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THE GOOD EARTH: Wrestling with Scripture #27

Since parables are told in simple stories, we often assume they’re simple to understand—but that’s not always the case. Since one good method of Bible interpretation is the principle of first use, discussed in Wrestling with Scripture #3, let’s ease into this series by looking at a parable with metaphors that Jesus Himself explained.


The Parable of the Sower, or Soils as it’s sometimes called, is included in Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15. It tells the story of a man sowing seeds that fall on various types of soils with differing results. After relating this parable to a large crowd, His disciples come to Jesus privately to ask for an explanation.


In the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus teaches that the Sower is the Son of Man (Jesus), the seed is the Word of God, and the soils represent people with various reactions to His message. He goes on to say that the birds which eat the seed from the path represent the evil one, or satan, who snatches the Word from the hearts of some so that they can’t believe or be saved. The seed sown on the rocky ground depicts those with shallow roots, who receive the word with joy, but fall away when difficulties come. The seed sown among the thorns are those who heard the Word but simply continue along their way, letting the cares of the world choke out their fruitfulness. The seed sown on good ground are those who hear, understand, and hold to the Word, producing good fruit to varying degrees.


That seems straightforward enough, so it’s surprising to learn there’s quite a bit of disagreement on the parable’s primary meaning. Some see it as a metaphor for the Christian life—just as a seed begins to grow after it’s planted, so too the Word begins to root and mature within our hearts as we grow in faith. Others say that when the Word is planted in a good heart, it will produce good things in that person’s life. Some twist it slightly to mean we must produce fruit, or we aren’t good soil—in other words, our hearts can't be aligned with God’s will.


Those who preach a social Gospel see the parable as an illustration of societal division. A BLM article stated it resonated due to “practices of enslavement both past and present.” Some Biblical scholars say the parable, like the book of Matthew itself, must be seen through the lens of Jesus’ original audience—Jews chafing under Roman occupation and waiting for Messiah to redeem Israel. They insist the crowds would have seen the story as an allegory representing their exile and restoration as a nation.


Despite Jesus’ detailed explanation, it’s clear that individual perspectives can influence our understanding, so it’s important to honor His message by considering the historical context, setting, and audience that prompted the teaching. Here, Jesus had just reacted rather pointedly to the skepticism of some Pharisees and followed that with an unexpected response to being told that His mother and brothers were waiting to speak to Him. If we remember His own brothers did not believe He was the Messiah at this point, it’s not as shocking to hear Jesus say that it’s those who believe in Him who are His true brothers. It seems likely then, that Jesus uses the parable to reiterate why not all will believe and that the various soils were meant to represent the people in the crowd Jesus was addressing. Each soil illustrates possible human reactions to the Gospel—hard-hearted, shallow-hearted, half-hearted, or whole-hearted.


Some believe the parable teaches us to choose which soil we want to be, while others insist that we’re the soil we were created to be and that we’ll react to God accordingly—much like God revealed Pharoah’s already hardheartedness rather than causing him to become hard. One writer semi-seriously said he often feels like all four soils on any given day. 


Wherever we land, there’s plenty of room to wrestle with what the soils mean in terms of our ultimate salvation. Some teach that only those depicted by the seed on the path are unsaved, citing that each of the others “received” the Word but were prevented from being fruitful due to outside influences or their own lack of diligence. Other see each of the first three soils as rejecters of the Gospel, and only the good soil as born-again believers. Some see the three groups of believers--those that bear fruit a hundredfold, some that bear sixty, and some thirty—as offsetting the previous three groups of unbelievers.


Others focus on the 100/60/30 fruitfulness ratio as a description of what believers can accomplish with the differing amounts of spiritual gifts we’ve been given. Still others see the fruit as souls won for the Kingdom, and its downward progression a reflection of decreasing evangelical effectiveness over time. They suggest that the Kingdom saw miraculous growth (one hundredfold) during the Apostolic age, that decreased to sixtyfold by the time of the Reformation, and down to thirty currently. Some insist the fruitfulness isn’t converts at all, but the ways Christianity should be lived out for the watching world. “For each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:44).


Some think the fact that the Sower scatters abundantly—broadcasting seed rather than planting it, which allows the wind to take it in different directions—represents the Holy Spirit calling whom He wills. Others see it as depicting the generous nature of God’s offer of salvation to all. Some see significance that the sower goes out to a field to sow rather than containing the seed to his garden—as the field in a later parable is explained to represent the world while a garden or vineyard often only included Israel—thus revealing that the Kingdom would include Gentiles as well as Jews.


One thing is obvious. Most of the seed does not produce the plentiful harvest that it could. Since we know the seed (the Word of God) is perfect, the fault must lie with us. Although we’d all like to think we’re the good soil, do our lives bear evidence of that? If not, are we stuck with the ground we have, or can bad soil become better soil if given the proper attention?  Consider that if our garden doesn’t produce, we typically don’t give up on it. We go out and pull up the weeds, unearth the rocks, and add some mulch. If we provide water in the dry seasons or erect a scarecrow when the birds circle, does the garden stand a better chance of bearing fruit?

What do you think?


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