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Mt 13:1-23, Mk 4:1-20, Lk 8:4-15 

The parable of the sower is the ur-parable, in which Jesus supposedly lays out his philosophy for how parables work and why he's telling them: they're allegories that are intended to impart knowledge to a chosen few and disguise it from the rest. 

As usual, thorny questions immediately sprout from the shallow soil of simple interpretations.

Text: The intro, parable, explanation, and interpretation

Introduction: Seed parables and shifting focus

Framing: What's in a name?

Parable theory: The parable of parables 

Interpretive history: From the church fathers onward

Four sons: Parallels from rabbinic texts

Christian interpretations: Commentators' favorite rabbitholes

Anti-Jewish interpretations: The blind synagogue vs the church

Reconstruction: Can we get back to the original story?

Jewish context: The people and the land

The number four: Completion or transformation?

The moral of the story: We can have enough

Four Fates for Seeds

Context

Matthew

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: 

Mark

Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 

LUKE

When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable:

Narrative

Matthew

A sower went out to sow.

 

 

 

And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

 

Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.

 

Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

 

 

Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

Mark

A sower went out to sow.

 

 

 

And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.

 

 

Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.

 

Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.

 

Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.

LUKE

A sower went out to sow his seed;

 

 

and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.

 

Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it.

 

 

Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.

Thomas

Look, the sower went out, he filled his hand (and) cast (the seed).

 

Some fell upon the road; the birds came, they gathered them.

 

 

Others fell upon the rock, and struck no root in the ground, nor did they produce any ears.

 

 

 

 

 

And others fell on the thorns; they choked the seed and the worm ate them.

 

 

And others fell on the good earth, and it produced good fruit; it yielded sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure.

Explanation

Matthew

To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

 

The reason I speak to them in parables is that

 

‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’

 

With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,

and you will indeed look, but never perceive.

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing,

and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with

their eyes,

and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and

turn—
and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.  Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

Mark

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside,

 

 

 

 

 

 

everything comes in parables; in order that

‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And he said to them, “Do you not

understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?

LUKE

To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God;

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

but to others I speak in parables, so that

 

‘looking they may not perceive,
and listening they may not understand.

Interpretation

Matthew

The seed is the word of God.

 

The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.

 

The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away.

 

 

 

 

As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

 

 

But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.

Mark

The sower sows the word.

 

These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.

 

And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.

 

And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.

 

And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.

LUKE

 

 

When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.

 

As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while,
and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.

 

As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.

 

 

 

But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and under- stands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

 
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Introduction

This is the parable par excellence, in which Jesus (supposedly) explains why he tells parables and how to read (or hear) them. It explains a lot of the Christian insistence on allegorizing everything, because that's how Jesus tells his disciples to do. 

But is it actually that easy? Things start getting a bit shifty almost immediately, starting with the identification of the main character and the name of the parable. 

If I were going to be completionist about this, I'd talk about the parable in the context of the other "seed" parables—the mustard seed, the seed growing secretly, and so on. But that would turn what's already going to be a very long article into something book-length, so I'll leave that cross-referencing to others. 

In any case, I don't think anything about this parable is as simple as it appears to be.

 

What's in a Name?

"Very good, Suba. Popi, don't shout. That's right. Even a wizard can't tell his truename. When you children are through school and go through the Passage, you'll leave your childnames behind and keep only your truenames, which you must never ask for and never give away. Why is that the rule?"

 

The children were silent. The sheep bleated gently. Mr. Underhill answered the question: "Because the name is the thing," he said in his shy, soft, husky voice, "and the truename is the true thing. To speak the name is to control the thing. Am I right, Schoolmistress?"

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Rule of Names

In the 1970s, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who would later become famous for her investigations into false memories, performed a study in which participants watched videos of a minor car accident, then answered questions about what they saw. Although there was no broken glass in the video, participants who were asked if they'd seen broken glass when the cars "smashed" into one another were more likely to answer "yes" than participants who were asked about when the cars "hit" one another. In other words, the framing affected what they remembered seeing.

Framing not only works backward, changing what we remember, but also forward, changing what we notice. There's a famous experiment, now known as the "Invisible Gorilla Experiment," in which participants watch a video of people in white and black shirts passing basketballs and are told ahead of time to count the number of passes from the people in white shirts. In the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla costume walks into the frame, stands in the middle of the group of people, and waves and beats their chest. More than half the participants in the experiment didn't see the gorilla. They'd been told to focus on something else, and it essentially rendered a major part of what was happening in front of their eyes invisible to them. 

I've talked in other articles about how, for this very reason, I think it's a problem when Luke tells the reader, before relaying a parable itself, what the parable is about, since it shapes how the reader receives the story. But even titles are a type of framing.

For example, if we approach this parable through its most popular title, the Parable of the Sower, we understand the sower as the main character, and the sowing as the main action of the story. (See, for example, Octavia Butler's classic scifi novel, Parable of the Sower, in which the main character—who the reader is clearly supposed to compare to Jesus—founds a new religion. It's great and you should read it if you haven't already.) The sower can be interpreted as representing either Jesus or any evangelizing Christian (or both!), but either way, the focus is on the gains and losses of preaching and implicitly places the hearer in the position of the preacher.

A less common title for the story is the Parable of the Soils. This frames it as the story of how the seed is received, and implicitly puts the hearer in the position of the audience, questioning which type of listener they will be. 

Obviously, you can get to either interpretation and viewpoint from either title, and most people who spend time interpreting the story do end up looking at it from most viewpoints. But the title still points to what the focus of the story "should" be. While the text itself doesn't name the story, many bibles contain titles for the section, or footnotes referring to the story by title. 

What happens, however, if we call it the Parable of the Seeds? Or don't name it at all?

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Focalization

In addition to asking where titles and introductions and other forms of framing point our attention, it's worth paying attention to where the narrative itself seems to be telling us to look. The language for talking about this was coined by French literary theorist Gérard Genette. Genette gave us terminology to talk about a lot of elements of storytelling that seem obvious, but can actually be difficult to discuss clearly without predefined language. 

For example, in retrospect it's pretty obvious that most narratives actually have two separate timelines: the timeline for which events "actually" happen, and the event in which the narrative relates them. In a murder mystery, even though the discovery of a dead body "happens" after the events of the murder itself, most murder mystery narratives show the discovery of the body before the reader learns how they were killed. When analyzing the story, we need to be able to distinguish between the "real" timeline (even though, in a fictional narrative, the events didn't actually happen) versus the timeline in which the narrative presents the events, which may include flashbacks, discovery of past events, and so on.

One of the concepts Genette named is focalization, which describes the perspective from which the narration describes the events. 

The easiest way to understand focalization is that it's the equivalent of the viewpoint of the camera in a movie. The camera can show us what a particular character is seeing, it can focus in on a character's face to show us their reactions, or it can show us multiple characters at once, a scene-setting wide view, or pan from point to point. What the camera shows us—and doesn't show us—and how it moves help direct our attention to the activity, people, objects, places, etc. that the film considers important at any given moment.

Focalization in a written or oral narrative functions much the same way. A focus on a character's feelings or internal dialogue is much like a close-up on their face. A description of what a particular character sees gives a different feel to the narrative from an omniscient third-person description of the environment in general.

In this parable, despite the popularity of the title focusing on the sower, the sower actually vanishes almost immediately. He doesn't even remain the subject of the sentences. Instead of saying, "the seed he sowed on rocky ground...", the text switches to the passive and says, "the seed that fell on rocky ground..." 

If we imagine the scene as a movie, the camera starts on the sower, but as he drops the seed on the path, instead of continuing to follow him, the camera stops there. The sower moves out of frame and the camera never finds him again, remaining with the seed on the path until it is eaten by birds, then moving to seed without a sower on rocky ground as it grows and withers in the sun.

It's notable that in Jesus's explanation of what the parable means, he never mentions the sower. 

So it's worth asking: is this really the story of the sower?

 
Tropical Leaves

The Parable of Parables

I procrastinated for a long time about writing about this one. It's often called the "parable of parables" because it's the one in which Jesus supposedly explains "parable theory," how to hear and understand the parables. 

There are two primary components to this interpretive method:

  1. The parables are allegorical: each element in the parable (birds, seeds, soil) corresponds to an element in the meaning of the parable (Satan, the message, people).

  2. The parables represent secret knowledge revealed to initiates but kept hidden from outsiders.

 

Both of those points are worth digging into and, in fact, they're related. If the parable is intended as allegory, then knowing what each element represents is the key to unlocking its meaning. While that doesn't automatically entail secret knowledge available only to initiates (those relationships might be incredibly obvious), in requiring such a key, it does lend itself to being a cipher.

Allegorical or Referential?

This parable and its interpretation may well be the source of Christian insistence on interpreting every parable allegorically. If we define "allegory" very broadly, as a story that says one thing and means another, fair enough. But more specifically defined, an allegory creates a one-to-one relationship between elements in the story and elements in the real-life truth or situation it illustrates. 

At first glance, this appears to be what Jesus is saying the parable does. He identifies what each element represents, although notably, he leaves the interpretation somewhat open by not defining what the sower represents, so it can represent either him or those who follow in his footsteps by spreading his message. 

That interpretive strategy kind of works for this parable, but it falls apart in most of the others. Is the unjust judge in Luke 18 supposed to be God? Is the careless sheep herder God? 

