The so-called “Parable of the Sower” is actually a parable accompanied by a commentary by Jesus on the parable, both under one contextual umbrella. Thus, the scripture divides itself into two parts:
The first part of the parable, the story part, shows a farmer, at planting season, showering his field with seeds which fall to earth in a variety of places; some of those places yield fruit and some don’t. The different kinds of ground in the parable all symbolize different kinds of people, and the story as a whole amounts to a very clear metaphor for how spiritual truth is spoken and received out in the world.
In the second part of the parable, the part where Jesus reveals to his apostles the interpretation of the parable, assigning specific symbolic values to each kind of seed, we get a unique insight into what Jesus thinks His stories mean, of who is capable of apprehending that meaning, and who isn't. From these two parts a third dialectic (oppositional) synthesis emerges, i.e., the meaning of telling stories with hidden meanings; from this third meaning we are given a deep and complex insight into the power of verbal communication to express eternal truth.
This scripture as a whole touches on two issues we have discussed repeatedly in the course of the past month's sermons: that of evangelism, and that of the power of words to transmit divine truth into the mundane dimension. The more I examined this scripture, the larger the issues loomed. These are big topics, and there is enough material here for two sermons—therefore, I have decided to break this message up into two parts, first dealing with the parable, itself , and then Jesus’ comments on His comments next week.
As you will have noticed, I like to give as many versions of Jesus' sayings as possible, and today I will share not only the three synoptic gospel versions, but the version according Thomas, as well. But before I give the biblical readings of the parable, I would like to ask you to hear the story with a little different slant in mind. I’m sure we all know the details of the narrative fairly well, and are used to interpreting the “seeds” as “spiritual truths,” which, as per Jesus’ instructions, we certainly should. This time, however, as I read about the rocky, weedy, birdy ground, I want you to think of ACTIONS as well as thought forms. One of the problems I want to ponder today is the relationship of thought to deed, and the larger issue of grace vs. good works.
Now the parable:
“3Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: 4And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. 5And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: 6But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. 8And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.”
“3And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; 4And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: 5Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: 6And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. 7And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: 8But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.”
“And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable: A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold.”
DORESSE Gospel of Thomas: .
"Jesus says: ‘See, the sower went out. He filled his hand and scattered the seed. Some fell on the path: birds came and gathered them. Others fell on rocky ground: they found no means of taking root in the soil and did not send up ears of corn. Others fell among thorns; these stifled the grain, and the worm ate the seed. Others fell on good soil, and this portion produced an excellent crop: it gave as much as sixty-fold, and even a hundred and twenty-fold!’"
The first comment I offer is taken, as usual, from Wikipedia:
“Comparisons Between Gospel of Thomas and Synoptic Gospels: Thomas, as usual, provides no narrative context whatsoever, nor any explanation, but the synoptics frame this parable as one of a group that were told by Jesus while he was standing on a boat in a lake. The parable tells of seeds that were erratically scattered, some falling on the road and consequently eaten by birds, some falling on rock and consequently unable to take root, and some falling on thorns which choked the seed and the worms ate them. It was, according to the parable, only the seeds that fell on good soil and were able to germinate, producing a crop thirty, sixty, or even a hundredfold, of what had been sown.”
Continuing with the Thomas vs. the synoptic gospels comparison, Robert M. Grant and David Noel Freedman, (in The Secret Sayings of Jesus), write:
"Thomas adds a few details. The sower 'filled his hand' before he cast the seed; this looks like no more than an attempt to indicate the fullness or completeness of the sowing (of souls or spirits). But when we read that the seed which fell on 'the rock' (so only Luke) not only had no root but also 'put forth no ear up to heaven' we are confronting a combination of this parable with the Naassene doctrine of the heavenward ascent of the good seed. The seed which fell upon thorns was not only choked but also eaten by the worm - presumably the worm of Gehenna though Thomas does not say so, since, like other Gnostics, he doubtless holds that hell is on earth.”
An interesting sidebar:
(cf., Mark 9:48--the Valley of Hinnom (translated as Gehenna) was a RAVINE south of Jerusalem, just outside the city wall -- it was used as a REFUSE PIT -- all types of trash, animal carcasses, and even the corpses of wicked criminals that didn't deserve burial were disposed of there. This place was CONSTANTLY BURNING, and smoke could be seen rising up into the sky above Jerusalem... This fire burned day and night, day and night.... And any part of piece of any BODY that fell out of the flames, the worms would devour it.)
Again from Grant and Freedman:
“The good fruit, unlike the bad, is brought forth 'up to heaven,' sometimes sixty-fold, sometimes one-hundred-twenty-fold. Thomas feels free to give these figures since Matthew has one hundred, sixty, and thirty; Mark has thirty-sixty-one hundred; and Luke has simply one hundred. His figure is more logical; one hundred twenty is twice as much as sixty."
