Readers of Jerusalem Perspective Online owe a debt of gratitude to Steven Notley for his exposition of The Parable of the Sower. He offered us an exegetical, agricultural, and topographical backdrop against which we can read the parable. He also left us with a memorable exhortation with reference to commitment and obedience: Don’t be marginal!
His treatment of the parable demonstrates continuity of language, imagery, and form between Jesus’ didactic methods and those of other Jewish personalities of Roman Antiquity. Yet I wonder if this simple farming parable contains a barely audible word for some readers, particularly Western readers coming from Protestant backgrounds.
Notley noted that Jesus adopted The Four Types as a rhetorical framework for this parable; however, he made no attempt to explain the significance of the fourfold structure for the interpretive task. Christian particularism (which typically finds expression in the assumption that only the Born-Again will inherit eternal life) wafts through much of our preaching. Those who have been exposed to this idea may be inclined to transpose on Jesus’ teaching a “we-they” grid. In the case of this parable, “we” would be the good soil whereas “they” would comprise the other three categories.
The order of The Four Types usually implies ascending gradation from worst to best. When I read The Parable of the Sower, I am inclined to see the third group as representing the category in which most of us fall —including me. We are people with concerns; we work hard to pay our bills and grow our nest eggs; we even indulge in life’s finer pleasures, perhaps more often than not.
Luke the evangelist informed us that as a genre, Jesus’ parables are vehicles for communicating “secrets of the kingdom” (Luke 8:10). I read the Parable of the Sower as illuminating something secretive about the kingdom. Students of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) know that several of Jesus’ most provocative sayings deal with entering the kingdom of heaven. Acceptance of Jesus’ call to discipleship typically meant leaving behind profession, property, and family in order to follow. I imagine that James Dobson already noticed how certain sayings fit rather poorly in an agenda focused on the family. On the other hand, these same sayings characterized the life and service of Mother Teresa. To echo Notley’s language, she did what she heard.
Approaching the interpretive task at hand from this perspective, I see a prickly nuance in this farming parable. The phrase “cares…of life” looks like a conceptual parallel to Rabbi Nehunya’s usage of derech eretz in Mishnah, Avot 3:5. (The same phrase may relate conceptually as well to Matthew 6:25-34.) If so, then from a kingdom-of-heaven perspective, both mundane anxieties (i.e., “cares of life”) and material excesses (i.e., “wealth and the pleasures of life”) thwart leaving it all behind. In my case, I probably could overcome affection for money and the comfort it can bring, but fretting over food, raiment and shelter remains an impediment of colossal proportions for entering his kingdom.