Here is the cartoon that accompanies this post.
First of the Parables of the Kingdom
Jesus announces that God is planting a new crop in this world, but He wants to know, what kind of soil will you be?
At the beginning of Mark four, Jesus tells a series of four parables to explain the meaning of the kingdom of God. In the parallel passage, Matthew 13, the series doubles to eight parables, but the Parable of the Sower opens both series. Here is the wording that occurs in Mark 4:3-8 (niv translation):
Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.
The mystery of the kingdom
The disciples do not understand this parable, and privately they ask Jesus what it means. He replies (Mark 4:10-12):
The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside, everything is said in parables so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise, they might turn and be forgiven!’”
As hard as it may be for us to accept, Jesus says that parables participate in God’s judgment against people who refuse to believe in Jesus. The parables actually become an obstacle that confirms them in their unbelief. In them, the prophecy from Isaiah 6:9-11 finds fulfillment.
In contrast, the disciples, because of their willing submission to Jesus as their Lord, receive “the secret of the kingdom of God,” which includes an understanding of the parables.
Two possible meanings
Before explaining the Parable of the Sower to his disciples, Jesus gives them this gentle rebuke (Mark 4:13): “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” What does Jesus mean by these questions?
On the one hand, it may be that Jesus is referring to the way in which he is about to interpret the Parable of the Sower, giving metaphorical meaning to various details of the parable. If so, then Jesus is suggesting that we use a similar methodology for interpreting other parables. A seeming confirmation of this conclusion occurs when Jesus explains the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matthew 13:37-43). Other parables, such as the Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-12) seem to follow a similar model.
On the other hand, Jesus may be referring to the content of the Parable of the Sower, alluding to the condition of his disciples’ hearts. If they are hardened against listening, or distracted by the cares of this world, or only halfhearted in their commitment, they are not ready to receive the word as if they had glad and sincere hearts. It seems, however, that this is not the meaning, because Jesus is willing to explain the parable to them rather than leaving it unexplained as a testimony against their unbelief. This leads me to conclude that the first understanding is what Jesus really meant. Many of his parables have allegorical features; some of them he interprets for us and some he leaves for us to interpret for ourselves.
Two ways of interpreting the parables
I am not advocating a return to the allegorical way of interpreting the parables that goes back at least as far as Augustine, who, for example, assigned symbolic meanings to many of the details of the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Lacking any controls, expositors’ interpretations of the parables have been highly subjective and therefore idiosyncratic.
Adolf Jülicher, in an understandable reaction to this extreme, begins swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, prompting many others to affirm his understanding. They claimed that each parable had but one meaning, and they rejected the explanations of the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds as fabrications of the early church, not authentic words of Jesus.
A third path
More recently, some scholars have called for moderation in the interpretation of the canonical parables. Providing the control that was lacking in the patristic and medieval exegesis, they point to the original audience of Jesus and the historical background we can glean from the occasions on which Jesus told these stories.
For example, in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Luke identifies the audience as Pharisees (Luke 16:14-15). If these money-loving men do not find themselves portrayed in the parable by the rich man, at least the five brothers back on Earth are quite suitable. Lazarus himself seems to be representing the tax collectors and “sinners” gathering around Jesus in response to his call to discipleship (Luke 14:25 – 15:2). The parable concerns being faithful to God to stewardship on two levels: the use of financial resources and the administration of God’s law (Luke 16:10-18).
Taking stock of the warning of Jesus at the close of the Parable of the Sower, we must take care to prepare ourselves spiritually as we embark on a study of the parables. We cannot examine them as a mere academic exercise. Gaining an understanding of the parables imposes on us the responsibility to respond, not as a biblical scholar, but as a human being in need of redemption. Each parable has embedded within it an invitation to sinners. The master teacher calls us one by one to come to him in humility and penitence.
Want to go deeper?
Matthew Black. “The Parables as Allegory.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 42 (1960): 273-287.
Craig L. Blomberg. “Interpreting the Parables of Jesus: Where are We and Where Do We Go from Here?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly [serial online]. 53(1) (January 1991): 50-78. Available from: ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 7, 2016.
Charles E. Carlston. “Parable and Allegory Revisited: An Interpretive Review.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly [serial online]. 43(2) (April 1981): 228-242. Available from: ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 7, 2016.
Robert Stein. Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Philadelphia, Penn.: Westminster, 1981.
From the publisher: Robert Stein investigates how the parables have been interpreted throughout the ages beginning with the early church fathers, continuing through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and concluding with recent critical discussion. He establishes basic principles for interpreting parables, demonstrates how to apply these principles, and organizes the parables under four major themes: the Kingdom of God as a present reality, the Kingdom of God as demand, the God of grace, and final judgment.