A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a spiritual lesson. This is how the definition usually goes, but I find it odd because I’m not sure that’s actually correct. What’s interesting when we read about Jesus’ parables is that many people did not understand them. In fact, when we find ourselves thinking that Jesus’ teachings are simply understood, that might be an indication that we are misunderstanding them.
I find a more helpful way of getting at the meaning of parables is to ask the question, why did Jesus tell parables? Did Jesus tell them to reveal or to conceal? The answer isn’t straightforward because that gets at the purpose of the parables themselves. We find this illustrated for us in Luke 8:1-21. There, Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower, which is maybe his second best well-known parable after the Prodigal Son.
The parable is simple: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” (Luke 8:5-8)
Jesus goes on to explain, because it wasn’t clear to his disciples, “The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard. Then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those 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. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:11-15).
The way that some have interpreted this parable is that we are called to examine the kind of soil we are to ensure that we are ready to receive the Word of God. It doesn’t teach us to make sure we’re the right kind of soil. The parable of the sower teaches us certain things, but maybe not what we’d expect. The parable teaches, first, to be open with the Word of God.
Anyone who has actually planted a garden or farmed should be a bit put-off by how Jesus lays things out. People who plant seeds don’t open their front door and begin, immediately, to scatter seed everywhere! It’s best to find the right kind of soil, or to cultivate it, and then to plant the seed there where you know it will take root and produce good fruit. But that’s the point that Jesus is making. We don’t know which hearts are receptive to the Word of God, and so we aren’t called to figure out the soils. We’re called to be promiscuous with the Word of God and sow it far and wide.
The parable teaches us, further, that we should expect all the different responses to God’s Word as it is put out. Some will outright reject it, thinking that they are better than needing some word from a divine being. Others will respond, but only briefly. Still others will respond, but the cares of the world will choke out that response. They will find themselves drawn away from God’s Word to the things that the world values such as money and pleasure. Still others will receive the Word of God and it will grow in them.
Jesus teaches us, then, to be ready for all these various responses so that we will be neither overly surprised nor overly discouraged. The truth of the matter is that true Christians know those who fall into all of these categories. It can be hard when friends and family reject the faith. It can be challenging when someone who has seemingly walked as a believer for so long walks away and rejects the faith. The call to us is in Luke 8:18, “Take care then how you hear.”
Everett Henes, pastor of Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church, may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.