Recently at the Divine Liturgy, we heard the Parable of the Sower, as related in Luke 8:5-15. The reception of this parable and how it has been analyzed by biblical scholars makes this parable a complex story in and of itself. However, we will remain on “good ground” if we simply “hear” the parable as interpreted by Christ for His disciples, as it has been consistently understood within the Church.
Before coming to that, though, perhaps it would be wise to review the meaning and purpose of the parables of Christ. The prominent biblical scholar C. H. Dodd defined the parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” [The Parables of the Kingdom]. In other words, it is a story that will make us think, as in ponder or meditate. That is why we need “ears to hear;” otherwise the parable will “go through one ear and out the other,” thus wasting an opportunity that the Lord has granted us to understand how His Kingdom is being presented to us as a gift. My own wonderful New Testament professor, Veselin Kesich, had this to say about parables in his book The Gospel Image of Christ: “The Old Testament records a few parables [II Samuel 12:1-4; I Kings 20:35-42; Isaiah 5:1-7]. Jesus, however, brought this art to perfection. Differing from previous storytellers in His subject matter, Jesus revealed His own character in these parables. His purpose was to lead the hearer to Him and to compel a response to His challenge. Parables are never told to amuse people; they are not merely interesting or entertaining. They are of a revelatory character.”
The Hebrew and Aramaic words for parable are, respectively, mashal and mathla. Whatever the meaning—allegory, riddle, symbol, story—the parable is meant to challenge our way of thinking and “to compel a response” to the gift of the Kingdom of God as presented by Jesus. One cannot “walk away” from a parable of Christ’s. Such indifference is a response of sorts, though not one pleasing to the Lord, one would imagine. And such a response makes one an “outsider” who will “see but not perceive, and… indeed hear but not understand; lest… you should turn again and be forgiven.” Those on the “inside,” as true disciples of Christ, have “been given the secret of the Kingdom of God” [Mark 4:11-12]. It is a serious matter to come to church and listen to one of Christ’s parables!
Turning our attention specifically to the Parable of the Sower, in first century Palestine, the sowing preceded planting; thus, the parable is a realistic story that would have highlighted the rich abundance of the seed that may have not have seemed so promising because of the various soils it fell into—the trodden path, rocky ground, and the thorns. Thus, the Kingdom of God, though facing an unpromising beginning, will grow by God’s grace regardless of any and all obstacles. However, the final admonition to careful listening tells us that we must probe deeper to understand the full implications of the parable. And Jesus will assist His disciples—and us today—by providing an explanation of the parable that reveals the parable’s inner meaning: “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. And as for what fell among thorns, they are those who hear; but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience”[Luke 8:11-15].
During His ministry, Christ realized, as did many preachers of the word following Him, that many who heard His word—Jew and Gentile alike—would reject that word for various reasons. This was clearly the experience of Christ and His disciples/apostles. So the parable is not simply about the fate of the seed, or about the quality of the soil into which it falls. The parable is thus “symbolic” and prophetic because of its ultimate reference to the human rejection (or acceptance) of the proclamation of the Kingdom and the Gospel. This is a realistic assessment based upon the three sources of temptation inherent in the process of hearing the Word of God and reacting to it. Basically, these three sources of temptation are the devil, persecution, and mammon.
We pray “and deliver us from the evil one.” The “evil one” lurks behind temptation and abandonment to it. This does not relieve us of our responsibility by “blaming it on the devil,” but rather alerts us to the need for vigilance. As our spiritual tradition makes quite clear, the evil one often works through such “passions” as gluttony, lust, avarice, jealously, envy, anger, dejection, vanity and pride. As such, direct confrontation is unnecessary—or perhaps it is reserved for the great saints who take up that battle with utter seriousness, determination, and profound reliance upon the saving grace of God. Our “inner demons,” multiplied and strengthened by our weaknesses and lack of faith, thus pluck the seed of God’s word from our hearts as birds will pluck up loose seed on shallow ground. Distracted, enervated or consumed by our passions, the evil one, as an ever-present threat, can leave us with a heart empty of the saving seeds of the divine Sower. And as Christ warned, the horrific result can be unbelief and a loss of salvation.
“Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” [2 Timothy 3:12]. When you think of the “world” as it is, obsessed with “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” [1 John 2:16], this has a certain inevitability to it. From the beginning, many followers of Christ have been persecuted, the great company of martyrs unto death itself. This is a severe test, and many have failed to make such a witness. It is hardly for us to judge, especially if we are incapable of holding up to even the slightest social pressure that will intimidate us into silence or inaction when our “witness” to being a Christian would make a significant impact. “I am a Christian” was the phrase always used by the martyrs to identify themselves, even though it would also serve them up a death sentence. Yet, would anyone feel that that would be an awkward form of self-identification today? Perhaps that can be rephrased with the following question: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” If not, it would reveal that we have “no root” and the seed from the Sower was wasted. The Lord left us these encouraging words as He envisioned the fate of His followers to come: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 5:10].
Alas, who is not “choked by the cares of life?” In the versions of this parable found in the Gospels of Saints Matthew and Mark, Jesus adds “and the delight of riches” [Matthew 13:22], “and the desire for other things” [Mark 4:19]. So the “cares of life” should not be limited to the legitimate struggle for our “daily bread” and the protection and care of our families. Jesus is referring to that pervasive spirit of acquisitiveness that can never be satisfied. There is a wonderful 19th century (?) aphorism that needs to be memorized: “Enough is a feast.” And yet a contemporary distortion would say something like, “There is never enough!” No matter what we have, we need more of it—and then some more. How humiliating: either collectively or personally, we are the donkey doomed to trotting in a circle going nowhere with an inaccessible carrot dangling before our noses! There is never a shortage of contestants willing to line up for life’s perennial “rat race.” Has there ever been a “winner?” This insatiable demand for “riches” and “other things” only serves to “choke” the life out of the seeds of the divine Sower so that “their fruit does not mature.” The Lord expressed this struggle perfectly with the well-known words: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” [Matthew 6:24].
And yet, the parable is not only about the sadly inevitable reality that “many” will lose the seed-word of the Sower upon hearing it because of the evil one, persecution and mammon. Christ is telling us that despite that unholy triad of temptations, there will still be an abundant harvest that will yield a “hundredfold.” In fact, that may be the most significant point about the parable. When we hear the Word of God, our concern is to “hold it fast in an honest and good heart.” This, in turn, will cultivate “fruit with patience.” Every Liturgy presents us with the opportunity of “hearing” the living Word of God. If we have “ears to hear,” the seed of the Sower will fall on “good soil.”