Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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An Audacious "What if?"

Luke 8.11  This is what the parable means: the seed is the word of God. The seeds that fell along the path stand for those who hear; but the devil comes and takes the message away from their hearts ...

The Parable of the Sower is one of the most memorable in the New Testament. Very few church-going Christians don't have some idea of what it means. But what if we have got it wrong?

Yes, this is a somewhat audacious "what if" suggestion. Bear with me - perhaps it's one worth considering. You be the judge.

The first step is to resolutely put aside the received wisdom of two millennia. Notice this is not, "Throw it away" but only, "Put it aside for the time being."

The second is to put the evidence to the test. What happens, for example, when we compare the three versions - Mark 4.1-20; Matthew 13.1-23; and Luke 8.4-15. Do they harmonise? This has to be asked because agreement of sources is critical in deciding what's good history and what isn't.

One thing stands out immediately. In each version there is a section in which the disciples ask Jesus what the parable means. Matthew puts in a lot of teaching material the others don't have. Another thing is that the explanations are separated from the parable itself.

A helpful rule in choosing between explanations is to ask, "Which is the more simple?" This is because explanations tend to get more elaborate as time goes by. Applying this rule in this case tends to eliminate everything except the Parable itself.

For these and other reasons many experts think that the explanations are the teaching of the early Church rather than the actual words of Jesus.

So if early Christians could arrive at their own interpretations, why shouldn't we? It is at this point that it becomes hard to set aside the traditional explanation of this parable. What happens if we look elsewhere to understand it?

If anything has survived the now centuries-old scholarly analysis of the New Testament it is that Jesus taught and lived out the acceptance of others regardless of difference. Time and again he says to those with him, "Don't send people away. God is the father of all. Putting barriers between people is not the way God does things. Religious rules are made for humanity, not humanity for the rules."

Acceptance of difference is deeply enshrined in the letters of Paul which, we should remember, were written long before the gospels. Although Paul didn't know Jesus personally, it is clear that he recognised this key aspect of the Master's teaching. That's why he fought so hard to accept Gentiles into the Church - that is, to include people whose very touch contaminated any dedicated churchgoing Hebrew.

Rejecting people who are different is common. Many Christians, for example, think that race, beliefs, place of birth, tribe and even church affiliation should occasion exclusion. In effect, the traditional meaning of the Parable excludes those who don't take Jesus to heart. As we have seen, judgement and rejection don't reflect the life and teaching of Jesus.

What then of an unvarnished Parable of the Sower? Might Jesus have been saying something about people other than indicated by the traditional interpretation of this parable?

Try this explanation for size: People are like the seed a farmer sows. Some fall prey to the strong; the life of some is short because they are poor; some find it difficult to work out what life is all about; and some flourish. Everyone is different and, as we know, difference is no reason to exclude a person.

Here ends the parable. The explanation is mine - not yours. Only when you put the teaching of Jesus into the context of your own life can you arrive at a uniquely valuable and relevant response to it.

The point is this: Jesus always offers his parables without explanation. They are real-life stories intended to make us think. We are asked to use our imaginations and work out for ourselves what a parable means for us.

Canned explanations - including mine and those of the early Christians - may do for you. There is nothing wrong in adopting the explanations of others. But only your own truly belongs to you. That's why Jesus used parables in the first place.

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