‘Sexagesima’ comes from the Latin word for Sixtieth, and signifies the sixty remaining days (excluding Sundays and holidays) prior to Easter. In the Christian liturgical tradition, it is common to focus and to study the parable of the Sower and the Seed, contained in Luke 8.1-18, on this Sunday morning.
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.
When he said this, he called out: Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.
His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’
This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.
I used to write all kinds of songs and play in a bunch of bands. That can be a very vulnerable experience. To be successful, you need to really put yourself out there and be prepared to play and sing the most intimate and personal bits of your life in front of strangers…and have them respond honestly. It’s fascinating, but true, that the way in which people will receive your music largely depends on their context.
For example, I once wrote a worship song that was very personally meaningful. I played it for a friend of mine in the church basement late one night, and he really loved it. But, the following day, when I played it again for he and one other person it didn’t go over nearly as well. The other person was distracted – sending an email on their laptop while only half-listening – and my friend began to feel embarrassed that he had liked the song, and now this newer person obviously didn’t care. So my friend did what most of us would have done in that moment, he interrupted the song, changed the topic, and said the reason he probably liked it in the first place was because it was late and he was tired.
My point is that the context for the performance really matters. That song, which was soft and tender, would have been booed and called off stage were it done during half-time at a football game, but lauded and loved around a campfire. Why? Because it’s all about the audience and their context.
Or, as Jesus said here, it’s about the soil.
The parable of the Sower and the Seed is the parable of parables – the most famousest of all, the prototype upon which all others are based. Parables were much more common in the ancient world that they are today, and serve as something like Aesop’s fables in Judeo-Christian thought. They were famous linguistic tools of the First Testament prophets, and even endured after the closing of the canon in certain rabbinical schools.
Take this Jewish parable, for example, about the different kinds of disciples:
One is like a sponge, one is like a funnel, one is like a strainer, and the last like a sieve. Which is best? The sponge soaks up everything. The funnel lets it in one end and out the other. The strainer lets the fine wine pass through it, but remains stuck with the lees. The sieve lets out the bran but retains the fine flour. The worst kind of disciple, then, is the funnel because information flows in one ear and out the other; whereas the best is the sieve, which retains only the most worthy information.
This parable does what all parables are meant to do: it helps people better understand spiritual truths. If that seems confusing at first, don't worry, modern-day preachers do this all the time. I frequently tell stories about my children or write little fictional episodes to illustrate biblical theology because those stories are far more accessible to most people than big words and scary phrases like propitiation, transubstantiation, and penal substitutionary atonement. Not everyone can understand Jesus’ prosaic teaching on the already-not-yet nature of his Kingdom and its catholicity (see, even those words are confusing), but everyone can understand the basic meaning of the parable of the Sower and the Seed. Both accurately tell it like it is, but the former way is intimidating while the latter is pretty basic and achieves much the same thing.
The Sower and the Seed is a parable about people responding to Christ’s Kingdom. Jesus often spoke about the fact that the kingdom was everywhere and for all people, and here describes four different types of people who hear his message their responses to him.
Most of his audience were expecting their Messiah to do something huge – like replace Herod, or topple the Romans, or reform the Temple – but Jesus, through this parable, was trying to open their eyes to the fact that his Kingdom wasn’t made out of stones and swords and animal sacrifices. His Kingdom was a kingdom of thoughts and deeds and motivations and behaviors. His Kingdom was a Kingdom of the Word.
Now, had Jesus’ audience known the parable was about ‘the word’ they would have thought this story was about Torah (the Jewish law). Parables of this sort, after all, usually were primarily concerned with Torah observance, and Jesus’ parable could easily have fit within this framework. Perhaps his audience would even have had famous Scriptures like Isaiah 55.11 lurking in the backs of their minds: my word shall not return empty, but it shall accomplish my purpose.
