by: Denise Robinson
What Does This Mean? “The Parable of the Sower”
Have you ever had someone talk to you and you knew they were speaking in English but you couldn’t understand what they were trying to tell you? While I was still working at the Attorney General’s Office it was decided that our office would upgrade our computer case tracking system and database. So, likely at some great expense, we hired an outside IT agency to come in and a new software system was developed for our office. Just prior to installation, they came into our office to explain the new system. The words they spoke were English and I even knew the meaning of each individual word. However, I couldn’t understand a word they were really saying. At the end of their presentation I couldn’t tell you why this new system was an improvement or how to use it to make my life better. Some years ago, and I won’t say how many, I began law school and my first class that I went to was Torts. Torts, if you don’t know, deals with cases of negligence and other types of civil claims, generally involving questions of liability and damages. Before our first class met, we were assigned to read and “brief” a legal case from England, Hulle v. Orynge. Notice the spelling of “orange.” The case subsequently became known as “The Case of the Thorns.” Briefing a case means writing down important facts, looking at the legal arguments made by the lawyers and judges, and examining the holding or decision in the case, all with an eye to seeing if that holding might be applicable to future cases of a similar nature.
Anyway, the basic facts are as follows: There were two neighbors with adjoining property. One of the neighbors (the defendant) planted a hedge of thorn bushes on the property line. One day he went out and trimmed the hedges and thorns fell onto his neighbor’s property. Rather than leave them there, he went onto his neighbor’s property to clean up the thorns, but in so doing he trampled on, and damaged, some of his neighbor’s crops. The neighbor (plaintiff) sued him for trespass and for monetary damages. As anyone who knows me might suspect, I had questions after reading the case. You see, this case was decided by the court in the year 1466. Were there really property rights in 1466? I tend to think of America in the 17-1800s, when people just mostly roamed around. Did people plant hedges in 1466 (apparently so!)? And what kind of hedge trimmers did they have back then? Why plant a hedge of thorns in the first place (is there a message for the neighbor there)? How big were these thorns? The ruling in the case, by the way, was that the plaintiff won. There was some dispute as to whether the neighbor/defendant actually trespassed or went onto his neighbor’s property deliberately, but the bottom line is that the legal concept of strict liability was created. You damage someone’s property you pay for it.
Well this morning we begin a study of parables spoken by Jesus. Reading parables is kind of like reading a court case. “Parable” in Greek means literally “that which is tossed alongside.” Parables are fact specific analogies or comparisons; they are teaching moments to get use to engage and to think. Parables were also a hallmark of Jesus’ teaching. Mark 4:33 says that, “With many such parables, he (Jesus) spoke the word.” While it appears that Jesus frequently provided private explanations for his disciples, most of those explanations have been lost in history – except for this one. The crowds who heard the parables were expected to find their own understanding. As are we. In this new sermon series, “What Does This Mean?”, we will take some time to examine the more perplexing parables of Jesus. The parable that we will be looking at today is actually the first one recorded in three of the four Gospels: The Parable of the Sower. Today’s Scripture reading comes from the Gospel of Luke, 8:4-15.
We are first told that this parable was told to a “great crowd.” What are we told? We have a sower, a farmer, a gardener and the sower is throwing out seed. Rather than meticulously planting seed, it seems this sower is carelessly throwing it out on the ground. And the ground onto which the seed is thrown has different types of soil. There is a path, there is an area with rocks, there is ground covered with thorns (again!), and then there is good soil. The seed has four different effects or outcomes, depending on the soil. Birds eat the seed, the seed dries out and dies for lack of moisture, it is choked by thorns, and it produces 100-fold. As with The Case of Thorns, I am left with questions. Was the sower careless or ignorant or so rich as to not care about the loss of good seed? Why didn’t he pick up the thorns? Or water the dry seed? Or put up a scarecrow to frighten the birds away? Because this parable is very obviously Jesus’ words of wisdom on good farming and gardening practices. Right? If look at v. 8, that’s probably not the case. “Let those with ears hear,” is code for listen, pay attention, this is important. So, these words are not about gardening.
