The Sower, the Seeds, and the Soils
The Prodigal Son
The Elder Brother
The Unjust Judge
The Good Samaritan
The Least of These
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Jesus' Parables of Grace
By JAMES W. MOORE
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2004 Dimensions for Living
All rights reserved.
The Sower, the Seeds, and the Soils: Broadcasting the Seed
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Scripture: Mark 4:1-9
One of Jesus' most fascinating parables is found in Mark 4:1-9 (see also Luke 8:4-8; Matthew 13:1-9), the parable of the sower. Or is it the parable of the seeds? Or perhaps the parable of the soils? What is Jesus saying to us through this graphic parable about how we can best serve God and his kingdom? What is the surprising point of the parable of the sower, the seeds, and the soils in Mark 4? What does it tell us is the best thing we can do for God?
Remember the parable with me. The sower went out to sow his seed. Some seed fell on the path and could not grow because the ground was too hard. Some other seed fell on rocky soil, and because the ground was shallow, the plants sprang up quickly but then quickly died away because they had no roots, no depth. Other seed fell among thorns, and there the plants tried to grow, but the thorns choked the life out of them. Still other seed fell on good soil and grew and yielded a great harvest.
Let me point out that the parable accurately reflects the sowing process as it would have been done by a Galilean farmer in New Testament times. Contrary to our modern farming practices, they did it just the other way around. Nowadays we go out and plow the field and then plant the seed; back then, they did just the opposite. That is, they scattered the seed first, they broadcast their seed indiscriminately, and then they came later and plowed the seed under. This, of course, is why the seed in the parable fell on four different kinds of soil. The Path Soil: The hard, "packed-down," "crustedover" path soil was first.
The second was the Rocky Soil: a thin layer of soil on a thick layer of rock. Because of the layer of rock, the roots could not go down deep, so the plants would spring up quickly and then quickly die out. 12 fade away quickly because they have no depth, no roots. They shrivel; they wither and die out.
Then there was the Thorny Soil.
And finally, the Good Soil.
Now, it's interesting to note that despite the fact that three of the four soils here are very unpromising, nevertheless the parable ends victoriously with a great harvest. That's very interesting, isn't it?
The question is, What is the central point of this parable? Over the years, there have been a lot of discussion, a lot of dialogue, and, as a matter of fact, quite a bit of disagreement about what the main point of this parable is. What I would like to do is outline for you four different interpretations of the parable and let you try to find yourself somewhere between the lines. Let me give you the four different possibilities first so you can move along with me as we develop them.
(1) Some say the point of the parable is with the Soils—that it has to do with hearing, namely, hearing God's Word.
(2) Some say the point of the parable is with the Teller—in other words, that it is autobiographical; Jesus is describing his own experience as a teacher.
(3) Some say the point of the parable is with the Harvest—that it has to do with doing your best and trusting God for the future.
(4) Some say the point of the parable is with the Sower—that it encourages us to love unconditionally, to sow the seeds of kindness indiscriminately.
Let's take a look at these, one at a time.
First, Maybe the Point Is with the Soils
Maybe it's about hearing the Word of God and responding to it. This is probably the most traditional and most popular understanding. It can be well documented because the parable, as it is recorded in Mark, begins with Jesus saying, "Listen!" Listen, with an exclamation point. And then he ends the parable by saying, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
When you think of it, this interpretation is fascinating because the soils in the story do seem to represent the way people either hear or don't hear! Think about it.
First, the Path Soil hearers would be the closed-minded people, the persons who are hard, crusted over, and will not listen. They hold God at arm's length. They will not let God or God's Word penetrate their lives.
Next, the Rocky Soil hearers represent the persons who are shallow. They hear, they get enthusiastic, they respond quickly, but they 14 fade away quickly because they have no depth, no roots. They shrivel; they wither and die out.
The Thorny Soil hearers would be the persons with mixed-up priorities. They give their time and energy and effort and creativity to all the wrong things.
And finally, the Good Soil represents those hearers who receive the Word of God and work with it to bring forth new life.
Now, there is a danger with regard to this approach: It tempts us to categorize people. That is, when we read the story and we hear about these different kinds of soils and hearers, it's very easy to begin to think that "John" is Path Soil and "Betty" is Rocky Soil and "Bill" is Thorny Soil and, of course, I am Good Soil! To do this is to miss the point. If this parable is about hearing, then what the parable is really saying to us is that these soils represent four potentialities that reside in us all of the time.
At any given moment, I can be one of these kinds of hearers—at lunch today, with my coworkers this afternoon, with my child or spouse tonight, in church next Sunday. At any moment I have a choice: I can be closedminded or I can be shallow or I can have mixed-up priorities or I can be a good hearer. If 15 the parable is about hearing, then the point is, "Be Good Soil! Be a good listener! Hear and respond to the seed of God's Word!"
Look now at a second possible interpretation of the parable.
Second, Maybe the Point Is with the Teller
That is, maybe the point is with Jesus himself.
Some people have suggested that the parable is autobiographical, that Jesus is reflecting here his own personal experience as a teacher and a prophet. Now, if you follow this line of thinking, you can easily see how it would be developed.
The Path Soil would represent the closedminded Pharisees who will not listen to Jesus' message.
The Rocky Soil—the shallow rocky soil people—would be the multitudes who come out, maybe out of curiosity, maybe just following the crowds, to see Jesus, to hear him, in the hope that he might wow them with a miracle. Then they can tell everybody that they saw him, but they don't really understand what he's talking about. They don't understand the cost of discipleship. They are enthusiastic, but they have no depth, no commitment, no staying power, so their enthusiasm fades quickly; it withers and shrivels and dies.
