The Parable of the Sower

July 21, 2002



The Parable of the Sower (July 21, 2002)

University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas

Rev. Gary Cox

Today’s Bible passage is one of the better-known parables of Jesus. Before I read the parable to you, I want to say a few things about parables themselves. It is an oversimplification to say that a parable is a short story. It is that, but it is much more.

It is clear that parables were Jesus’ favorite way of teaching. There have been other teachers who used parables as a teaching tool. But Jesus gave the parable a new twist. The traditional way to use a parable was to make it a sort of analogy that drove home a moral point. The traditional parable is an allegory, where everything in the parable represents something else. When a person hears the parable, they sort of say, “Oh, I get it. The sower is God and the seed is the word of God and the soil is the person who hears the word of God.”

The early church interpreted many of the parables of Jesus that way, including the one we will examine this morning. But there is now general agreement among scholars that Jesus intended for his parables to go much deeper than direct allegories. In fact, it seems that Jesus did not use parables to drive home simplistic moral points; rather, he used parables to disturb the listener. He used parables to shake up our assumptions about the world, and to make us re-think what’s right and what’s wrong, and who’s in and who’s out with regard to God’s grace and love.

It can be difficult to go back and hear a parable as if we’d never heard it before, but I can still remember the first time I read many of the parables, and I frequently came away scratching my head. For example, when I first read the parable of the talents, I thought to myself, “No! That’s not right! Somebody obviously messed up Jesus’ story! He wouldn’t have told it like that!”

If you’ll remember, the parable of the talents has a rich man leaving on a journey, and he trusts some of his slaves with part of his wealth. A talent was an amount of money. It was a great deal of money. In fact, a talent was an amount of money equal to about 15 years of a laborer’s wages. So to put the story in perspective, based on today’s minimum wage, a talent would be equal to something approaching 200-thousand dollars.
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So to tell the story in modern language, a rich man goes on an extended vacation, and leaves one of his servants with a million dollars, another servant with 400-thousand dollars, and a third servant with 200-thousand dollars. Well, both the guy with the million dollars and the guy with 400-thousand dollars, quote, “went off at once and traded with the money.” In other words, they sort of play the market. The third servant—the one who only had two-thousand dollars entrusted to him—buries the money so it will be safe when his boss gets back.

Okay, I admit I’m a pretty conservative guy when it comes to such things, so I read this story and thought that the big boss was going to be pretty upset with those two fellows who took a chance with his money, and he’s going to give a big congratulatory hug to the servant who kept his money safe.

Wrong! As it turns out, the guys who invested the money made lots more money for their master—they doubled his money—and the boss gives them a lot more responsibilities for being such good stewards of his cash. And the master turns to the third servant and says, basically, “So, how did you do?” And the servant says, “I was afraid of losing your money, so I hid it.” And listen to what the rich man, who if we draw a direct allegory, represents God, says:

You wicked and lazy slave…Take the money from him, and give it to the one with ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Ouch! Here I was aligning myself with the guy who played it safe, and the next thing I know I’m being thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. I remember feeling like I’d been sucker-punched when I first read this parable. Since then I’ve managed to reinterpret the parable. As long as the money in the parable is in some way representative of love, I can buy into it. We aren’t meant to hide our love. We’re meant to invest it in the world around us. Is that the way we are supposed to interpret the parable? Who knows! That’s the whole point. The parables of Jesus are meant to stop us in our tracks and make us think long and hard about the parable, and about the world. There is never a, quote, “correct” interpretation.

Many modern scholars say that if you hear a parable and think to yourself, “Okay, I get it. This stands for this and that stands for that…” then you’ve missed the point. Jesus did not tell parables in the form of straight allegories, where everything stands directly for something else. These scholars say that Jesus used parables to express truths that simply cannot be stated except through parables. Furthermore, they say, the truth within Jesus’ parables takes on different meanings in different situations. The truth of a parable of Jesus may mean one thing to a person in first century Israel and something else to somebody in 21st century America. It’s not that the parables can mean anything a person wants them to. It’s just that the truth they carry fits in a meaningful way into the world in which it is told.

If you’re confused, good! You’re starting to get it. So let’s take our state of confusion, and listen to the parable from today’s Bible text. By the way, scholars often argue about what Jesus actually said and what the writers of the gospels put in his mouth when they wrote their accounts a couple of generations after his death. This particular parable is found, in one version or another, in all three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—and also in the Gospel of Thomas, which is a list of Jesus’ sayings discovered in the 20th century. Even the most skeptical of scholars agree that Jesus really did tell a story about a sower and his seed. I’ll read Matthew’s version:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.

Shortly after this parable in the Gospel of Matthew, the author of Matthew has Jesus do something that is completely out of character. Jesus explains the meaning of the parable to the disciples. Now I will tell you something that I am free to say from this pulpit, and which would get me fired from about 95% of the churches in the world. You would be hard pressed to find a reputable scholar who really thinks Jesus explained this parable to his disciples. Matthew puts these words in Jesus’ mouth. Matthew turns this parable of Jesus into a direct allegory, where everything stands for something else. Let’s look at what Matthew has Jesus say to his disciples:

Listen to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.