But the Word in the Sower is not Torah, but Christ himself – God made flesh. This, incidentally, was what really infuriated that scribes and Pharisees – not that Jesus rejected their transactional understanding of spirituality, but that he claimed to the true Word in place of Torah and Temple.
The Sower, then, is not Jesus (as is often assumed) but God the Father. Jesus is the seed sown into the soil. In terms of this parable, the seed has been sown everywhere – the kingdom is in every place, and available to every person – but the critical issue remains how each person will respond to it.
Jesus’ teachings were making the kingdom a reality, insofar as what he said caused people to change what they believed and how they lived. His kingdom was at work then – right away! – and continues to work now, as more people respond with belief and begin to live the way God desires for all His creation.
This parable suggests that the Word, even if you see it, doesn’t look like very much (seeds are disproportionally small compared with what they eventually produce). It is not a thunderclap or an explosion, but a seed – something small that, once planted, disappears because it’s covered by the soil and then – as far as it’s own identity is concerned – dies and disappear, transforming into something else entirely.
Christ the Word, comes to his own people and they reject him. He is not welcomed or lauded by the powers-that-be, but instead he is received by the humble and the lowly, the poor and the abject. To top it all off, he is betrayed, murdered, and buried. His entire earthly life was like that of a seed; but – like a seed – once he was placed within the ground, he became something much more.
Forgive me if it feels like I’m getting ahead of myself here; but I felt like we needed to understand the players and the program before we could accurately understand the play. Let us turn our attention now to the actual details of the parable. First, notice that the seed falls into four kinds of ground.
The common ground in Palestine was split into long narrow strips; between the strips there were paths for walking and working. When the seed fell on these paths (which were beaten as hard as the road), they had no chance of getting into the ground and so birds came down and ate them.
The rocky ground refers to ground that looks good, but is really only a thin layer of soil over a shelf of limestone. In such ground there was no water or nourishment and the seed would quickly die.
The ground full of thorns likely looked clean on the surface, probably because it had been turned over, but the weeds and thistles were still alive underneath and began to grow along with the seed, choking it.
The good ground was that ground which was deep and clean and well-prepared.
The climax of the story is the unusually high harvest. Though not an impossible yield, it would have been a once-in-a-lifetime dream come true for the farmers listening to Christ to have received 100 times their harvest.
After Jesus tells everyone the parable, his disciples pull him aside and ask him for clarification. At first, it seems like Jesus is reluctant to give it. He says:
The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’
In order for us to properly understand his meaning, however, we may need a little lesson on the background of the ancient world. ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom’ is a construct that refers to ancient mystery religions. These ‘mysteries’ weren’t things unknown, but things that God (or the gods, in the pagan scenario) had already revealed to His people. To say the mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you didn’t mean that you’d been given a puzzle you now had to solve, but to remind you that Christ has already shown you the answer. Though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand was Jesus’ way of expressing his frustration with the obtuseness all around him. He was quoting from Isaiah, who himself was impossibly furious with people’s refusal to understand the severity of their sins against God. For Jesus to quote Isaiah was like he was watching his audience thinking to himself: Isaiah had it right, and then began to recite those verses out loud.
Jesus isn’t using the parable as a way to make plain truth confusing; he’s using the parable to make an unpleasant truth (“you need to be receptive to the Word and stop hardening, flagging, and ignoring me”) accessible to everyone. His quotation of Isaiah, then, wasn’t to justify being confusing, but to express frustration that – no matter how simply he said what needed to be said – the people just didn’t seem ready to listen.
Now, having expressed his frustration and reminded his disciples that they should already know what the parable is about, Jesus indulges his friends with an explanation. The parable emphasizes both receptivity and bearing fruit. Farmers sow seed in order for them to bear fruit; without the result, the plants are good for nothing. The only variable determining failure or success is the soil onto which the seed falls.
The hard path is like a shut mind, refusing to consider Christ.
The shallow ground is like the person who never thinks things through, and fails to realize the consequence of not doing so until it is too late.