David Stern (Parables in Midrash) argues that the entire category of allegory vs. metaphor doesn't really work for the Jewish mashal.

[E]ven if the mashal overlaps with allegory in [referring to something beyond itself], it is not itself a mode of literary discourse as allegory is, a type of speech that says one thing and means another. Rather, the mashal is a literary-rhetorical form, a genre of narrative that employs certain poetic and rhetorical techniques to persuade its audience of the truth of a specific message relating to an ad-hoc situation... The mashal is allegorical—or as I would prefer to call it, referential—only to the extent that it must allude to the ad hoc situation that gives it a concrete meaning.

Stern also notes the importance of ambiguity to the mashal:

The mashal... deliberately gives the impression of naming its meaning insufficiently. It uses ambiguity intentionally. Yet the mashal achieves this appearance—the appearance of ambiguity—not by being authentically ambiguous but by shrewdly incorporating suggestive openings for the questioning of meaning; in this way it artfully manipulates its audience to fill those openings so as to arrive at the mashal's correct conclusion... A mashal's message can rarely be paraphrased in a single statement like an epimythium.

In other words, rather than conveying its message by making every element correspond directly to an element in real life, the mashal tells a story that resembles the situation at hand in order to make a point about that situation, and is intended to raise questions that lead the audience to that point rather than stating it directly. 

Nathan's famous parable is a great example of this. It's situational—he's speaking to David after the death of Uriah—but it doesn't bother to make each element match up to David's situation. Is the lamb Bathsheba or Uriah? It doesn't matter. What matters is the central emotional truth: a wealthy man has stolen something beloved from a much less powerful person.

The idea that a parable directly references the context in which it was told can be a frustrating one for modern-day interpreters. After all, I keep saying to ignore the context at first and read the story as a story in part because I don't trust that the context is accurate. And indeed, there are scholars who think that because we don't know the context in which these stories were told, we can never uncover the meaning. I think that most of these stories are strong enough to stand on their own, but I do find it interesting that most of the parables Jesus tells are in response to a question or a situation, while in his interpretation of this one, he seems to ignore context. ​

Secret Meaning

William Blake, in his poem The Everlasting Gospel, highlights the famous interpretive crux of this parable's context:

Thine is the Friend of all Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.

Blake was an enthusiastic antisemite—there are examples aplenty of his bigotry in this poem itself—but it does highlight something that neither conservative Christians nor progressive Christians criticizing the other side for hypocrisy or taking verses out of context seem to grasp, or at least want to admit, which is that in order to derive any sort of cohesive philosophy, ideology, or general principles from Jesus's words, one has to ignore some of them. A great example for those who envision Jesus as a compassionate and accepting teacher is his disturbing statement that he teaches in parables precisely so most of his listeners won't understand.

It's some incredible chutzpah to make that statement after telling a story and then telling people that what it means is, essentially, that it's the fault of the listeners for not taking the message to heart.

One reading of this statement is that Mark had gnostic leanings, and is portraying Jesus as a teacher who can initiate certain followers into secret wisdom that grants them eternal life. (A similar reading can explain John 14:6 in which Thomas asks Jesus how to get to heaven and Jesus responds, perhaps sharply, "I am the way and the truth and the life." Thomas's question makes sense from a mystery cult perspective, but Jesus can be read as telling him that you don't get to heaven through secret knowledge (gnosis), but through Jesus himself.)

There's another, more nuanced take on the idea that this knowledge is secret. Luise Schottroff (The Parables of Jesus, 2006), paraphrases Mary Ann Beavis (Mark's Audience, 1989):

She believes the elements of "mystery" and "enigmatic parables" to be propagandistic, skillful literary means for winning the audience to Jesus. "Like the other esoteric elements in Mark, the use of mystery terminology involves the reader in the story, encouraging him/her to see, hear, and understand the meaning of the life of Jesus."

In this framing, every listener is an insider, and the outsiders are only theoretical. The parables here partake of the same sort of allure as The Da Vinci Code, promising to make the listener part of an elite group who "gets it," who can see the hidden reality behind the everyday.

Ahearne-Kroll (Mysterious Explanations: Mark 4 and the Reversal of Audience Expectation, 2009) argues that Mark creates an audience expectation of insider status in Ch. 1-3, only to sharply reverse it in Ch. 4 when Jesus starts speaking in parables, and Mark provides the audience with an explanation for only one. In Audience Inclusion and Exclusion as Rhetorical Technique in the Gospel of Mark (2010), Ahearne-Kroll argues that the audience is sometimes given an insider position beyond that of even the disciples due to omniscient narration, but Ch. 4 undermines it:

As Jesus declares that those inside (the disciples) have been given the mystery of the kingdom while those outside are told everything in parables, seemingly to confound their understanding, the audience is not told when exactly the mystery has been given nor what it is. Both of these questions have many possible answers that commentators have suggested, but ultimately Mark does not answer either question unambiguously. If the content of the mystery is the parabolic teaching about the kingdom, then this hardly qualifies as clear insider information. Jesus does give an interpretation of the sower parable, but it is not an obvious interpretation, only one among many...

As the language of mystery and the explanation of the parable commence, this perceived status begins to deteriorate, with w. 33-34 as its culmination. At best, the audience resides at the threshold between insiders and outsiders; at worst, they are outsiders with Jesus' opponents. 

Ahearne-Kroll points out that Mark continues to oscillate between insider and outsider status for the audience, which is both characteristic of apocalyptic literature and a rhetorical strategy to encourage audience engagement and participation:

Insider status comes from following after Jesus, from being "around" Jesus (cf. 3:32), from becoming the family of Jesus by doing the will of God (cf. 3:35), from following Jesus by picking up one's cross (cf. 8:34), from enduring until the end (cf. 13:13). Additional knowledge of the kingdom does not determine insider status but flows from it. The combination of inclusion and exclusion hints to the audience what is possible without fully revealing it, which entices the audience to want more. 

I think there's a much more mundane reading, which I also find far more palatable: Jesus is not spelling out his intent to preserve secret knowledge and intentionally keep most of his audience from attaining salvation, but simply lamenting the truth of the situation: most people just aren't going to listen/get it.

A Retroactive Theory

It may not be worth spending too much time on the idea of the Parable of Parables as the key that unlocks all the parables, however. Even Craig Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables), who I find stodgy at best and offensive at worst, acknowledges that the Parable Theory is likely inauthentic: "Like the parable of the wheat and tares, the parable of the sower comes with a ready-made allegorical interpretation  that is widely rejected as the secondary creation of the early church."

More on this later.

 

Christian Interpretations

Strangely, given that the text has Jesus explaining the parable himself, oceans of ink have been spilled by Christian commentators who feel they need to add to his interpretation.

 

On the internet these days, the parable seems to be having a moment in the sun as the go-to for Christians struggling to understand why people they believed were saved leave the church. (In particular, the recent "deconversion" of the megachurch pastor Joshua Harris, Hillsong leader Marty Sampson, Christian songwriter Derek Webb, Campus Crusade for Christ pastors and Christian comedians Rhett & Link, and others have prompted a lot of Christian bloggers and writers to look to the parable for explanations of how someone can seem to be an enthusiastic Christian—in fact, a Christian leader—and then cease to believe.

 

I want to dig into a few specific interpretive trends, but let's start with a survey.

Overview

Unsurprisingly—again, since Jesus himself (at least in the text) explicitly tells the reader how to interpret the parable—there have been very few shifts in how it's read over the centuries.

Church Fathers and Early Christianity

Augustine (354-430) somehow manages to make an entire sermon out of saying, "The wayside, stony places, and thorny places are the same as the tares in Matthew 13:24: they're all bad Christians." John Chrysostum (347-407) sees the parable as aimed not at evangelists, but at listeners; that is, primarily as an exhortation to accept the message and not as a warning that preaching is hard. The Shepherd of Hermas (150) sees the thistles/thorns as rich people. Cyril (376-444) is, I believe, the first to draw the parallel between three negative fates for the seeds and three degrees of positive outcome. Clement (150-215), not wanting to completely toss out the classics, argues that Greek culture and philosophy prepared the ground for the seed that flourishes. Evagrius (345-399), perhaps best known for his catalogue of temptations, sees the thorns as "sporadic desires" and "bad habits."

 

Irenaeus (130-202) is largely concerned with countering the gnostic interpretation of Valentinus (100-160), who taught that Sophia (divine wisdom) sows spiritual seed in humans, and through gnosis, they can "bear fruit." Another gnostic, Herakleon (c. 175), sees the wayside, rocky ground, and thorny ground as listeners being "on the point of being ready, some are near to being ready and some are still being sown." Jerome (347-420) is also really worried about Valentinus: "This parable Valentinus lays hold of to establish his heresy, bringing in three different natures; the spiritual, the natural or the animal, and the earthly. But there are here four named, one by the wayside, one stony, one thorny, and a fourth the good ground."

 

Jerome also warns against interpreting the parable beyond what Jesus said about it—"Note that this is the first parable that has been given with its interpretation, and we must beware where the Lord expounds His own teaching that we do not presume to understand any thing either more or less, or any way otherwise than as so expounded by Him"—and then goes ahead and does just that. 

