4 After a large crowd had gathered from the people who kept coming to him from town after town, Yeshua told this parable: 5 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he sowed, some fell along the path and was stepped on, and the birds flying around ate it up. 6 Some fell on rock; and after it sprouted, it dried up from lack of moisture. 7 Some fell in the midst of thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. 8 But some fell into rich soil, and grew, and produced a hundred times as much as had been sown.” After saying this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear with, let him hear!”
9 His disciples asked him what this parable might mean, 10 and he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God; but the rest are taught in parables, so that they may look but not see, and listen but not understand.
11 “The parable is this: the seed is God’s message. 12 The ones along the path are those who hear, but then the Adversary comes and takes the message out of their hearts, in order to keep them from being saved by trusting it. 13 The ones on rock are those who, when they hear the word, accept it with joy; but these have no root — they go on trusting for awhile; but when a time of testing comes, they apostatize. 14 As for what fell in the midst of thorns these are the ones who hear; but as they go along, worries and wealth and life’s gratifications crowd in and choke them, so that their fruit never matures. 15 But what fell in rich soil — these are the ones who, when they hear the message, hold onto it with a good, receptive heart; and by persevering, they bring forth a harvest.
Luke is following Mark who also provides the explanation of the parable. This allows the reader to respond to Jesus’ story before reading the explanation. My judgement is that the story comes from Jesus and the rather clunky explanation from the assemblies of Jesus who wanted to make sure people got the message. My guess about the history of the parable is this:
- Jesus, faced with a question about why God’s kingdom had only come to a bunch of Galilean peasants, answered by telling a story about God the sower, who like any Galilean peasant sowed seed on land which would only be ploughed after the seed had been sown. This can look careless, with seeds being scattered every which way, but it does the business. Sure some seed is wasted, but some produces real growth. Jesus means that it’s still sowing time in God’s economy and he generously sows the seeds of his kingdom everywhere. Perhaps those who follow Jesus are like the seeds. He does not calculate the harvest but knows that where the seed finds good soil, it will grow.
- By the time Mark picks up this story the focus of it has moved from the sower to the soils. The explanation is forgets the lavishness of the sowing and concentrates on the unreliability of the results. There is some evidence that the first assemblies found Jesus’ parables a bit tricky and imposed their own meanings upon them.
- Luke probably envisaged a kind of agriculture where the land was ploughed prior to the sowing of seed. For him the free scattering of seed would have seemed incompetent, so he is happy to pick up the explanation that the failures are the fault of the soil. God or Jesus is not at fault in the preaching of the word, it’s just that some people are inadequate recipients who bear no fruit. Luke has shown Jesus bringing the word of the Kingdom to those on the margins of society. There it has been fruitful, but not amongst the wealthier and more powerful people, some of whom have opposed him bitterly. Luke sees the parable as identifying as good soil, people that society thinks are barren.
- The original parable of Jesus is I think about the confidence of the sower in the seeds of the kingdom and in the lavishness of the harvest, whereas it becomes a model of how the word is received, especially by the poor in whom it becomes fruitful. The women to whom Jesus ministered and who are mentioned in the preceding passage as travelling with him, are surely intended by Luke as examples of good soil.
- The explanation of the purpose of Jesus’ parables, that they are told to puzzle outsiders and favour insiders, seems odd. My guess is that it reflects the words in bold which come from the prophet Isaiah. They are God’s bitterly ironic command to preach the word to people who will almost certainly reject it. Jesus may well have identified with Isaiah’s phrase, but I doubt if he applied it to his parables, which often seem marvellously clear. Sometimes indeed the full meaning of Jesus story can only be grasped by those who are willing to go his way. In this case for example, the original version of the parable asks me to set aside professional notions of successful ministry and to be ready to be no more than a seed of the kingdom.