It has been said that as soon as one thinks they’ve grasped the meaning of a parable, they’ve lost it. This might be hyperbole, but I’m apt to think it probably isn’t too fair from the truth. The gift of a parable, as I said on Monday, is that it is complex, nuanced, multifaceted. I may find one particular meaning in the Parable of the Sower while you may find another. Even naming it “the Parable of the Sower” betrays that my understanding of the story comes from a particular angle. You may choose to call it “the Parable of the Soil,” but as I said yesterday, I’d think you were wrong. 😉
Many preachers find their understanding of this parable in the explanation given in verses 18-23. This is well and good, but it leads us to talk about two dirty secrets of exegesis: things I swore I wouldn’t talk about once I left seminary. The first is the Historical Critical method of Biblical interpretation. Historical Criticism seeks to find the origins of the text in order to find the kernal of truth hidden inside. In order to do quality Biblical exegesis, one must understand Historical Criticism in order to ignore it in the pulpit. So, for example, most scholars argue that the interpretation given for the Parable of the Sower is not original to Jesus, but rather it was added by Matthew, building off of an addition my Mark, as a pastoral response to his original church context. It can be considered sacrilegious and heterodox to suggest that the Bible says something that might not actually be true, so many modern preachers, knowing this information, skirt around it by being bold enough to suggest a different interpretation, thereby asserting that maybe the one attributed to Jesus isn’t the only way. This leads us to the second secret of exegesis, we all interpret scripture differently because scripture is not univocal. Again, in our interpretation from verses 18-23, we see that it begins with “Jesus” telling “the disciples” to “hear again the parable of the sower,” but yet once the interpretation begins, it is all about the soil. So which is it really about? Good preachers will explore both avenues before settling on their own interpretive angle. Some will argue that we should be good soil. Others will say that we should spread the seed of the Gospel. Me, well you already know mine.
I think the Parable of the Sower is about the prodigality of God. Whether the sower is God the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit changes over time, but the truth about God remains the same, God spreads his love with reckless abandon in hearts that are at once all four different types of soil. No where is this more evident than in the lives of the disciples, who, as Elisabeth Johnson points out, Jesus invests in over and over and over again despite their hard hearts, stiff necks, and dim minds. He continues to work at them, helping them to understand just what God is up to. He scatters the seed of the Gospel with reckless abandon, and even when it is clear that they just don’t get it, when they turn him over to the authorities, abandon him in his hour of need, and deny even knowing him; he continues to pour out his love on them, inviting them to back into the fold after his resurrection.
God is downright foolish with his love for us, scattering seed indiscriminately and tending to soil that should have been abandoned long ago. That is, I think, what this parable is all about.