Why does Jesus speak in parables? And what is the purpose of this parable that we have before us today? On the one hand, we could say that parables, because they draw on everyday experiences, can be understood by everyone: even children could recognize that seed sown on a hard path or into a patch of weeds would not produce fruit. But if the meaning of the story is that obvious, why tell it at all? In fact, the parable is meant to tease the listener into further reflection. The listener recognizes at once the obvious, literal meaning — but has to ponder more deeply its significance.
Biblical scholar C.H.Dodd offers this definition of a parable: “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[i] So the purpose of a parable is to “tease [the mind] into active thought.”
After hearing today’s parable, what are some of the questions that might arise in our minds if we were to allow them to be “teased into active thought”?
One question might be, Why would the sower be so careless in his scattering of the seed? He seems to be throwing it everywhere instead of carefully placing it in the very best soil. It would be like a modern-day farmer hooking up his planter to the back of his John Deere, starting up his tractor and activating it even before he was out of the barnyard. There he is, puttering down the country lane with corn seed scattering everywhere: it bounces on the road; some flies into the ditch, some is lost among the weeds. No farmer would be so careless in the scattering of valuable seed.
Perhaps Jesus is saying that God is just such a foolish farmer, that God (apparently) has got more than enough seed to go around and that God is willing to scatter it liberally in the hopes that it might take root somewhere. God extends grace to everyone in all circumstances, even though many will choose not to receive it.
Maybe Jesus is suggesting that people have built roads in their hearts, highways that have gotten too packed down by the busyness of life, or by the cynicism and arrogance of the present age. The seed never has a chance.
Perhaps Jesus is saying that there are others who, although they are not completely hardened and resistant, have made their lives shallow by buying into the get-rich-quick, instant gratification culture of indulgence and fads. They’ve been trained by the media to look for the next best thing to come along. The seed may shoot up, but then it withers just as quickly when the shallow, me-first craving for novelty once more takes over.
Or Jesus may be suggesting that some people are just plain busy and crowded. Their hearts are neither hardened nor shallow. There may be real depth there. But in the end, they simply have too much going on. The seed of the gospel takes root, but it has so much competition from other plants for light and warmth and nutrients that it cannot flourish and is finally choked out. It is choked by the demands of work, by concerns about financial security, by the accumulation of possessions, by busyness of every kind. It’s all good stuff; it’s just that there’s too much of it. The young plants can’t grow because they’re not getting enough light and nourishment. They need space if they are to survive.
Perhaps Jesus knows that there are some people whose hearts are ready, where the soil is deep and rich and unencumbered by other concerns and projects, and where the seed can actually take root and flourish.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. She who has ears to hear, let her hear. The spreading of the seed and its success are the result of grace. Maybe that’s why the farmer keeps tossing his seed at even the unlikeliest of targets. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the odds, but that he’s willing to take the risk.
As a friend of mine says, Grace is everywhere. We need only open our hearts to receive it.
[i] C.H.Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, p. 16 of 1961 rev.ed.
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