 

Surprisingly, other than Hilary (310-367), who was of course trying to root out Arianism, which was more sympathetic to Jews than most forms of Christianity, ("For the Jews not having faith, have lost also the Law which they had; and Gospel faith has the perfect gift, inasmuch as if received it enriches with new fruit, if rejected it subtracts from the riches of ancient possession"), I didn't encounter as many anti-Jewish interpretations as I'd expect in my admittedly light survey of early commentaries. Maybe they were too busy focusing on the gnostics.

Medieval Commentators

Rabanus (780-856), however—before he even gets to the parable itself—considers the very setting to be a symbol of God's rejection of the Jewish people: "He went out and taught by the sea, to signify that having left Judaea because of their sinful unbelief, He would pass to the salvation of the Gentiles." Remigius (841-908) is certain that Jesus was calling out Jewish leaders: ""To them," that is, to them that are without, and who would not believe on Him, the Scribes namely and Pharisees, and to the rest who continue in unbelief, it is not given." Theophylact (1055-1170) opines that God gives understanding of the parable's hidden meaning to those who approach with the right seeking mindset, but "blinds" the others because it would look bad if people who understood the message didn't believe it (I wonder if this is the origin of the Christian certainty that Jews remain Jewish out of ignorance or inability to understand Christian arguments). Aquinas (1225-1274), unlike almost everyone before him, seems less interested in a taxonomy of the "bad" soils than the "good" ones, describing the thirtyfold yield as the "average" attainment of enlightenment, whereas at the hundredfold level, one experiences a foretaste of salvation. Bede (673-735) wants everyone to know that the crowd at the sea were Gentiles, because Jesus had rejected Jews by leaving the synagogue in Mark 3. 

Pre-20th Century Commentary

Since I've been leaning heavily on commentators favored by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, let's take a look at what Martin Luther (1483-1546) has to say. Some of it is pretty troubling: "they are free from the bondage of the law, of their conscience"—"free" of their conscience?! (also, there's that disdain for law again)—"and of human teachings." There's also the idea that "they rejoice also in that they know the real truth, and are able to know how they may be saved without works through faith." (A bit of early disdain for "works righteousness" there, which at times in Christian thought seems to develop into disdain for good works, full stop.) But he's got some good warnings about those who "misuse" the gospel and about fanaticism: "This is also proved by the fanatics of our day, who know so much to preach about Christ; but as they themselves do not experience it in their heart, they rush ahead and pass by the true foundation of the mystery and tramp around with questions and rare foundlings..." It's nice to see someone call out Christian fanaticism as bad, although coming from Luther, a raging antisemite and fanatic, that's pretty ironic, as is the fact that he pinpoints having questions as a bad thing.

From this point on, the vast majority of Christian commentary, from Calvin to Maldonado to Scofield, focuses on the different soils as different types of hearers. John Lightfoot (1602-1675), a prominent Anglican commentator who also studied rabbinic commentary, makes a special point of praising the Jewish "genius" for parables only so he can scoff at how we all don't understand our own cultural art form, but does actually provide a fairly robust survey of rabbinic parallels to the parable.

Modern Commentary and Scholarship

Even in the 20th and 21st centuries, the vast majority of the commentary is about different types of hearers, though it benefits from a sort of doubling effect in not having to choose between sower-as-Jesus and sower-as-Christian, allowing commentators to both exhort their listeners to be good hearers and warn them of the likely reception they'll get in preaching to others. An outlier is George Campbell Morgan (1863-1945), pastor of Westminster Chapel, who, in trying to force a strict allegory upon the story, came up with the interpretation that the seed, rather than being the message, is the people (make your own Soylent Green jokes here), and the soil is the challenges and temptations they face. 

I checked in with some of my Usual Suspects for bad Christian takes, but the commentary was surprisingly sparse. Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables), who is clearly struggling with the ways the parable itself and Jesus's interpretation don't match up, spends most of his time cataloguing Christian interpretations (in fact, I'd recommend checking him out if my survey isn't enough for you). In fact, most Christian commentary seems to mostly consist of describing other commentary, which, I think, is telling. 

Jewish commentators and Christian commentators who focus on the parable's Jewish context have little to say on the text. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (Short Stories by Jesus) makes only a few glancing references, preferring to focus instead on the story of the mustard seed. Dr. Luise Schottroff (The Parables of Jesus) devotes chapters to both the sower/soils/seeds and to the mustard seed, identifies the parable as being about hearing first and foremost, and compares it to the Shema:

I will quote this prayer here in the shortened version in Mark 12:29,30: "Hear, O Israel; Adonai, our God, is one. And you shall love Adonai, your God, with your whole heart and your whole life and your whole mind and your whole strength" (Deut 6:4-5). I see references to the Shema' Israel both in the appeals for hearing and indirectly in the verses that speak of failure to hear (4:14-19). We may conclude from this that successful hearing is the kind of hearing intended by the Shema' Israel: a hearing that includes the commitment of the entire person, a successful life in relationship to God... In this sense of the text the word that is to be listened to is God's Torah. Jesus is the teacher of the word of God; he instructs people about how Torah is to be heard today, in the present situation...

 

Note that Schottroff pinpoints here that sense of immediacy, that parables point to the real-life situation at hand when they are told. 

 

Mark 4:19 and Mark 10:17-22 both rest on a critical analysis of the money economy, whose lordship over people and whose character as the cause of the pleonexia, "greed," is is subjected to a fundamental critique in postbiblical Jewish and early Christian tradition. The communities whose experiences are given expression in the Gospel of Mark suffer under the destructive power of pleonexia, which prevents people from living with the word of God.

I also checked out Rabbi Frank Stern's A Rabbi Looks at Jesus' Parables, since I kept seeing a "Rabbi Stern" referenced in Christian commentary and was surprised to learn that they weren't referring to mashal expert David Stern. There's nothing I really take issue with in it, but aside from a few notes about the concept of the satan in Jewish thought and Jewish views of teshuvah (repentance), it mostly just rehashes existing Christian commentary about the Isaianic background of the parable and other Hebrew Bible allusions in the text. 

The easiest way to categorize most of the modern commentary is by what it focuses on.

The sower: Interpreters who focus on the act of sowing generally assume that the interpretation is authentic, and their interpretations are in line with it. See Boucher (The Parables, 1981), Donahue (The Gospel in Parable, 1988), Marcus (The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, 1986), Tolbert (Sowing the Gospel, 1989), and so on.

The soils: Interpreters who focus on the soils see the act of hearing as the main point. David Flusser (Die rabbinischen Gleichnisse und der Gleichniserzähler Jesus, 1981), an Israeli Orthodox Jewish scholar who was seminal in drawing attention to Jesus's work as coming from within his Jewish context rather than existing over-above it, is one of the most influential scholars to advocate this approach. Blomberg, Klyne Snodgrass, and Schottroff all choose this focus as well, as do Liebenberg (The Language of the Kingdom and Jesus, 2000), Stiller (Preaching Parables to Postmoderns, 2005), and Kilgallen (Twenty Parables of Jesus in the Gospel of  Luke, 2008). 

The harvest: Interpreters who focus on the harvest largely see the parable as eschatological, as focused on the kingdom of heaven. Joachim Jeremias (Parables of Jesus, 1972), a German theologian who was one of the earlier Christian commentators to be sensitive to Jewish-Christian relations and to show interest in positioning Jesus within his Jewish context rather than against it, is one of the most influential commentators to take this approach. Jeremias's work views the parable primarily as a reassurance to listeners that the kingdom of heaven is coming, and a challenge to examine their own sincerity. John Dominic Crossan (In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, 1973), to whom we'll return later, follows Jeremias in seeing the "twist" of the bountiful harvest as a promise of the coming of the kingdom. Also of note is Ernst Fuchs, one of the founders of the New Hermeneutics school. Fuchs came up with the idea of the Sprachereignisse, or "language event," in which a concept enters into language, and saw Jesus's parables as examples of such events. 

There are a handful of supercessionist readings, such as Garland (Interpreting the Parables, 1993) and Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God, 1997), which promote the idea of Christians as the "true Israel." 

Finally, it's worth noting the Rudolf Bultmann school of parable interpretation, which holds that there is no point to historical interpretation of the New Testament, and that the gospels are so historically unreliable as to make attempting to discern which parts of them might be historically true is both futile and missing the point. Bultmann and his followers believe that the interpretation given in the gospels is the invention of the early church, not Jesus, and that the original meaning of Jesus's parables is lost.

 

Four Sons & Four Disciples

For a contemporary Jewish audience, the evocation of four types of people is deeply resonant: it immediately brings to mind the four sons mentioned in the Pesach (Passover) haggadah. The four sons are an obvious counterpart to the four types of hearers in the parable; they too are learners, though of a more active sort than the soil-listeners. Each son asks a question (save one, whose silence is a question), and the haggadah gives parents instructions on how to best answer each type of learner. In fact, the number four is woven throughout the seder: we ask four questions, we drink four cups of wine, and more.  

The importance of fours doesn't stop with Pesach. As a Pesach song reminds us, the number is strongly associated with the four female founders of the Jewish people (Sarah, Rivka, Leah, and Rachel, although I will die on the hill that it should be six and include Bilhah and Zilpah). The Jewish approach to Torah interpretation, PaRDeS, posits four levels of insight for every verse. There are four different new years on the Jewish calendar, and on Sukkot, we shake a bundle of four species of plant. And of course the divine name famously has four letters.

