Many people have written (and preached) about the parable of the sower as one of the few that Jesus explains. I, too, am one of those who has focused on the fact that Jesus gives his audience some help interpreting his teaching. For his less-than-bright disciples (and the equally uninspired Christians studying the parable centuries later), Jesus takes the time to explain what the images in the parable represent. Before doing so, however, he throws out a sharp critique of his hearers, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” Given how many times I’ve heard this parable read and explained, I should be confident in my ability to comprehend its meaning, but, unfortunately, I’m not so sure about that any more.
This morning, as I read this passage from Mark again, I discovered that Jesus only offers half an answer to the parable’s implied question. As a teaching about hearing and receiving God’s word, this parable seems to suggest that those would-be Christians who hear the word and have it snatched away, shallowly implanted, or choked out are unable to maintain their faith in the face of adversity. The birds, rocky soil, and thorns are those things that prevent us from fully embracing what God is trying to tell us. That’s the half that Jesus explains, but what about the other half? What about the good soil? What is that supposed to be?
Jesus said, “But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit.” What soil? Who has good soil? Before Jesus bothered to explain this parable, I already knew that I wanted to be in the good soil, but what does that mean? What does it take to have good soil? On this point, I find Jesus’ parable…well, still parabolic.
The difference, I think, is that between a positive and negative instruction. Taken as Jesus explains it, this is an exhortation to avoid temptation and distraction. But that alone only tells me what not to do. What am I supposed to do in order to receive the word fully and have it bear fruit in my life? That’s the explanation I really want. “Just tell me what I’m supposed to do, Jesus!” I cry out from the back of the room.
Parables, of course, draw us in. This parable is no different, and the explanation that is given, although insightful and helpful, doesn’t “solve” the whole parable, rendering it anemic. If Jesus had explained away every tiny aspect of the story, it would have been robbed of its germinating quality that makes parables so inviting. There’s more work to be done, here. I’m supposed to still be asking questions, and the life of the Christian is spent searching for what it takes to have good soil where God’s word will take root.