Confusion about the “real” meaning of Jesus’ familiar (and evidently authentic) parable of the sower and the seed could have a simple explanation: He was just having a bad day on all sorts of fronts.
After all, most of that day had been spent being challenged by and arguing with the scribes and Pharisees – those who relentlessly were questioning his legitimacy, despite (or maybe because of) the growing crowds being attracted to him.
But if these bothersome opponents weren’t enough, who should appear but his mother and brothers, who wanted a word or two with him – and just at the moment when he seemed to be making headway with the crowds that had gathered to hear him.
In frustration, Jesus tells the one who had been sent to convey the message about mom and the bros waiting to speak to him that, as family matters go, the disciples had become his genuine family.
Why? Because these chosen ones choose to do the will not of an earthly parent but of a heavenly one!
Not exactly a strong endorsement of traditional family loyalty, cohesion and values.
No wonder, then, that the text from the Gospel of Matthew (13:1-3) has a seemingly stressed Jesus “that same day” leaving where he had been and going to sit by the sea.
The crowds, however, won’t grant him even a little time to himself. They want more. And Jesus grants their wish by spinning out a series of parables – the first of which seems to cause more confusion than clarity.
“Listen!” Jesus tells the crowd from a boat he had found to sit in. “A sower went out to sow. And as the seeds were scattered some fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let everyone pay attention!”
Well, pay attention they did – and have ever since. But not with much consensus, then or even now, about the meaning of the parable.
Sure, Jesus provided a defense of his teachings by way of telling parables (so those who have already been given understanding of the mysteries of heaven will understand even better, while those not granted such understanding will be even more confused; see Matthew 13:10-17). The early church later attempted a more definitive interpretation (see Matthew 13:18-23) that proved to be more of a self-defense of the faithful than anything else.
But the meaning of the original parable itself remains, essentially, an enigma.
Is the central point of the parable (in distinction from an allegory that allows for many points) simply about God-the-sower, who is generous but careless in distributing the divine grace?
Is the central point about the seeds that all have the potential to be fruitful but depend simply on chance as to whether they will come to fruition?
Is the central point about the soil – hard-packed, rocky, thorn-filled or fertile – and simply accepting the condition one has been assigned?
Is the central point about the outcome – the harvest – that is simply incredible (beyond belief) and therefore another part of the mysteries of God?
It’s likely we will never know, except, possibly, that even Jesus could have a bad parable day.
So, we can ask, is the parable – whatever it is about – useful or useless?
That would appear to be a relevant question for a Jesus who was not proclaiming himself (despite what the scribes and Pharisees thought) but of a kingdom or society or community of the divine that is always breaking into our earthly lives.
Some of us may have to acknowledge – according to this rendering of Jesus’ bad parable day – that we’re not much more than feed for the birds. Not much use, yet some.
Some of us may have to recognize that, given our rocky context, our usefulness will be short-lived.
Some of us may have to deal with the fact that, despite our best efforts, our usefulness will be choked off by the thorns.
And some of us may have the good fortune to find ourselves blessed with a fertile environment that allows us, through no doing of our own, to be generative beyond belief.
The only thing that is certain for Jesus, even on a less-than-good-day, is that the God who wills an inclusive community of righteousness-defined-by-mutual-love-and-care-for-one-another will, in the end, be victorious.
That point would appear to be useful information.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.