The strongest association, however, remains to types of learners. The rabbis were very concerned with how to teach effectively, and part of that concern involved attempting to create a taxonomy of students. 

In fact, before one even gets to the students, there is a taxonomy of sages. In the story of the four sages who went to Pardes, paradise (in other words, received direct divine revelation, reached the highest level of mystical study, or faced the highest truths in Torah, depending on your interpretation), told in the Talmud and other Jewish sources, each of the four men has a different response. One dies, one goes mad, one becomes an apostate, and one enters and leaves in peace. 

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors), a tractate of the Mishnah that doesn't appear in the Talmud, has a string of sayings dealing with four types of people, creating quadripartite taxonomies for everything from temperaments to attitudes toward charity. Two touch on types of learners. 
 

four sons.jpeg

The Avot of Rabbi Nathan, a later work, also contains a chain of sets of four, from four things that reap reward or negative consequences in the world to come to four types of sages. It compares students to four types of fishes, ranging from the inedible fish, a child of the poor who knows all the different texts—Tanakh, Mishnah, Midrash, Halakhah, and Aggadah—but has no knowledge about them beyond familiarity, to the Mediterranean fish, a scholar who can offer commentary on all these texts. 

All of these texts offer interesting parallels to the four types of hearers the interpretation in the gospels posits, but I think the most important takeaway is that the perfect is not the enemy of the good. A sieve might be the most desirable type of student, but a sponge isn't bad, and one doesn't give up on even the "evil" son. 

 

More Christian Interpretations

As I discussed in the Overview section, this parable is unusual in that there isn't much of a variety of Christian interpretations. That said, they do tend to rabbithole on a few issues. 

Palestinian Farming Techniques

The first detail on which Christian commentators seem to spend a lot of time is in understanding the farming techniques of the time and place. I suppose this is understandable: some commentators have suggested that the sower carelessly—or generously—tosses his seed in places where it is unlikely to grow, and if the sower is supposed to represent God and/or Jesus, it wouldn't do to have him be an incompetent farmer.

The conclusion of most contemporary commentators seems to be that this was a normal farming technique for the region at that time (see, for example, Blomberg, Boucher, Jeremias, Snodgrass, and Stein). However, there is considerable debate about whether the loss of seed is minimal or highly wasteful, since the parable doesn't specify how much seed falls on each type of ground (or, for that matter, how many angels might dance on the head of a pin). I'll quote Schottroff here as a good example:

In New Testament research on the parable of the sower there is a general discussion about how the loss of seed that the sower takes into account is traceable to a highly uneconomical method of planting used in first-century Palestine, as in Arab agriculture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. People sowed unplowed ground and then plowed it, with the result that weeds and footpaths were plowed under as well. Against this theory—although it maintains itself persistently among theologians—one must object, with those knowledgeable about ancient farming methods, because such waste is unthinkable alongside the refined techniques of land improvement and methods for increasing the harvest yield that existed in ancient agricultural practice. Furthermore, sowing on unplowed ground, observed among Arab farmers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was misinterpreted by theologians like Gustaf Dalman and Joachim Jeremias, who were influenced by the parable of the sower. There are more objective accounts of Arab agriculture on Lake Genesareth that say that the fall sowing is done on unplowed ground if the field "had lain fallow as a summer pasture after the last spring rains" or had recently yielded a summer harvest—not at all an uneconomical method.

 

Even for those commentators who accept that there is nothing unrealistic about the sower's planting technique, there is an assumption that the point is how much seed is wasted, as in Frederick Borsch's "Waste and Grace: The Parable of the Sower" (1984): 

 

The story is realistic. Much is wasted in nature and life. There is lack of growth and there is death, and these are mysterious too: sometimes hundreds of seeds for one plant, thousands of seeds for one tree. We now know that even millions of sperms may be produced to create one life and perhaps billions of stars for but one or a relatively few homes for conscious life. Somehow one imagined that God was an environmentalist! My German father caused me to suppose that God, too, rolled the toothpaste tube up from the bottom to make sure none was thrown away. Yet nature's God seems utterly profligate. Nature spends wildly to engender what sometimes seems relatively little.

As Schottroff notes, however, there's nothing in the parable itself that claims that a majority of the seed was wasted:

In addition, in the parable the loss of seed is by no means described as very great; this impression has arisen only because of the emphatic depiction of the negative fate of the seed. Given the shortage of good agricultural land in Palestine, and indeed in the whole Mediterranean basin in antiquity, a certain loss of seed had to be accepted, even when the best planting techniques were used. The parable of the sower hints at a minimal field size, since, as we may gather from the parable itself, with the swing of the sower's arm some kernels fell on the path at the edge of the field, which of course was not plowed with the rest. There are also archaeological findings of such miniature fields in first-century Palestine. The thorns at the edge or as islands in the field (there is evidence of both) and the sowing of patches with a rocky base also point to the shortage of plowland. The parable thus documents not an uneconomical method of planting, but the critical economic situation of the people in Palestine at this time, who had to cultivate the tiniest bits of ground, even when they contained rocky areas. This observation, incidentally, is repeatedly confirmed in the nature parables and imagery of the Synoptic Gospels—that nature is observed from the perspective of people who wrest their food from it with an effort. Trees that bear no fruit are cut down and burned; even the sparrows are eaten, and there is scarcely any perception of nature that lacks an economic basis—with one important exception in Matt 6:25-33.

In the long run, I'm not sure it matters if the seed spend on hardened, rocky, or thorny soil is a majority or the minority of the total. Commentators who wish to reinforce the impression either that the growth of the early church was miraculous, or to warn their audiences that Christians (perhaps "true" Christians) are a minority whose preaching will meet overwhelming resistance are, obviously, motivated to portray the seed that falls on hospitable soil as the rare exception. (As a member of a minority religious tradition in a country where we've never had a non-Christian president and Christmas is a federal holiday, I'll admit that such homiletic moves make it hard not to roll my eyes so hard my contacts pop out.) Again, there's nothing in the parable that says that most of the seed was wasted. 

And what of the yield itself? I'll defer to Schottroff again here:

A hundredfold yield per seed grain is also cited elsewhere as attesting abundant, but not fantastic fertility. The parable thus keeps within the framework of imaginable reality, even though—as regards the rich yield—not within that of daily experience. Such a rich harvest is unusual, an exception that causes astonishment.

I don't think the point is that only a few rare seeds sprouted, or that the harvest was miraculously large. The majority of the seed could well have gone where the sower presumably intended it to go, into the hospitable soil, with a bit that doesn't fall where it's supposed to. But ultimately, I don't think how much seed fell where is important. If it were, the text could just as easily have told us. And while I think Borsch spends way too much time on the idea of nature's profligate waste, he does get at something that I believe is related to the main point:

There is always something perspective, uncontrollable about [plant growth]. Every kind of harvest can be experienced as a gift—a delight and surprise, that from so little and with so relatively little human effort, and despite all the natural losses, there should be grain for food and new planting. One needs only a few ounces of nature mysticism to hear that music in the parable and also to hear similar strains in the other seed parables... 

This I find resonant. A seed itself is miraculous—no allegory needed. Every time I've ever planted seeds, I felt like it was sheer magic that they sprouted, and I was as proud of the plants that grew from them as if I'd hand-crafted them, when in truth all I'd done was stick them in some soil on a sunny windowsill and (mostly!) remember to water them.

Judaism encourages us to lean in to that sense of wonder. Every Shabbat, we say the motzi blessing over our challah: Blessed are you, Eternal One, sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. As we taste that Shabbat treat, we remind ourselves that the fact that grain comes forth from the soil should be something at which we feel awe and wonder. We remember that we are interconnected: while speaking of children (or sperm, for that matter) as someone's "seed" may feel archaic in English, even in modern Hebrew the terms remain intimately connected. To conceive is lehazria, from zerah, seed, and a human is an adam, an earthling, from the earth, adamah. Humans are kin to flora as well as other fauna, and both the sprouting of a seed and the conception of a child are no less miraculous for being natural, everyday occurrences.

 

In Judaism, a miracle is not necessarily a supernatural event. It is something that alters our perceptions, the receiving of a new lens through which to see the world, something that makes life more full of amazement and surprise and wonder. One of my favorite moments of Judaism-on-tv is a scene in the 1990s scifi series Babylon 5, when a rabbi visits the titular space station. "Nes gadol [a great miracle]," he says to the station's commander as he's leaving. "Take good care of it." (Then, the (gentile) commander says goodbye in Hebrew and, Reader, I plotzed.) Obviously, the rabbi doesn't believe that the station is something supernatural or impossible: just that it's wondrous. Nes gadol, take good care of it, is also a great summation of the Jewish attitude toward Earth itself. 

Every harvest is an everyday miracle.

Isaianic Background

Since Jesus paraphrases Isaiah 6:9-10 in his explanation of the parable, a lot of commentators have spent a lot of time parsing that connection. I'm not going to spend much time on it because while it's intimately tied to the parable explanation's famous crux interpretationis of why Jesus would supposedly want most of his listeners to be blocked from understanding him, I don't actually find it that interesting. In short, Isaiah is generally used in apologetics for resolving this crux: just as God tells Isaiah that God doesn't want the people to understand and repent, Jesus does the same here and thus has divine precedent rather than elitism or malice.

