Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Rediscovering the Parable of the Sower

I've been recently reading The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, the controversial annotated translation of the four canonical gospels and Thomas. I understand the objections many have to the book, but methodological issues aside, it is thought-provoking. Consider its "spin" on the Parable of the Sower:

A sower went out to sow his seed; and while he was sowing some seed fell along the path, and was trampled under foot, and the birds of the sky ate it up. Other seed fell on rock; when it grew it whithered because it lacked moisture. Still other seed fell among thorns; the thorns grew with it and choked it. Other seed fell on fertile earth; and when it matured, it produced fruit a hundredfold.

Luke 8:5-8

In the canonical gospels, Jesus interprets the parable for His disciples after leaving behind the "huge crowd," explaining:

The 'seed' is God's message. Those 'along the path' are those who have listened to it, but then the devil comes and steals the message from their hearts, so they won't trust and be saved. Those 'on the rock' are those who, when they listen to the message, receive it happily. But they 'have no root': they trust for the moment but fall away when they are tested. What 'fell into the thorns' represents those who listen, but as they continue on, they are 'choked' by the worries and wealth and pleasures of life, and they do not come to maturity. But the seed 'in good earth' stands for those who listen to the message and hold on to it with a good and fertile heart, and 'produce fruit' through perserverance.

Luke 8:11-15.

In the judgment of the Jesus Seminar, only the underlying parable - and not the appended interpretation - is authentic. The Fellows so conclude for several reasons:
  • The parable, but not the interpretation, is indepdently attested in Thomas 9.
  • The concern with perserverance and avoiding distractions reflects the situations and concerns of the second and third generations of Christians, when the community experienced varying responses to its evangelistic efforts.
  • The distinction between 'us' (disciple insiders who are given the real message) and 'them' (non-disciple outsiders who who are denied full access to Jesus' teaching) "contravenes much of Jesus' fundamental teaching" -- which "blurs the division between the privileged and the unprivileged."

Now, whether or not you find these explanations persuasive, consider what follows if they are right. We can't rely on the "given" interpretation - which would merely be a Markan invention. We would have to assess the parable on its own terms. Are there possible interpretations other than the given one?

I think the Sower could easily be read as a parable about social justice. The sower, in this version, is God. The seeds, people. The different growing environments are, well, just that: different growing environments.

The first set of seeds are eaten up by birds. Now, if the seeds are people, then the birds must represent something larger than people. In other words, they would represent what Walter Rauschenbusch would call "supra-personal forces." These seeds represent people that are "swallowed up" by forces like capitalism, war and the criminal justice system. (In Jesus' day, the Roman government.)

The second set of seeds fall on rock and whither for lack of moisture. These seeds could represent people that are not actively "swallowed up" by supra-personal forces but suffer from malign neglect: the victims of underdevelopment, lack of education, etc.

The third set of seeds fall "among thorns" and are choked. These are destroyed, not by forces larger than themselves or by neglect, but by fellow plants, which could obviously represent fellow human beings. These seeds could represent people that are damaged by child abuse or violent crime.

The fourth set of seeds fall on fertile soil and produce. These could represent people who are lucky enough to "fall" into a social situation that is not hampered by supra-personal forces of evil, that possesses sufficient resources for thriving, and that is not upset by domestic violence or crime.

Noteworthy under this interpretation is that the seeds fall into their "social situation." While I certainly do believe that people do have the ability to lift themselves up from a terrible environment, this particular parable reminds those of us who might "blame the victim" just how difficult that is. The verb "fall" is important for another reason too - because it emphasizes the passivity of the Sower in this situation. God does not "place" us into the situation that we are in. It is not because we "deserve it." God has given us, as seeds, all the innate tools we need to be fruitful. And God wishes that all of God's seeds would fall on fertile soil. But God will not intervene apocalyptically and bring about social justice. Jesus taught us how to turn the entire earth into fertile soil, and it is by listening to Him and acting on His teachings that we can bring this about. Only then can all of God's "seeds" reach their full potential.

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