The Parable of the Sower/Seeds and Rabbinic Parallels

Luke 8: 1-15: The Parable of the Sower

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.  Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.  Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.” 

When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

 His disciples asked him what this parable meant.  He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,

“‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.  Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.  But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

Luke’s text reflects a possible Semitic source and draws upon Hebrew thought, Semitic parallelism, and poetic balance while it makes the basic message of the parable clear.  While most of the listeners would have readily grasped the major focus of the parable and its call for a decision, the interpretation stressed the main point.  Receive the word with a good heart.

The concept of a “good heart” is prominent in Jewish literature of the 1st century.  This was a very important concept.  Rabbi Johanan ben Zachai taught that a person who has a good heart will be generous and kind.  That one has a good eye (generous) and is a good companion.  A person with a good heart also is helpful, is perceptive, and embodies all the noble characteristics so desirable in Torah scholarship.  The ideal disciple has a good heart!

There is an incredible amount of confusion in the church surrounding Luke 8:10, specifically regarding Jesus saying he speaks in parables so that, “though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.”  This is of course a direct quote from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 6:9.

Many pastors have erroneously taught over the years that Jesus taught in parables to confuse people.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Parables were very common in the 1st century, and always used to clarify or elucidate a teaching that typically came right before the parable.

Notice the following, from Dr. Brad Young’s classic book The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, “Lindsey describes these words of Isaiah as prophetic irony.  He emphasizes the deep desire in the prophetic ministry of Jesus to reach out to hurting people.  They needed to change their ways and experience God’s goodness.  Lindsay observes, “They knew Isaiah had spoken to his generation in supreme irony, much as a mother might a rebellious child.  Her hope – and the hope of Isaiah under God – is to shock the rebel into a right perception of his erroneous ways.”

Parables were always used to call their audience to a decision.  In Jesus’ case he typically wanted to know if people were going to join his movement on earth, the “Malkhut Shamayim (Kingdom of Heaven,” or if you were going to choose to live another way.  The parable in Luke 8 is concerned with the response of the people and the productivity of the soil types.  The reality of these word pictures deals with discipleship in the kingdom of heaven, in the sense that one who receives the word with a good heart and puts it into practice will bear much fruit in the kingdom.  There are some amazing rabbinic parallels to this story.

I’ll share a few similar examples from rabbinic literature that deal with grouping discipleship into 4 categories.

Abot 5

“There are four qualities among those who sit at the feet of the sages:  they are like a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, or a sieve.   A sponge soaks up everything; a funnel takes it in at one end and lets it out at the other; a strainer lets the wine pass through but retains the lees; a sieve lets out the bran and retains the fine flour” (Abot 5:18).

Abot D. Rabbi Natan 

“On the subject of disciples Rabban Gamaliel the Elder spoke of four kinds: an unclean fish, a clean fish, a fish from the Jordan, a fish from the great sea.

An unclean fish: who is that?  A poor youth who studies Scripture and Mishnah, Halakha and Agada, and is without understanding.  

A clean fish: who is that?  That’s a rich youth who studies the Scripture and Mishnah, Halakah, and Agada, and has understanding. 

A fish from the Jordan: who is that?  That’s a scholar who studies Scripture and Mishnah, Halakha, and Agada, and is without talent for using it in argument. 

A fish from the Great Sea: who is that?  That’s a scholar who studies Scripture and Mishnah, Midrash, Halakha, and Agada and has talent for using it in argument.” 

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