I've always read that passage in Isaiah as God using reverse psychology on a proudly contrarian people, but that reading doesn't work well on Jesus here since he's only saying it to his inner circle, rather than to the crowd it applies to.

Craig Evans (On the Isaianic Background of the Sower Parable, 1985) is perhaps a bit unusual in following Gerhardsson (The Parable of the Sower and Its Interpretation, 1968) and Bowker (Mystery and Parable: Mark iv:1-20, 1974) in seeing the parable as midrash (on the Shema or Isaiah 6:13, respectively), but otherwise fairly representative in trying to illuminate the relationship:

In a recent study, I have suggested that the evangelist Mark has interpreted the judgmental aspect of Jesus' parables (e.g., the "hardening" idea of 4:11-12) in terms of the word of judgment Yahweh commanded Isaiah to speak, which was designed to render Israel obdurate. Just as Isaiah was to speak a word of obduracy to bring about Israel's judgment, so the word of Jesus brought on judgment. Moreover, in the case of both Isaiah and Jesus a seed would be spared that would become abundantly fruitful. 

 

While reading the parable as midrash isn't a bad take, I don't think it actually resolves the fundamental question of why God wants some people to ignore God's message (a struggle that goes back to Exodus and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart).

 

Literary Structure

Much effort has also been expended analyzing the literary structure of the parable itself, the parable and its context, the chapter as a whole, and the Gospel of Mark as a whole. So on one hand, I'm a lit crit major, and this is absolutely my jam, and on the other, I'm not sure that these analyses actually contribute to understanding the point of the parable. I'm going to briefly review them anyway, since it'll help transition to the next section. Most of this discussion will focus on Mark, since it's the oldest gospel and possibly the source of the versions of the parable in the other two synoptics.

Mashal and Nimshal

Rabbinic meshalim took on a more formalized structure than they'd had in biblical texts, but we don't really know when that formalization settled into place, so we don't know if Jesus and his listeners were familiar with it. That said, even if Jewish parables hadn't fully settled into their rabbinic form in the first century, they were presumably headed in that direction, so it's worth looking at this parable through that lens. 

The mashal has a four-part structure (or a three-part structure, if you want to combine the explanation and the prooftext): the context, the mashal itself, the explanation (nimshal), and the prooftext. Often, the prooftext and the nimshal are the same. Let's take a look at a much-analyzed mashal (Eikhah (Lamentations) Rabbah 4:14) as an example.

First, we have the context. 

It is written: "A psalm of Asaph. O God, heathens have entered Your domain (Psalm 79:1)": This verse should not have said "psalm", but rather a "lament" of Asaph, a "mourning song" of Asaph, an "elegy" of Asaph, so why does it say "a psalm of Asaph"?

The context is a question about why a particular text is identified as a psalm, a song, as opposed to a lament, given that it describes the destruction of Jerusalem. In answer, the text offers a parable.

Rather it is a parable about a king who made a huppah for his son and its foundation and its wall and its decoration, and his son went out and did evil debauchery, and so the king went up to the huppah and tore up the curtains and smashed the supports and his tutor (paidogogos) went and made a flute of the support and was playing music. They said to him: "The king overturned his son's huppah and you are sitting playing music?" and he said to them: "I am playing music because he overturned his son's huppah and did not "pour out his anger" on his son."

And now, to connect the two, there's an explanation, a nimshal.

So they said to Asaph: "The Holy One, blessed be He, has destroyed the Temple and you are sitting and playing music?" and he said to them: "I am playing music because the Holy One, blessed be He, "poured out his anger" on wood and stone and did not "pour out his anger" on Israel."

The connection to the question is that just as the tutor celebrates that the king turned his anger on his son's marriage canopy and not on his son, Asaph's song is not a lament but a praise-song since it describes the destruction of Jerusalem and not the destruction of the Jewish people.

See! It is written: "He kindled a fire in Zion which consumed its foundations".

And to conclude, there's a prooftext from Lamentations (upon which all of this is a commentary) to bring it back to the broader context.

David Stern notes, however, that:

Even a typical nimshal usually tells us less than we need in order to know the mashal's full explanation; rather, it tends to supply only enough information to enable the audience to apply the mashal's rhetorical message to the exegetical context. 

As Stern discusses in the text I quoted earlier, the mashal is designed to evoke audience participation in interpretation, so the nimshal itself, rather than telling the audience the moral they should take from the story, simply makes explicit the relationship of the mashal to the context.

Those Christian interpreters who want to argue that Jesus's explanation is not a later addition often point to the mashal-nimshal relationship to support this idea. It's a clever argument (although, again, we don't know when this format for the mashal was codified), but I find it unconvincing because the point of the nimshal is to make explicit the connection between the parable and the context, and this parable has no explicit context.

Unlike most of Jesus's parables, this one isn't sparked by a question or a situation. We're simply told that a crowd gathered and Jesus taught them and this is one of the things that he taught them. Luke dispenses with most of the description of the setting and activity and makes it seem like Jesus tells the parable in response to the crowd gathering, but Luke's is the latest of the texts and most likely based on Mark. 

Parallelism

The three levels of production of the successful seed (thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold) parallel the three outcomes in which the seed does not produce.

Chiastic Structure

Many commentators have pointed out the chiastic structure of the parable and context.

 

Dewey (Markan Public Debate, 1980) proposes a five-part structure:

A vl-2a Introduction

B v2b-20    Parable material

C v21-25        Sayings material

B' v26-32    Parable material

A' v33-34 Conclusion

Not to be outdone, Fay (Introduction to Incomprehension, 1989) offers a seven-part structure:

A vl-2a Introduction

B v2b-9    Parable Material

C v10-13        Parabolic Method

D v14-20             Interpretation of the Sower

C' v21-25       Parabolic Method

B' v26-32  Parable Material

A' v33-34 Conclusion

Fay notes that in addition to its symmetry, this structure emphasizes a change in the narrative attitude toward the disciples, who are initially portrayed positively, but then shift to becoming "outsiders" like the rest of the crowd as it becomes clear that they have missed the point of the parable.

 

Crescendoing Audiences

Heil (Reader-Response and the Narrative Context of the Parables about Growing Seed in Mark 4:1-34, 1992) sees Jesus's audience as growing throughout Mark, reaching a climax in Mark 4. 

1:33 the whole city was gathered at the door

2:2 many gathered so that there was no room even around the door

2:13 all the crowd came to him

3:7-8 a great multitude from Galilee followed and also from Judea and from Jerusalem and from Idumea and beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon a great multitude

3:20 again the crowd gathered so that they could not even eat

4: 1 a very large crowd gathered about him . . . and all the crowd was beside the sea on the land

Mark's Anti-Jewish Plot

There is also a school of thought which identifies the primary plot arc of the entire gospel of Mark as Jesus's conflict with Jewish leaders. In this framework, the parable and parable theory mark the pivot from a focus on Galilee and the Pharisees to Jerusalem and the chief priests. As Keegan (The Parable of the Sower and Mark's Jewish Leaders, 1994) describes:

In the plot of conflict with the Jewish leaders there is an escalation, but not a gradual one. There is, rather, a quantum leap as Jesus passes from Galilee to Jerusalem, from the place where he encountered Pharisees, who challenged him on religious grounds, tempting him to abandon his mission, to the place where he will encounter the chief priests and their allies, who will challenge him on political grounds and bring about his execution. The parable of the sower not only illustrates this clear distinction in the role of the Jewish leaders in the plot of conflict with Jesus but also illustrates how their distinctive responses to Jesus serve the rhetorical effect of the gospel. In the subordinated but rhetorically more important plot of conflict with the disciples, the parable of the sower illustrates how the disciples are warned to avoid the responses of the Pharisees, on the one hand, and of the chief priests, scribes, and elders on the other.

Keegan's interest is in determining whether the "Jewish leaders" are to be read as a unified group, or whether the distinctions the text makes between the Pharisees versus the Sadducees and/or chief priests, scribes, and elders are important to the plot. 

Keegan's take is a great example of how analyzing the gospels as literature—while it's something that I think is a useful tool in a set of tools—in the abstract, without concern for how the gospels have been and continue to be read and used, functions as a sort of implied apologetics which handwaves away any malice in the text or harm done by it by reducing it to pure fiction with a structure to be analyzed in a vacuum. 

Indeed, we can simply view the Pharisees and Sadducees and other Jewish characters as antagonists without looking to history for truth about who they were, or attempting to understand the gospels as polemic, or worrying about the legacy of such descriptions, if we view the gospels as entirely fictional and as having had no influence on real people.

But that's not reality. The reality is that the gospels don't present themselves as fiction: they present themselves as history. And the majority of Christians—that is, the majority of the West—reads them not only as history, but as sacred history. So, to be clear, Keegan's airy refusal to acknowledge that is extraordinarily irresponsible, even given that he's writing for an academic audience who might be presumed to understand the bloody 2000-year legacy of hatred and genocide the gospels' anti-Jewish rhetoric inspired, and not a popular one that might need education on that subject.

