on different people. I don’t disagree. The Word/Logos/Message affects different people differently. Clearly the use of “some” and “other” are separating out the spiritual reality beneath the surface as depicted by different soils/People. I think it’s important to add that this is the parable of the “Sower”, not the parable of the “soils.” The Sower (God) sows seed everywhere and “sowing” (present, active, infinitive) means sowing is ongoing. In fact, in a number of places in these texts, a Greek phrase known as a “plucasm” is used which means the present activity is an ongoing present reality“God is constantly sowing and remains sowing now.” This means that not only can the soils represent different people, but each soil can represent any one of us at various times in our life. The sowing isn’t “one and done” but the ongoing generous planting of spiritual reality into the (kardia-minds) of men and women. The soils represent a process for coming to see the Truth.

2. Much wasted seed.

When Jesus explains the meaning of the parable to his disciples, it becomes very clear that the vast majority of the seed (message) is lost on people. I’m going a bit out of order here because it helps this study.

“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

The effect of the logos (word/message) is lost on most people for a number of reasons. Jesus is pointing out that the work before him is full of opposition. Matthew uses the term “evil one“, Mark uses “Satan“, and Luke uses “devil.” The ground is packed hard and the seed just lies on top. The word can’t penetrate such hardened soil. The spiritual adversary literally takes (snatches) the seed away “so that they will not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). Some people just can’t or won’t see the spiritual dimension.

Perhaps you struggle with a literal interpretation of this story. Ok, consider for a minute the process of coming to know the truth about anything. When we grow as people, we must exchange what is true for us with what is actually true. This means we almost always reject truth at first because we assume if it was true we’d already know it. Salvation or “rescue” (soterion) is the spiritual adoption of wider and wider aspects of the Truth, not conversion to a religion. When we examine what happens to those who reject the truth, we can see this parable play out as a process. First we don’t even hear the truth. Then we hear it but don’t apply it and it dies. Then it grows on us and take bits of it in, but we give up on it. And finally, it takes hold and we adopt it as our new reality and we are “saved” by it. It’s a process of knowing the truth, so it’s not a matter of “if” they take root, but perhaps “when.”

3. The purpose of parables.

The purpose of this teaching was to help the disciples understand why so many will reject the message of Christ. Jesus’ isn’t a flunky. Our scientific worldview in the modern world is not unlike that of the people in Jesus’ day. Our over appraisal of empiricism means that we have little to no appetite for spiritual reality. The Atheistic bent of our culture is likely even more pessimistic toward spiritual truth than the original audience. The purpose of the parable is the same, to reveal just how deaf and blind the audience is.

“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (Matthew 13:10)

Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 as a way of describing the “hardness” or inability for people to hear the Truth. In other words, the people have been deaf and blind for a very long time, but now, the Sower is sowing seeds which if they take root, will produces something that the world hasn’t seen. Many scholars believe the parables are a cryptic way of communicating truth to those who can hear, while washing completely over the heads of the anesthetized world. This lends to a doctrine which says that salvation is wholly a work of God and if any of us are left to ourselves, we will never receive the seeds of faith into the soil of our lives.

I don’t totally discount this, but I’d like to offer another perspective. When Jesus said the above quote, he was reflecting on the hardness of heart and showing compassion on the masses of people who struggle to understand his message. Therefore, in compassion, he uses arables or story to make it easier and more understandable. He’s sowing through story. Clearly, the parables do not diminish the severity nor the reality being displayed, but they frame the truth in a way that is accessible to more people. Casting a wider net with mass amounts of seed. Thus, Jesus is agreeing with Isaiah about the state of humanity, but doing all he can to cultivate their soil to receive his word. Like the people of today, there are not good guides to help us hear the true Logos, and the modern church delivery system has obscured it within a competitive religion.

4. The Will of the Sower.

The last observation from this cornerstone parable is that we cannot get trapped in the story and miss its larger message. I think the modern church has spent too many calories on the assumption that the will of the sower was a person’s individual salvation as indicated by conversion to modern Christianity. We must see beyond this. The “rescue/salvation” is not unto each individual’s spiritual progress, the purpose of the logos (seed) is to grow plants which produce results. This means the will of the Sower is production for the sake of the whole population, which is essentially a corporate rescue/salvation rather than an individual one. Christianity did not exist when he taught this.

The point of the parable is that not all people have the same ability, and not all are in the same stage of development. Thus some will produce 30, some 60, and some 100 fold, not to mention, some will produce nothing because the seed never took root. Make no mistake, the goal is production, not merely individual conversion/salvation. Jesus just got done telling his disciples: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matthew 9:37).

As we will see continually through the parables, Jesus reveals the secrets of the arriving kingdom known as Heaven, and how it unfolds into our lives. Jesus could not be starting a new religion that gets us to Heaven, nor does he require anyone to abandon theirs. He’s revealing that there is so much more to the work of bringing Heaven down to Earth. He’s not offering a rescue from the world, but a rescuing of the world. The means is not an evacuation strategy, but the work of redeeming each and every broken thing within our spheres.

If we have never taken seriously our job of being light in a dark world, and becoming the community of people without whom the world would have not preservation (salt), then I’m afraid, no matter how religious we think we are, we are still those who “hear but never understand, and see, but never perceive.” It’s astonishing how many religious people think of ourself as the “good soil” yet our life bears no evidence of this benevolent seed.

Perhaps this parable will help the seed land in our own mind. Perhaps now we can see beyond everything.