The Parable of the Sower tells of a farmer, like in Van Gogh’s painting, throwing out seed upon the ground. It’s a typical agrarian image that endures. The parable and its interpretations offered by the gospel editors Mark, Matthew, and Luke, are unclear about who the farmer might be. The farmer could be God, or Jesus, or the audience, or even you and me.
Likewise the seed too is not well explained. One author calls it ‘the Word of God’, another ‘the Word of the Kingdom’. These phrases have their own history. Jesus was said to be ‘the Word of God’ – how he was, how he acted, how he loved… and his actual spoken words were just one part of that. In the Hebrew Scriptures ‘the Word of God’ was that which brought forth life, justice, and hope. And sometimes it was spoken words. When today we hear Christians calling the Bible ‘the Word of God’ hopefully they mean that in the stories and words of the Bible there are messages that are life-enhancing, justice-promoting, and hope-giving for our day. And of course there are stories and words in the Bible that are not.
I think of the seed as that which has the potential to make life better for everyone. It could be as simple as a smile, or as complex as the reallocation of resources to groups who are without. It could be as simple as a kind act, or as complex as reconciling yourself to wrong that has been done to you. It could be as simple as giving what you can, or as complex as needing to keep listening to someone’s hurt and trying to help them for the rest of your life. These are seeds of kindness, giving, reconciling, helping… and they can be costly.
As I said the parable is not explicit about the farmer or the seed. What it does say, and the editors expound upon, is the ground upon which it falls: the hard ground of the path, the rocky ground, the ground with thorns, or the good soil.
Mark has different people and groups that he wants to put in these four categories. Mark is writing around the time of the Roman-Jewish War in 66-70when the relationships between those Jews who were part of the Jesus movement and those Jews faithful to the Torah and Writings were deteriorating. So the hard ground of the path for Mark represents the scribes, Pharisees, and Jerusalem leaders who never really hear, and in whom the truth in Jesus doesn’t take root at all.
Ominously in the explanation of this parable the character Satan is first associated with the Jewish opposition. Satan has developed from something of a prosecuting attorney in the Book of Job to a more sinister spirit. Later he will become a demigod. In time Satan’s supposed infiltration of Judaism will be an excuse for the Christian crimes of vilifying, persecuting, and murdering Jews.
Regarding the second category, the rocky ground, in Mark’s Gospel this is the twelve male disciples: Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the paramount leaders, and the rest who initially reacted positively to Jesus’ call but when the heat of opposition and persecution came, they folded.
One of the debates about the authorship of Mark’s Gospel is why, if Mark was allegedly a follower of Peter in Rome as has traditionally been maintained, does the Gospel portray Peter so negatively. We don’t actually know who Mark, the author of the Gospel, was. The ‘John Mark’ referred to in Acts, may not be the Gospel writer Mark. Mark after all was a very common name. However, that said, this gospel’s survival was undoubtedly guaranteed by the alleged association with Peter through those early centuries when the canonical books were being determined.
Then the third category, the thorny ground, is where the truth of Jesus was choked out by the love of affluence and influence. Mark has the likes of Herod, Pilate, and the rich man who could not bring himself to sell his possessions in this category.
And lastly there is the good soil where the truth of Jesus flourishes. Within Mark’s Gospel there are many who, mostly anonymously, come to Jesus in faith, and are healed or saved by it, then tell others. It is in this last category that most of the women in the Gospel belong.
In stark contrast to the normative social roles of women in 1st century Greco-Roman society Mark depicts unaccompanied women coming and speaking to Jesus in private – like the Syro-Phoenician woman who bested him in an argument, and the woman who poured expensive perfume on his head. Even more shockingly Mark depicts unaccompanied women approaching Jesus in public – like the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. Mark’s Jesus ignores the social rules and welcomes those already among the ‘shamed’ – like slaves, prostitutes, and lepers. The good soil in Mark’s Gospel is the domain of outcasts.