First, Keegan establishes that the conflict with Jewish leaders is the primary story told in Mark:

Those literary analyses that insist on the unity of the Jewish opposition to Jesus usually do so in the context of a discussion of the plot involving the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Most analyses recognize this plot as the main plot of Mark's gospel, the plot to which all others are subordinated. The main plot reaches its climax, as many have noted, when the Jewish leaders succeed in having Jesus executed. Their motivation for desiring his death is the threat he poses to their privileged position of power and prestige. 

Keegan then cites the parable as a plot summary of the whole gospel of Mark, or at least the entirety of the text that precedes it, and then spends most of the rest of his time working out which Jews match up best with which bad seeds/soils. 

Thus far, several diverse character groups that appear in the Gospel of Mark have been seen to be illustrated by elements in the parable of the sower: the Pharisees of Galilee are the seed that fell along the path; the disciples are the seed that fell on rocky ground; the crowds, prefigured by Herod, are the seed that fell among thorns; and the chief priests, scribes, and elders are the thorns responsible for choking the word. This analysis illustrates the distinctive role that the Pharisees (tempting Jesus) and the chief priests and their allies (killing Jesus) have in the plot of conflict. 

He seems far less interested in identifying who, precisely, the good seed is. Then he decides to get into the nature of the various groups he identifies with bad seed, and things take a turn.

The Pharisees have allied themselves with Satan. They have decided that Jesus must be destroyed, but they never engage in any direct attack on him. As redaction critics have shown, all of their verbal assaults on him are indirect and involve matters of religious observance. They play no role in the events leading to Jesus' death. Three times the Pharisees do confront him directly. Each time they do exactly what Satan does: they tempt him...

From the moment the Pharisees appear, they are irrevocably opposed to Jesus. It remains only for the narra- tive to disclose the nature and cause of this opposition. Their own agenda allies them with Satan. They try to take away the word. They seek to destroy Jesus by tempting him to abort his mission. In a similar way the chief priests and their allies in Jerusalem remain constant throughout the narrative. From the moment they appear they are irrevocably opposed to Jesus, but their motivation and their behavior are different from those of the Pharisees. From their first encounter with Jesus they are determined to kill him. Their jealous concern for their own prerogatives initiates a course of action that within a matter of days results in the death of Jesus. 

I want to note, again, that if one takes the Gospel of Mark by itself, as a literary work, in a vacuum, this is a perfectly valid literary reading of what purpose various characters serve in advancing the plot. 

The problem is, the various groups of Jewish leaders aren't fictional characters. They're representations of actual people. Moreover, the reading isn't as obvious as Keegan makes it out to be: the Pharisees' "challenges" to Jesus don't actually paint them as hateful or irrevocably opposed to Jesus, let alone allies of the devil. The Pharisees are doing what Pharisees do, which is argue and ask questions. That's how both enemies and beloved friends, teachers, and students, interact within Pharisaic circles: they debate. 

You don't get to ignore history when analyzing a text that presents itself as historical. 

 
Marten_van_Valckenborch_-_Parable_of_the

More Anti-Judaism

Luise Schottroff documents the struggle various Christian commentators have had in trying to avoid anti-Jewish readings.

 

For Donahue and Harrington the "context of Jewish rejection of Christian claims" is the implicit context of the discussion. Thus this interpretation perpetuates an opposition between insiders and outsiders in ecclesiological terms and in regard to a theology of the cross, which already has a long Christian history. The blind synagogue is implicitly the counterimage to the insiders who accept the cross of Christ...

I will take Gerhardsson's interpretation in "The Parable of the Sower and Its Interpretation" as an example of the reading of the parable in terms of four types of people and their hearing. Measured by the contemporary scholarly discussion, it was an especially early and outstanding attempt to overcome anti-Judaism and an ecclesiological reading. He understands the four fates of the seed to be representative of four timeless types of hearers (175, on Matt 13:18-23; 181, on Mark 4:13-20). The successful fate of the seed refers to "the true members of the covenant" (182; see also 178). "But they are not referred to as any particular ticular historical group, as `the church' over against `the synagogue' . . . but as an existential category" (179). He understands the insiders and the outsiders as two groups within Israel (178), the blind crowd in contrast to those who hear and do (174, 179). Despite his admirable attempt to avoid anti-Judaism, he constructs an internal Jewish contrast between two groups modeled on the structure of the traditional ecclesiological interpretation...

In contrast, "those outside" became the Jewish people that God had hardened, the blind synagogue. As an example of such an interpretation pretation let me point to Kogel: "The religious knowledge of Israel, what had previously been given to the people in divine revelation and as their religious treasure ... is now definitively lost to them."...

[Mary Ann Beavis] successfully terminates the anti-Judaism of the exegetical tradition, but the triumphant, all-knowing church is replaced by a triumphant, all-knowing "audience," the hearers of the gospel.

Joel Marcus regards Mark 4:11-12 as a contrast between Israel, which had refused the Messiah, and the Markan community." God has rejected Israel, says the community.

She concludes the discussion by noting that:

A reflection on the methods with which the texts have been investigated needs to be augmented by a hermeneutical reflection on the tradition of interpretation. Otherwise the internal connection between anti-Judaism and triumphalistic ecclesiology will not be overcome, not even when anti-Judaism is avoided. It has been shown to be necessary to discuss anti-Judaism explicitly and with all its ecclesiological consequences.

I don't have a lot to add here except to note that while I admire Schottroff's efforts in attempting to purge anti-Jewish readings from common interpretations of the parables, I'm not sure doing so is possible without a theological rejection of Christian exclusivity. As long as Christians believe that their theology is A) grounded in Jewish scripture and B) the only "true" theology/way to heaven/salvation, they will be unable to escape the implication that Jewish writings rightfully belong to Christians, not Jews, and that we are unable to understand our own culture, writings, and history. As she notes, replacing the church triumphant over the Jews with simply the church triumphant, or Jesus's audience triumphant, merely files off the serial numbers, but does not remove the fundamental ugliness of the dynamic.

One might note that if one is to read this positioning Jesus as a Jew speaking to other Jews within a Jewish context, one could just as easily read it as reassurance to those who have remained Jewish that their loyalty to God and Torah will still bear fruit after the rifts in the family that created "lost" seed such as Ishmael, Esau, and the Samaritans.

 
 

Reconstructing the Original

You may have noticed that throughout this article, I've been caveating attributing the parable explanation to Jesus, and that even commentators as conservative as Blomberg acknowledge that the explanation might be a later addition. 

To understand the arguments around this, it's necessary to have at least a basic familiarity with a set of theories around the order in which the gospels were composed, and the influence they may have had on one another's composition. 

Explaining the "Synoptic Problem"

Christians have been attempting to explain the fact that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have a lot in common but aren't identical, and that John has very little in common with the synoptics, for a long time. For most of history, they've held to the Augustinian hypothesis, which claims that Matthew is the oldest gospel (hence its position preceding Mark in the New Testament). Mark, in this theory, abbreviated Matthew's work. 

Modern scholars consider Mark to be the oldest gospel (dating to just after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE), and believe that rather than Mark editing down Matthew, Matthew expanded on Mark. However, this doesn't explain why, when material shared among all three synoptic gospels shows minor differences (e.g. in the order segments are presented), either Matthew or Luke will agree with the text as presented in Mark, but they rarely agree with each other against Mark. (Put another way, Mark is almost never the odd one out.) This pattern supports the idea that Mark is the "original" synoptic gospel, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke based their versions on it, a theory known as Marcan priority

However, there is also shared material in Matthew and Luke that's not present in Mark. Given that these two gospels were composed long after Jesus and most people who could have known him were dead (Matthew in 80-90 CE, and Luke in 80-110 CE), if the authors didn't simply make up the shared material that's absent from Mark, they must have had another source. The theory that accounts for this is known as the two-source hypothesis. As the name suggests, this theory holds that in addition to the Gospel of Mark, the writers of Matthew and Luke must have had access to another source, known as the Q source. (There are also three- and four-source hypotheses, but given that they have less support, I'll skip discussing them for the sake of simplicity.) Most scholars believe the Q source to be primarily a collection of sayings of Jesus, similar to the Gospel of Thomas. There have been various attempts to reconstruct it, but since I'm not sure which one, if any, is most widely accepted, I'm not going to link any here.

Speaking of the Gospel of Thomas, you may have noticed that I included its version of this parable at the beginning of this article with the synoptics, and if you read a lot of analysis of parables, you may have noticed that it gets mentioned a lot by commentators who are otherwise uninterested in New Testament apocrypha (for good reason, as most of it was basically fanfic written much later than the canonical gospels, and some of it, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (unrelated to the Gospel of Thomas) is wild), or sometimes even in outside sources in general. 

While the Gospel of Thomas isn't a canonical part of the New Testament, it gets a lot more respect and inclusion in analysis of the NT for two primary reasons: 

  1. It's old. It's hard to date, since it's a collection of sayings and was likely a document that multiple people added to over time. Some scholars, such as Richard Valantasis (The Gospel of Thomas, 1997) put the earliest sections of it between 30 and 60 CE, which would make it earlier than the canonical gospels.

  2. It contains a lot of the same material as the synoptic gospels. 

I haven't seen anyone credible suggest that Mark is based on Thomas, but the idea that Mark and Thomas had a common source is gaining currency, and offers the tantalizing possibility that in some cases, Thomas may have preserved older versions of Jesus's sayings that Mark edited to fit his narrative. (See, for example, Horman (The Source of the Version of the Parable of the Sower in the Gospel of Thomas, 1979).)