Again from Wikipedia:
“Interpretations: Most scholars think the parable was originally optimistic in outlook, in that despite failures eventually the "seed" will be successful, take root and produce a large "crop". It is the first parable to occur in Mark, which according to the Q hypothesis was the first book it occurred in.”
“The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written independently, each using Mark and a second document called "Q" as a source. Q is defined as the "common" material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. The Q source (also Q document or Q) is a hypothetical written source for the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke. Q (short for the German Quelle, or "source") is defined as the "common" material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. This ancient text supposedly contained the logia or quotations from Jesus.”
I was lucky enough to discover this selection from THE SERMONS OF MARTIN LUTHER, VOL. II. In this sermon, liberally quoted here, Luther expounds with extraordinary clarity on the parable. With Luther we must move ahead a little, as he gives his interpretation of Jesus’ interpretation, but for our purpose of the moment that is fine:
“SECTION I. THE NATURE OF THE WORD SPOKEN HERE. This Gospel treats of the disciples and the fruits, which the Word of God develops in the world. It does not speak of the law nor of human institutions; but, as Christ himself says, of the Word of God, which he himself the sower preaches, for the law bears no fruit, just as little as do the institutions of men. Christ however sets forth here four kinds of disciples of the divine Word.
“SECTION II. THE DISCIPLES OF THIS WORD.
The first class of disciples are those who hear the Word but neither understand nor esteem it. And these are not the mean people in the world, but the greatest, wisest and the most saintly, in short they are the greatest part of mankind; for Christ does not speak here of those who persecute the Word nor of those who fail to give their ear to it, but of those who hear it and are students of it, who also wish to be called true Christians and to live in Christian fellowship with Christians and are partakers of baptism and the Lord's Supper. But they are of a carnal heart, and remain so, failing to appropriate the Word of God to themselves, it goes in one ear and out the other. Just like the seed along the wayside did not fall into the earth, but remained lying on the ground in the wayside, because the road was tramped hard by the feet of man and beast and it could not take root.
Therefore Christ says the devil cometh and taketh away the Word from their heart, that they may not believe and be saved.”
Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts,
“What power of Satan this alone reveals, that hearts, hardened through a worldly mind and life, lose the Word and let it go, so that they never understand or confess it; but instead of the Word of God Satan sends false teachers to tread it under foot by the doctrines of men. For it stands here written both that it was trodden under foot, and the birds of the heaven devoured it. The birds Christ himself interprets as the messengers of the devil, who snatch away the Word and devour it, which is done when he turns and blinds their hearts so that they neither understand nor esteem it, as St. Paul says in 2 Tim 4:4: "They will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables." By the treading under foot of men Christ means the teachings of men, that rule in our hearts, as he says in Mt 5:13 also of the salt that has lost its savor, it is cast out and trodden under foot, of men; that is, as St. Paul says in 2 Ths. 2:11, they must believe a lie because they have not been obedient to the truth. . .
“The second class of hearers are those who receive the Word with joy, but they do not persevere. These are also a large multitude who understand the Word correctly and lay hold of it in its purity without any spirit of sect, division or fanaticism, they rejoice also in that they know the real truth, and are able to know how they may be saved without works through faith. They also know that they are free from the bondage of the law, of their conscience and of human teachings; but when it comes to the test that they must suffer harm, disgrace and loss of life or property, then they fall and deny it; for they have not root enough, and are not planted deep enough in the soil. Hence they are like the growth on a rock, which springs forth fresh and green, that it is a pleasure to behold it and it awakens bright hopes. But when the sun shines hot it withers, because it has no soil and moisture, and only rock is there. So these do; in times of persecution they deny or keep silence about the Word, and work, speak and suffer all that their persecutors mention or wish, who formerly went forth and spoke, and confessed with a fresh and joyful spirit the same, while there was still peace and no heat, so that there was hope they would bear much fruit and serve the people. For these fruits are not only the works, but more the confession, preaching and spreading of the Word, so that many others may thereby be converted and the kingdom of God be developed.
“The third class are those who hear and understand the Word, but still it falls on the other side of the road, among the pleasures and cares of this life, so that they also do nothing with the Word. And there is quite a large multitude of these; for although they do not start heresies, like the first, but always possess the absolutely pure Word, they are also, not attacked on the left as the others with opposition and persecution; yet they fall on the right side, and it is their ruin that they enjoy peace and good days. Therefore they do not earnestly give themselves to the Word, but become indifferent and sink in the cares, riches and pleasures of this life, so that they are of no benefit to anyone. Therefore they are like the seed that fell among the thorns. Although it is not rocky but good soil; not wayside but deeply plowed soil; yet, the thorns will not let it spring up, they choke it. Thus these have all in the Word that is needed for their salvation, but they do not make any use of it, and they rot in this life in carnal pleasures. To these belong those who hear the Word but do not bring under subjection their flesh. They know their duty but do it not, they teach but do not practice what they teach, and are this year as they were last.