As I mentioned, this parable comes with a bit of an explanation which is in Luke 8:11-15. The disciples are told that the seed is the word of God. The soil is those who hear the word of God. The harvest is the outcome, the effect on those who hear the word. But what is Jesus trying to tell us? It’s a parable, so we need to dig.
On a first reading, this parable explains how people (including you and I) receive the word of God. We hear it and we can be like one of the four types of soil in our listening and understanding. Those on the path hear the word, but the devil immediately comes and takes away the word from their hearts so that they do not believe and are not saved. Just as the Spirit whispers and guides us and prompts us, so does the devil. Those on the path listen more to the devil and turn away from God and God’s word. Then there are those on rocky soil who hear the word and initially receive it with joy; the problem is, when testing comes, they fall away. It’s easy to express a belief in God when all is right in your world. It’s not so easy when things are going wrong or suffering comes. Then faith needs to be rooted or it will fail. Thirdly, there are those among the thorns who hear but are trapped by the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world and so they never grow in faith. The shiny things of this world can easily turn us away from God: we focus on possessions, status, wealth, looks, our reputation, and spend so little time with God and in God’s word that our faith never matures. Or, finally, we can be like that good soil that hears the word, holds it faith in our heart, endures, and bears fruit. The same sower, the same seed; different soil, different outcomes.
But if we dig just a little deeper, we come to a second reading. At the outset of Luke 9, Jesus is preparing the disciples to be sent out in pairs to villages to share the good news of Christ. It wasn’t long ago, that these disciples are being prepared by Jesus to be set out to villages in pairs to share the good news of the coming of the Christ (the Messiah) and the kingdom of heaven. As he will later command them, and us, “Go and make disciples of all nations….” We are to become not just hearers (soil), but sowers, spreading the seed of the good news. And when we spread that seed, we are to spread it everywhere and liberally. Don’t be stingy with it. Don’t be too careful where it goes. Speak it and spread it and don’t worry about the condition of the soil. We will face hearers that turn away, hearers that care more about the things of this world, and hearers that seem to wholeheartedly accept the good news but then wander away. As Luke 9:5 tells us, don’t worry about them, but move on. Because there will be hearers who accept and believe. Is there yet another meaning to this parable? I think there is a third reading, one nestled between the hearing and the sowing – and that is to speak the Gospel, we need to know, not just had heard, the Gospel. We are hearers first, but after the seed is planted there is a time when seed grows. In that time of grow we are to mature in our faith. Then comes the harvest, after which we become sowers.
However, in between the telling of the parable and its explanation, there is another “thorny” issue, in verse, 10, that needs some additional thought. The disciples have asked Jesus about the meaning of the parable and Jesus responds, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.” We have another “What does this mean?” moment. Is Jesus saying what it seems he is saying? That is, that he speaks in parables so that people, many people, do not understand? Does Jesus speak in parables to be intentionally obtuse? Teaching in parables was common in Jesus’ time and listening was not only a challenge, but an art. That art has been largely lost today, but even in Jesus’ time it took dedication. Parables are designed to have more than one meaning and they are meant to shock, disturb, indict, prompt us to see and think differently. They are not meant to be easy or to make us comfortable. We are supposed to struggle, pray, read and re-read, study together. As Christians we struggle with biblical texts and our commitment to the struggle is a sign of our faithfulness to Scripture and to the God who inspired it. Brian Blount, a current day theologian, puts it this way: “Christian faith and the biblical interpretation that goes along with it is hard. Not everyone can do it, because not everyone wants to do it. Many want the comfort of a simple faith. It’s supposed to be hard! We’re supposed to follow Jesus, take up the cross. Making it hard is not taking away faith. This is your faith, our faith. A living faith. The first Christians did faith aggressively – the Spirit was alive and the Word of God was on the move. You couldn’t catch it and you couldn’t hold it. This is the living Word of God.”
Here’s the thing about parables. If you read them and immediately think you understand and you’ve got “the” answer, you’re probably wrong. Or at the very least, you’ve missed the layers, the deeper meanings. This is our – your – living faith. It isn’t meant to be easy. But it is meant to be alive. How is your faith?