Comparing the text of Mark 4 to the Gospel of Thomas is illuminating in this regard. Davies and Johnson (Mark's use of the Gospel of Thomas Part two, 1997) note that this section can be broken down into thirteen segments. 

A 1-2 Setting of the sequence

B 3-8 The parable of the sower

C 9 Traditional admonition

D 10-13 Comments on mystery and parables

E 14-20 Allegorical exegesis of the parable of the sower

F 21 Proverb about a lamp

G 22a Proverb about hidden/ revealed

H 23 Traditional admonition

I 24 Proverb about measure used

J 25 Proverb about the one who has

K 26-29 Parable of the sown seed

L 30-32 Parable of the mustard seed

M 33-34 Conclusion of the sequence

The segments A, E, and M appear to be original to Mark, and segment I appears elsewhere in addition to Mark but not in the Gospel of Thomas. All the rest of the material appears in the Gospel of Thomas, and thus probably predates Mark. 

Crossan's Reconstruction

The parable and its context are altered slightly between gospels. As I noted above, in Luke's, most of the context (such as the seaside setting) has vanished, and the terseness of Luke's introduction gives the impression that Jesus tells the parable in response to the gathering of the crowd. Luke also expands the description of the first fate of the seed, adding that it was trampled in addition to eaten by birds. Aside from that expansion, however, Luke's version is notably more terse than the versions in the other two: the second set of seed simply withers from lack of moisture on the rocky ground without further explanation, and the third group is choked by thorns without reference to whether it bears grain. He even omits the references to the "good" seed producing thirtyfold and sixtyfold, jumping straight to a hundredfold. The explanation in Luke is considerably shorter as well, omitting most of the paraphrase of Isaiah, although the interpretation section is consistent.

The version from the Gospel of Thomas is similar to Luke's in brevity, although it introduces the figure of the worm eating the seeds on the thorny ground, which is not in any of the synoptics. Its relative spareness is an argument (given the possibility that its versions of some of Jesus's sayings predate those in the canonical gospels) for the idea that the original version was also more terse than the versions in the synoptics.

Dominic Crossan (The Seed Parables of Jesus, 1973) argues that we can tell the parable has been added to and edited because the second example of "bad" seed or soil is more extensive than the others, with two fates befalling the seed.

He proposes the following as something closer to the original:

Some seed fell along the path   /  and the birds came   /  and devoured it.
And other seed fell on rocky ground   /  and when the sun rose  /  it was scorched.

And other seed fell among thorns  /  and the thorns grew up  /  and choked it.

This rendering has an elegant terseness and parallelism: each seed falls on a type of ground (path, rocky, thorny), is attacked by an outside force (birds, sun, thorns), and meets its fate (devoured, scorched, choked).

Crossan also finds the reference to the seed "growing and increasing" in the section about the good seed to be Mark's addition (along with the interpretation), given that it's rendered redundant by the reference to the seed producing grain. 

Weeden (Recovering the Parabolic Intent in the Parable of the Sower, 1979), however, believes that the interpretation post-dates Jesus but predates Mark. He posits a group of pre-Marcan Christians who assembled a parable collection from which Mark drew some of his material, and credits them with both the changes to the parable and the creation of the interpretation section. He theorizes that they made these changes in order to make the parable applicable to the crises their early Christian community was facing:

In the development of the allegory for this purpose, it was not difficult for them to make the birds of the parable (4:4) into a steno-symbol representing Satan (4:15) / 5 / . Nor was it difficult to make choking thorns (4:7) into a steno-symbol signifying "world concerns" which stifles the maturing process of some Christians (4:18f.). But, as we have noted, the image of seed being scorched by the sun did not adequately satisfy the need for a steno-representation for Christians who initially and superficially respond to the kerygma with enthusiastic commitment, but later lapse when faced with life's reversals or the onslaught of persecution (4:16f.). Consequently a new version of the fate of the seed on rocky ground was fashioned to provide the adequate steno-signification for that particular community crisis (4:5b, 6b).... Given their existential crisis, it is difficult to believe that the allegorizers would have left undeveloped so natural and suggestive a thematic parallel as that which exists between the apostasy of superficially rooted Christians and the withering of a shallowly rooted plant.

Weeden argues (compellingly, in my opinion) that the interpolations in the parable itself were actually inserted in order to make it more closely match the interpretation. 

So if we assume that the explanation and interpretation are not original, and take as the original the very stripped down version Weeden proposes, we at least reach the question of what it means.

 

Some seed fell along the path

   and the birds came

      and devoured it.
And other seed fell on rocky ground

   and when the sun rose

      it was scorched.

And other seed fell among thorns

   and the thorns grew up

      and choked it.

And other seed fell into good soil,

   and it grew

      and it produced

Thirtyfold

   Sixtyfold

      A hundredfold

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v'haya im shamoa

There is a section of the Shema that most American Jewish congregations no longer say, since it's incompatible with our theology. However, it's important to understand in terms of how Jews in Jesus's time thought about their connection to the land:

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day,

loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,

I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.

You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—

I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—

and thus you shall eat your fill. 

Jewish Context: Eretz Yisrael

A moderate amount of focus has been directed to the number of nature-themed parables in Jesus's oeuvre. In some ways, this seems too obvious to be worthy of comment: nature provides a universal human reference point. We're all familiar with plants growing. Some commentators suggest that as many of Jesus's listeners were likely from rural areas, he was speaking to them in a language they'd understand.

I think both of these explanations are probably true, but I also think there's a more specifically Jewish one in play: the land is where God's relationship with the people of Israel and the state of the covenant is made visible. Even prior to Avraham's encounters with God, God's moods and desires play out upon the land itself, in floods and rainbows and abundance and famine. (To a lesser extent, this is true of humans as well: the human behavior that prompts God to flood the world is, each time it's mentioned, mentioned in parallel with the earth. It's unclear what the exact behavior was—the two terms used are shachat and hamas, shachat having the sense of rotting or decay and hamas having the sense of chaotic violence—but it is clear that it is something that is either being done to the earth or having an effect on it.)

 

This connection reaches a new level in the Abrahamic covenant, in which a specific bit of land, eretz yisrael, the Land of Israel, is central. And as the v'haya im shamoa section of the Shema quoted above spells out, the productivity of that land reflects the state of the relationship and covenant between Israel and God. If the people hold up their end and are follow the commandments, God will hold up God's end and the land will be fruitful and everyone will have enough to eat. The land is also associated with freedom: God's redemption of Israel was to free the people from slavery in Egypt and give them their own land in which to live in freedom. Even more, freedom from Egyptian bondage is intimately tied up with Jewish self-conception as a people. The Exodus marks the first real assertion of national identity for what had seen itself primarily as a large extended family. Jacob's children and grandchildren at the end of Genesis become the Hebrew people in Egypt and the nation of Israel when they leave it. In a very real sense, identity as the People Freed From Egypt is as central to Jewish self-conception as identity as the Children of Israel.

Roman Bondage

Understanding the centrality of the land itself and its association with freedom and peoplehood makes it easier, I think, to understand just how much of an insult or sacrilege the Roman occupation of what had been the Kingdom of Judah was to first-century Jews. It was one thing for an empire to invade and exile people, as Babylon had done. That was treated as occasion for great mourning (and still is, in the fast of Tisha B'Av) and repentance, but it represented in a sense a return to Egyptian bondage and exile. What the people suffered under Rome was taking place in the very land that was the promise of freedom.

Jews at the time responded as Jews always do: with a myriad of reactions. Most of the recorded reactions we have from that time and after engage in the interpretation that the Roman occupation was the result of a failure on the part of the people to hold up their end of the covenant. (This is a common theme in the prophets, and a fairly obvious reading of a lot of what Jesus says.)

But there were almost certainly those who questioned whether the greater failure was on God's part. A significant portion of Jewish traditional prayers have involved asserting that we're keeping the covenant, and essentially attempting to shame God into keeping God's side by reminding God of that covenant, and asking what other nations will think of God if it looks like God is failing to uphold the divine side of the agreement. (For detail on this, see Laytner's Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition.) This extends all the way to rabbis in Auschwitz suing God for breach of contract

Life under Roman rule was hard. Josephus notes that Rome took 25% of the harvest every two years, which most Jews would not have seen as replacing or negating their obligation to tithe 10% to their own community. The Romans also taxed buildings and commerce, and Herod (whose family was from Idumea, Israel's old enemy Edom), who was not seen as a legitimate king by much of the populace, took his own cut. Josephus claims that this impoverished most of Judea.

Furthermore, as Hopkins (Rome, Taxes, Rents and Trades, 2002) describes, the Roman aristocracy often confiscated land in the provinces, requiring its previous owners to pay rent to remain there. (The New Testament suggests that the Judean aristocracy did this as well.) Given that this land was the physical manifestation of God's obligations in the covenant, and that Jewish law even required redistribution of the land to its original holders every 50 years to prevent any family from gobbling up its neighbors' holdings, this was adding insult to the injury of occupation. 