“The fourth class are those who lay hold of and keep the Word in a good and honest heart, and bring forth fruit with patience, those who hear the Word and steadfastly retain it, meditate upon it and act in harmony with it. The devil does not snatch it away, nor are they thereby led astray, moreover the heat of persecution does not rob them of it, and the thorns of pleasure and the avarice of the times do not hinder its growth; but they bear fruit by teaching others and by developing the kingdom of God, hence they also do good to their neighbor in love; and therefore Christ adds, "they bring forth fruit with patience." For these must suffer much on account of the Word, shame and disgrace from fanatics and heretics, hatred and jealousy with injury to body and property from their persecutors, not to mention what the thorns and the temptations of their own flesh do, so that it may well be called the Word of the cross; for he who would keep it must bear the cross and misfortune, and triumph. . .”
Clearly, Martin Luther was a guy who had all his philosophical ducks in a row; what the proper dogmatic interpretation of the scriptures must be is very clear in his mind; and although we are grateful to him for his ability to illuminate the text in terms of his own lofty perspective, we perceive in the background an axe he has to grind, the result of which is an unfortunate limitation of the possibilities of the passage.
Remember that one of the theological disagreements between Catholicism and the new Lutheran Protestantism was the issue of good-works-versus-grace-dichotomy. Catholics have always placed a heavy emphasis on good works as the key to the kingdom, while Protestants have relied on grace as the only sure guarantee of salvation. In the past weeks we have been in emphatic agreement with this latter perspective, since we have repeatedly rejected the language of the mind in favor of the language of the heart, as the true purveyor of divine truth. This quotation from Section II of Luther’s sermon is in wholehearted agreement with this opinion:
“The second class of hearers are those who receive the Word with joy, but they do not persevere. These are also a large multitude who understand the Word correctly and lay hold of it in its purity without any spirit of sect, division or fanaticism, they rejoice also in that they know the real truth, and are able to know how they may be saved without works through faith.”
And yet, in the last section I read, he lets slip this remark:
“. . .but they bear fruit by teaching others and by developing the kingdom of God, hence they also do good to their neighbor in love; and therefore Christ adds, "they bring forth fruit with patience."
Remember me telling you to try and imagine the seeds as ACTIONS in addition to THOUGHTS? You see where I’m going with this? Absolutely, we must agree that our sins are forgiven through grace, and yet is really quite easy, nay, necessary, to see an ETHICAL imperative associated with right thinking. I have always admired Jesus for the PRACTICALITY of His advice; He really has a lot of good clues about the right way to live. True, we are never truly OF the world when we have entered into the spiritual path, but we are still, by God, IN the world, and we have to figure out a way to make it work.
Why does the sower go forth to plant his seed? To bring forth fruit, that’s why. Is this heavenly fruit, or earthly fruit? I think Jesus is telling us how to live here and now. Even if the seeds represent “words” spoken in the world of men, the SPEAKING of those words is an ACT.
We are here speaking of the relationship of inner to outer reality. Once again, my old compadre C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape has much to say here:
“As regards his more general attitude towards the war, you must not rely too much on those feelings of hatred which the humans are so fond of discussing in Christian, or ant-Christian, periodicals. In his anguish, the patient can, of course, be encouraged to revenge himself by some vindictive feelings directed toward the German leaders, and that is good as far as it goes. But it is usually a sort of melodramatic or mythical hatred directed against some imaginary scapegoats. He has never met these people in real life—they are lay figures modeled on what he gets from newspapers. The results of such fanciful hatred are often most disappointing, and of all humans the English are in this respect the most deplorable milksops. They are creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door.
"Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all inflaming his hatred of the Germans, if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train. Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable qualities inward into the Will. It is only in so far as they reach the will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us. (I don’t, of course, mean that the patient mistakes for his will, the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy calls the Heart.) All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from Our Father’s house: indeed, they may make him more amusing when he gets there.”
And so, we must see that even if we speak with bravest fire and have not charity, charity expressed in acts of kindness and helpfulness to our neighbors, nothing we know or believe is worth squat. The formation of virtues, virtues which multiply exponentially through the nurture of spiritual power, should be our primary goal in this life. To me, good works are the only way to justify a career on this puny planet. Thus, just as Karma operates in full force on the mundane level, while Heavenly Love ever breaks the chains of causality, so do good works validate our position in society while grace insures our place in the higher life. Moreover, good works are almost never for OUR benefit, but for OTHERS’ benefit. Thus, in giving selflessly of ourselves in Christian love, we imitate the Master, and do, as He did, our Father’s work.
Let us pray:
Jesus, direct our paths in this life and let our seed fall on good ground. Let your Heavenly Love take root in our deepest selves and bring forth fruit in this world and the next. Amen.
June 5, 2011