The thorns represent those things in life that force God out because our lives get too busy and too crowded.
The good ground represents a good heart belonging to the person who listens attentively, thinks things over, and translates those thoughts into transformational behaviors.
Notice that two of the three “failed” sowings describe people who respond positively to the message. They even hear the message with joy, but their hearing is still superficial. Receiving the kingdom with joy is not enough – there must be fruit, there must be transformation that changes hearts and aligns behavior.
The Hebrew word for ‘hearing’ (sama), we might do well to remember, is most often translated into English as ‘obey.’ Real hearing is hearing that leads to obedience. The disciples can understand the mystery because of their decision to obey. But, for everyone else, it’s hard to understand because it just seems like Jesus was making up folk tales. To really understand God’s Kingdom, you’ve got to live in it for a while. You’ve got to experience it. It has to live in you as well.
Galatians 5.16-26, concerning the Fruits of the Spirit, reinforces the parable of the Sower and the Seed. In his letter to the church of Galatia, Paul distinguishes between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit. The works are a list of disastrous character traits that Paul says result from trying to achieve the abundant life God desires for all creation without God. These works aren’t merely obvious sins like greed and lust (the phrase ‘according to the flesh’ doesn’t refer to our bodies so much as it refers to our self-centered efforts), but are instead mental, physical, emotional, and even (aberrantly) spiritual sins that seek to circumvent the Spirit and get what He promises without His involvement. These sins are things like envy, strife, and witchcraft – which we might best understand as an un-God-ly form of spirituality that promises reward without morality. The fruits of the Spirit, however, result not from our efforts but from our cooperation with God. They grow simply by being unimpeded by our ambition and our impatience. This is why they are described as fruits – fruit simply grows in the right conditions, without much interference – as opposed to the works – which, obvious, indicate the striving and the earnest efforts of the self-satisfied person.
Having now explained the parable, Jesus concludes his teaching with a confusing set of seemingly random remarks. Yet, upon further reflection, we begin to see that his words are designed again to provoke a response from those who though they have eyes, do not see.
The first remark (no one lights a lamp and hides it under a bed) sounds roughly like: What am I supposed to do? Hide the truth because people don’t like it? While the second (there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed) has to have been offensive to those who believed God had already disclosed everything to them. The final remark (whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them) sounds to me like Jesus is saying: if you grasp the fact that the kingdom works in a mystery, then that very grip will give you more and more understanding. But if you don’t grasp that, then everything that happens will make it look as if you’re plausibility-loving understanding is being deliberately taken from you.
I think this parable likely had a secondary benefit for the disciples as a warning against despair. Think of the situation. Jesus had been banished from the synagogues. The scribes and the Pharisees were up against him. Inevitably, the disciples would be disheartened. When Jesus tells them this story it’s like he is reassuring them that despite these setbacks the harvest is assured. Every farmer knows not every seed will grow, yet he still plants.
Jesus’ parable was both a warning and an invitation to his audience. The warning concerned receptivity and fruitfulness; or, as he proclaimed it elsewhere, the call to repent and believe. Believe in the Word, and change the way you live in accordance with your beliefs. The invitation concerned all who heard – the message of the gospel was for everyone; which, I think, is one of the reasons the first few verses prior to the parable are so important.
In Luke 8.1-3 we read about a collection of women that accompany Jesus and his disciples. Luke lists them, interestingly, as patrons and benefactors of the ministry. These married women followed Christ around and covered his expenses, and we should never neglect the fact that this would have been seriously scandalous behavior in that world at that time. Today people might make jokes about these women being sugar mammas or cougars, inferring somehow that they were keeping Jesus and his friends like favored pets to show off to their society friends; but notice that Jesus simply accept their good will and charity with a mind to the fact that they too are welcomed into the kingdom. The kingdom message is for the poor, but it is also for the Real Housewives of Orange County. It is for everybody.
That is the Christ’s message in this parable:
come one, come all;
repent and believe.
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