The average Jewish peasant, then, was paying four tiers of taxes:

  • Rome's taxes

  • Herod's taxes

  • Jewish tithes (centered on the Temple)

  • Rent (which, Hopkins notes, could make up 50-60% of a harvest)

 

Josephus's description of the occupation as impoverishing Judea does not seem like an exaggeration; the average farmer would likely have been barely subsisting under this tax burden. Moreover, climate instability would have added fear of famine to most people's fears of violence at the hands of the Romans (who were not exactly lenient when it came to punishing those who they saw as evading taxation or stirring up insurrection) and economic disaster.

 

Jensen (Climate, Droughts, Wars, and Famines in Galilee as a Background for Understanding the Historical Jesus, 2012) argues that while there is evidence of regular famines and climate instability during the Roman occupation, it wasn't out of the ordinary and farmers would have expected and prepared for it. However, even regular lean years can be disastrous when one is already under enormous economic pressure, precisely because one can no longer save and prepare, as we're all increasingly aware during this recession. (The concern of the rich man who wants to build bigger barns looks a bit different, I think, in this context.)

Applebaum (Judaea as a Roman Province, 1977) explains:

The Jewish peasant at the end of the last century BC was suffering the effects of expropriation from the coastal plain,

Samaria and Transjordan; he had been afflicted by a succession of wars and arbitrary impositions, was desperately short of land and reserve capital, and continued to experience gruelling taxation coupled, where a considerable section of his class was concerned, with an oppressive and humiliating tenurial regime exacerbated by debt and the non-Jewish or pro-Roman attitude of its administrators and landlords.

I don't think it's that much of a stretch to say that a lot of Jesus's listeners would have been struggling to understand how, in this land that was promised to them as a land of plenty, things could have gotten this bad. While Jewish ethics are communal, and the belief that God punishes or rewards the community as a whole has always been strong, it's easy to imagine those listeners looking around at themselves and their neighbors and thinking, We have been keeping faithful, so why are we starving?

 

The Number Four, Again

Returning to those four fates for seeds, I want to take another look at the number four and its meaning. While everyone is aware that numbers are important in Jewish thought, the explanations for what the choice of a particular number means is strangely unsatisfying. One is unity and two is tension, six is imperfection, but beyond that, everything seems to be "completeness." Ten is completeness, twelve is completeness, seven is completeness, four is completeness. (I think there are subtle gradations here, but for purposes of keeping this simple, I'm going to treat multiples of numbers by ten as representing largely the same thing as the number itself. Thus 7 and 70 have the same sort of symbolism.)

I don't think that's wrong, obviously, but it does feel incomplete to me, and worth looking at more closely. I would argue that ten is as much about being a Big Number as it is about completeness. It's the max you can count to on your fingers. It's a lot. Seven, I think, is specifically the number of divine completeness. God creates the world in seven days, Abraham's covenant with God has seven components, etc. 

In the Tanakh, four (and forty) is the number, as far as I can tell, of completed transformation. There are 4 repetitions of the corruption-earth pairing in Genesis before the world becomes corrupt enough to trigger the Flood. It takes 40 days and nights of flooding for the earth to be transformed back to its pure state. Moses spends 40 days on Mount Sinai with God to become ready to give the law to the people. The people wanders in the desert for 40 years before they have transformed (in the sense of the Egypt generation dying out) to a people that is ready for freedom and self-governance. 

The four sons and four students are also not so much different personality types as different stages of development. A young child may not know how to ask her questions, while an older one may rebel and demand to know what this history has to do with her

If we settle on the seed in the parable representing the message and the soil representing people (as opposed to the seed representing people and the soil representing circumstances), we should be able to see that the soil can just as easily represent mindsets as types of people, and mindsets are ever-changing. Perhaps the first time a person hears the message, they ignore or simply reject it, like a seed bouncing off of packed earth. When they encounter it again, in different life circumstances, or from a different source, perhaps they are a more open to listening, but not to committing. Perhaps later, they take it to heart and attempt to incorporate it into their life, and find it challenging. And perhaps it is only when they are truly ready to listen, and seek out the right teacher, that it truly blossoms for them. 

As Schottroff noted, attempting to read the soils as types of people inveitably creates an ugly insider versus outsider reading. I don't think that that division in types is necessary, however, and that Jesus's parable is all the more meaningful to his listeners if the soils represent stages that he's telling them they might be in. In that reading, it applies to everyone who hears it, and not just to insiders.

 
 

The Moral of the Story

If we accept that whatever question or situation may have prompted the telling of the parable is now lost, and that the interpretation given in the text is a later addition that the parable was altered to fit, what are we left with?

I'd argue that what remains is a story about reality: both the reality that was for the listeners and the reality that could be for them.

The reality of their situation was that they worked hard sowing their fields, or selling their wares, or providing their services, and that most of the fruits of their labor were snatched from them. I suppose one could try to figure out which taker—the Romans, the aristocracy, Herod, even the Temple—corresponds to which outside force—the sun, the birds, the thorns—but as I continue to argue, the parables are not strictly allegorical. They're evoking a situation without every element in the story having to represent an element in real life. We don't know what figures of speech and slogans were popular at the time, so if there were specific correspondences, we can only theorize as to what they may have been. But ultimately, it doesn't matter. Many natural forces prevent seeds from producing harvests, and many human forces were taking the products of the labor of Jewish residents of Galilee and Judea before they could enjoy them. 

And those having their livelihood snatched from them, wasted by the frivolous wealthy, feeling their lives choked by desperation might well cry out that this is not the way it is supposed to be! What of the promise, what of the covenant, what of the Shekhinah's sheltering presence among us? I have kept the laws, I work hard, I am faithful. I have kept my side of the agreement, and I was promised bounty in return, so why am I on the edge of starvation?

This is not, however, simply a story about what is. It's a story about what can be.

A rabbi with whom I study Torah is fond of pointing out that the Hebrew particle v-, which is usually translated as "and" but actually can indicate a wide spectrum of conjunctions, can also have the meaning of "if." She applies this to the v'ahavta section of the Shema.

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The traditional translation is usually something along these lines:

You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your self,

and you shall do all these things that I tell you to do today...

But she objects to the idea that love can be commanded, and she translates it as:

If you love the Eternal your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your self,

then you will do all these things that I tell you to do today...

Love cannot be commanded, and we can only know it is present through how others act toward us and what they say to us.

Yes, says the parable. Your seed is snatched away, burned, choked. But some of it does bear fruit. And if you hold fast to our Tree of Life, if you truly pay attention to what you're commanded and do it—if you leave the corners of your fields for the poor to glean, if you ensure your neighbor does not sleep without a cloak at night, if you are just and compassionate in your dealings with your neighbors—then what does bear fruit can be enough. And if you have corners of the field from which to glean, if you have neighbors willing to lend you what you need and not take the shirt off your back in surety, if you have innkeepers who will still find shelter for you when the inn is full, you can have enough even when your fields don't produce what you expected.

It's rare that there's a natural disaster bad enough that anyone has to starve. In almost every situation where people are suffering from lack of resources, it's because the society they live in has chosen that situation. Even in a bad year, in a wide-enough network of families and small communities, if the bonds and the recognition of interconnectedness are strong, we can get each other through it. 

That's what Torah tells us: in the society it imagines, no Israelite starves. In fact, no one living in the community, whether they're a member of the household of Israel or not, goes without. No one sleeps outside without a cloak to comfort them. No one, even the most hated person in the community, is left to try to get their fallen beast of burden to stand. No widow weeps alone. No sick person suffers alone. 

We cannot prevent natural disasters or illness, and we may not have the power to change the hearts of the powerful who seek to always widen the gap between themselves and those who remind them that they are only human, those they can exploit, those they can mark out as different and therefore less. And as long as we care about having more than our neighbors, we will always feel like we're lacking.

But we can have enough. At the risk of sounding like Eliza from Hamilton, we can be enough for each other. 

In the terminology of traditional Judaism, that is what a society that honors God as ruler looks like; that is the kingdom of God. If you take these teachings seriously, then the promise in the Shema, that you shall eat your fill, will hold. Not because of miraculous divine intervention—unless you consider human compassion and interconnectedness one of those everyday miracles. 

Perhaps in the worst years, we can only make sure everyone squeaks by. But if we can do that in a lean year, imagine what we can do in a better one. Thirtyfold, sixtyfold.

A hundredfold abundance. 

 

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Learn More

Jacob Urkin et al., "Nurturing a Society of Learners: Suggestions from Traditional Jewish Pedagogy for Medical Education", Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal

Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (An incredibly beautiful poetic translation of Pirkei Avot—this is the source of that "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief" quote you see floating around the internet, attributed to "The Talmud")

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility

On the mustard seed and seed growing secretly:

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus

Dr. Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus

Art Notes

Most of the art on this page is from Pexels, a free stock image site.

Trowel: Lisa Fotios

Feather on soil: Jonathan Meyer

Girl in orchard: Taryn Elliott

Woman giving girl an apple: Zen Chung

Lettuce field: Reto Bürkler

Parable of the Sower cover image: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8978512

Tropical plants: Wix images

The Four Sons, Arthur Szyk, 1934, Łódź, Poland. Szyk.org / Wikimedia

Parable of the Sower, Marten van Valckenborch, c. 1580: Image from Wikipedia, see it in HD at the Kunsthistorisches Museum