SECOND SUNDAY BEFORE LENT
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 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
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.