Okay, that is a direct allegorical interpretation of the parable. Is that the correct interpretation? Yes and no! And this is the whole point about the parables of Jesus. That was the correct interpretation of the parable for the community in which Matthew lived, a late first century community of persecuted Christians. But that is not necessarily the only meaning of the parable. Is that what Jesus intended the parable to mean to the people who actually heard him tell it? Is the way Matthew interpreted the parable the same way you and I must interpret it?

Matthew is interpreting the parable in light of the good news about Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God that is made possible through Jesus Christ. That is a perfectly acceptable interpretation. But is that what Jesus had in mind when he originally told this story?

The parable itself is pretty simple. Somebody plants some seeds and a crop grows. The question implied in that story is a bit more difficult. The question is, “Who sows what, and what is the crop that grows as a result?” I think the whole key lies in determining the crop. For Matthew, and for Christians who have interpreted this parable allegorically through the ages, the crop represents converts to Christianity. A person hears about Jesus, he or she accepts Jesus into their hearts, and then spreads the good news about Jesus so that many new converts to the faith come about as a result.

I like that interpretation, and I believe it is a valid way of thinking about the parable of the sower. That is the truth it conveyed for Matthew’s community. But is that the same truth is conveys to you and me? In a world where everybody we meet has already heard the story of Jesus—where television and radio, books and movies have made it impossible not to have some sort of knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth and the various forms of Christianity built around him and his teachings—in this modern world of ours, does this parable tell us to go out and try to convert people to Christianity?

Perhaps! But maybe it says even more than that. Maybe if we can reclaim what this story meant to the people who stood before Jesus of Nazareth as he first told the story, then maybe, just maybe, we can plumb this parable for even deeper meaning. Maybe this parable says something more than simply, go forth and make converts.

The traditional interpretation seems to claim that the sower is Jesus, the seed is the fact that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior, and the crop is new converts to Christianity. So the parable is about the significance of Jesus Christ, and the importance of what Jesus Christ has done.

Again, that is a perfectly acceptable and meaningful interpretation. But most scholars will insist Jesus did not tell this parable about himself. Instead, for Jesus, it was about God’s love and the way people respond to that love. To state it as clearly as possible, the parable was not about accepting Jesus as God’s Son and making converts, but was instead about accepting God’s love and sharing it with others.

The crop that Jesus was talking about wasn’t converts. The crop was loving deeds, performed out of love for God and neighbor. Is that the only meaning of the parable? No! Going back to the nature of parables as told by Jesus, there is truth within the parable that cannot be stated any other way, and if we draw direct lines between the story and the world we’ve missed the point. The parable is supposed to work on us beneath the surface. The story is supposed to make us a little uncomfortable, to make us question the way we are looking at the world. The parable is meant to almost subversively set some undercurrents moving just beneath our consciousness, to draw us toward that place where Jesus keeps pointing as he says we are close, so close, if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear.

What are some of the undercurrents we find beneath the surface of this parable of the sower? There are many, and every time we read the parable we are drawn deeper into the movements of those currents. It seems to me that this story is infused with the message that God is mysteriously and miraculously bringing forth the harvest—the kingdom of God. And the harvest is God’s doing. The harvest is going to happen with or without us. The kingdom of God is unstoppable. And between the planting and the harvest a lot of things are going to happen. There will be all sorts of problems, but there is no need to get discouraged, because in the end there will be a bountiful crop.

Another undercurrent in this story is the idea that we have some role in determining where we stand in relation to the kingdom. It’s as if the rocky soil is rocky by choice, and the seed which sprouts up around the thorns is there by its own choosing. No, the parable doesn’t say that, but why else would Jesus tell the story? It is as if Jesus is saying, the kingdom of God will happen with or without you. You can’t bring it on by yourself, and you can’t stop it no matter how hard you try. But you can be a part of it if you want.

Of course, there are bound to be countless other undercurrents bubbling beneath the surface of this story. And you are free to let those currents pull you in whatever direction they will. I meant it when I said there is absolutely nothing wrong with interpreting this parable as a command to get out there in the world and make converts to Christianity. In fact, I still believe that’s a perfectly valid interpretation. Had Matthew interpreted it in some other way, you and I might not be sitting in church this morning.

And making converts is still important. The question, for me at least, is how we go about that. Historically, it seems we Christians have decided the way to be a part of the kingdom—the way to bring forth a bountiful crop—is to talk people into the kingdom. Explain the faith to them. Tell them all about Jesus, and perhaps most important, tell them what they need to believe about Jesus. That’s the way to grow the kingdom.

But I think Jesus may have had another idea. We don’t talk people into the kingdom. We love them into it. And people will know the seed has taken root in us not by the words that come from our mouths, but rather by the love that flows from our hearts.

The Kingdom of God is happening—with us or without us. May our hearts be rich soil for God’s love, and may our lives produce a bountiful crop.