So Mark, unlike the other editors, structures his whole gospel around the four categories in this parable. Luke pretty much follows Mark’s interpretation, but doesn’t use it as a literary structural device. Matthew though takes it to a whole new level.
In Matthew’s interpretation of the parable he introduces weeds growing up and strangling the good wheat. Matthew, building on the satanic reference in Mark, creates a scenario of ‘us’ verse ‘them’ and then sets it within an end-of-time apocalyptic frame: 13:37ff. “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.” And we all shake our heads and groan.
So Matthew creates a dualistic universe, with two sowers, Jesus and the devil, and two crops, wheat and weeds, and a great sorting out (and burning of weeds) at the end of time. This, if it hadn’t had such horrific ramifications, is laughable nonsense. Matthew’s devilish dualism though has had a legacy of fear, and torture, and burning done by supposedly ‘goodies’ to supposed ‘baddies’, done to Jews, done to women, done to heretics, done to anyone thought of as different.
Let’s be clear – Matthew’s ‘us’ verse ‘them’ apocalypse is a long way from the origins of this parable.
To return to the original parable (Mark 4:1-9) and what it might have meant, firstly let us think about yield. Verse 8 reads: “Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” For a long time, and Matthew too fell into this trap, commentators thought thirty, sixty, a hundred yield was a fantastic, over-the-top, glory halleluiah harvest. In other words a metaphor for the abundance expected on the ‘Day of the Lord’, which some like Matthew was an end of time judgement day.
Well, in short, it’s not. It’s not a superabundant harvest or even a great one, and it’s not a metaphor for the Day of the Lord or any other end time fixture. It’s just, well, normal.
Pliny, the great Roman author, wrote in his encyclopaedic Natural History:
“The deputy governor of that region (Byzacium in Africa) sent to this late Majesty Augustus – almost incredible as it seems – a parcel of very nearly 400 shoots obtained from a single grain as seed, and there are still in existence dispatches relating to the matter. He likewise sent to Nero also 360 stalks obtained from one grain. At all events the plains of Lentini and other districts of Sicily, the whole of Andalusia, and particularly Egypt reproduce at the rate of a hundredfold.”
What this means is that thirty, sixty or a hundred fold would be within the range of normal. Forget the abundant harvest.
Secondly, although admittedly it’s hard for us kiwis to do, let’s shift the focus off failure. Failure is inevitable in sowing. The path, the rocky ground, and the thorny ground are accidents inevitable in sowing – not deliberate acts at all, or even acts of devilish subversion. It just happens. When you are out there, like Van Gogh’s sower, throwing out the seed some will fall on the path, some on rocky ground, and some among thorns. So, don’t beat yourself up about it, and don’t – whatever you do – let it deter you from sowing. This is what life is like – you sow kindness, giving, reconciliation, help (and they can be costly) – and some of that seed will sprout into more kindness, giving, reconciliation, and help; and some won’t.
The message of the original Jesus parable of the sower is that in the everydayness, in the successes and the failures, is the miracle of God: grain grows and we are sustained.
This is the message I take from the story of the birth of Rebekah’s twins in Genesis 25. It’s a story about parents making mistakes, sometimes deliberately; about children competing for parental attention and favouritism; and about the sowing of enmity in families. And yet, and yet… down the track we know that some good things happened. Esau forgave his wily brother. Jacob had a son called Judah who learned that reconciliation was costly, and put his hand up to pay the price. The seeds of kindness, giving, reconciliation and help were around, being sown, even if we go whole chapters without seeing any results, or never get a ‘happy ever after’ ending.
One Christian guy I know said that he grew up in a strict Protestant household hearing that parable of the sower and always wondering whether he was one of the 25% good soil guys, or one of the 75% who were hard, rocky, or thorny! It was anxiety producing for him. Later in life he realized he’d been sold short. This parable wasn’t about the failures in life, the things that didn’t go well or could have gone better. This parable was about the generosity of God, irresponsibly and beautifully, throwing seed all over the place, the loving inclusivity of that God throwing that seed onto even seemingly unproductive ground, and our calling to do likewise.