The Thorny Soil might represent the mixedup disciples. They hear him, but they don't quite understand, and consequently they are giving their energies to the wrong things. Right up to the end, they are thinking of a military kingdom. Right up to the end, they are saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Right up to the end, they are squabbling over which one of them is greatest and over who will get the best positions in the New Kingdom.
The Good Soil would represent that faithful remnant, the remnant of people who hear the Word and respond in faith and obedience, who accept the cost of discipleship, who pay the price and sacrifice, and who help God bring the harvest. Of course, the message here is to be Good Soil; receive the seed of God's Word, and work with it to bring forth new life.
That brings us to yet a third interpretation.
Maybe the Point Is with the Harvest
Is the parable about hearing? Is the parable autobiographical? Or is it instead about the harvest? Many scholars believe that the real significance of the parable is that despite a bad beginning—three out of four soils are not very promising—despite that discouraging beginning, in the end there is a great harvest.
These scholars who take this position say that this is a Kingdom parable, a contrast parable, a "good news" parable, and that what the parable is really saying to the people is, "Be patient! Don't get discouraged! Keep on trying! Keep plugging away! Stay with it, no matter how unpromising the situation may look, and trust God to bring it out right with a great harvest in the end."
That is indeed the big surprise in this parable: Three of the four soils are bad, and yet, surprise! Surprise! A great harvest results! That is indeed a reassuring point to hold on to, isn't it? Hang in there! Trust God! God is still in charge! The victory will be God's in the end! Don't give up! Don't lose heart! Do your part! Do your best now, and God will bring the harvest in the future!
Well, what do you think? Is the point of the parable about the Soils? In other words, is it about hearing?
Is it about the Teller; is it autobiographical?
Is it about the Harvest; is it about trusting God?
Or, one other thought.
Maybe the Point Is with the Sower, and the Manner in Which the Sower Sows the Seed
Notice this: The sower broadcasts the seed! He doesn't narrowcast it. He broadcasts it! He sows the seed indiscriminately, unconditionally, generously. He does not judge, he does not analyze. He does not decide, he does not assess; he just sows the seed and leaves the success to God. The implication here is obvious. Our calling is to be faithful! Our task is to be faithful to the best we know and then to trust God to bring whatever success might follow. We just sow the seed indiscriminately, imitating the unconditional love of God.
We are to love unreservedly, unswervingly, unflinchingly, unconditionally! We are to be kind to all people, with no strings attached. We are to be the agents of goodwill and reconciliation. We are to broadcast the seeds of compassion everywhere we go. We are to sow the seeds of loving-kindness on all alike.
Let me show you what I mean. An orphanage director was going through the mail one morning when something outside the window caught his eye. It was eight-year-old Sally, climbing a tree. She had a piece of paper in her hand. It looked like a note of some kind. What in the world is she doing now? thought the director. He watched her closely. He always watched her closely because she was always up to something. Sally was so full of energy that he never knew what she might do or say next. She was a little character with a lot of spunk and a huge imagination.
Sally continued up the tree, and she got onto the big limb that extended out over the sidewalk that passed by the thick stone wall of the orphanage. She climbed out, attached the note to the limb over the sidewalk, turned around, crawled back, came down the tree, smiled broadly, and then happily skipped back inside the building. The curious director walked outside, anxious to see what Sally was up to this time. He reached up, pulled down the note, and looked at the words she had written in printed block letters with her pencil. He read the note out loud. It said: "To whoever finds this, I love you. Signed, Sally (eight years old)."
Sally knew how to broadcast the seed. Sally knew how to sow the seeds of love unconditionally. Now, if we knew how to do that, if we took that seriously, if we were to do that intentionally, then we could indeed become that kinder, gentler nation, and we could (with the help of God, by the grace of God) become the leaven in the loaf of a kinder, gentler world.
Well, what do you think? What is the point of the parable? Where does the parable speak most powerfully and meaningfully to you? This is the great thing about the parables of Jesus—they are always relevant and always personal. They speak eloquently to you and me, here and now.CHAPTER 2
The Prodigal Son: Anxious to Love, Quick to Forgive, Eager to Reconcile
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Scripture: Luke 15:11-24
Some years ago, a seasoned veteran missionary in China befriended a talented young Chinese artist. Through their friendship, the young artist was converted and became a Christian. Then the young artist said to the missionary, "I best internalize truth by painting it. Tell me how to paint the Christian faith." The wise old Christian missionary did a brilliant thing. He pulled out his Bible; he turned to Luke 15 and said, "Here, look at this. It's the parable of the prodigal son. Paint this and you will have the essence of the Christian faith."
So the young Chinese artist undertook the project of painting the parable of the prodigal son. His first attempt showed the prodigal son far down the road, trudging humbly, penitently toward home. His head is bowed, his shoulders slumped in defeat. His clothes are dirty and tattered. He is the picture of shame and remorse. Strangely, the young artist depicted the father standing at the front gate like Yul Brynner in The King and I. His arms are folded dramatically across his chest. He is looking sternly down the road with this severe "I told you so" expression on his face.
When the artist showed the painting to his older missionary friend, the missionary thought, "Oh my goodness! He has completely missed the point of the story!" The missionary spoke tenderly, and he said to the artist, "Technically, it is a beautiful work of art, but in all honesty, it misses the main message of the parable."
"How so?" asked the artist.
"Well," said the missionary, "the father should not be standing and waiting; he should not be looking sternly at the prodigal with folded arms. He should be running to meet his son! He is overjoyed and relieved to see him alive and well! Rumors had come to the farm that the prodigal son might be dead, and now here he is, alive and well and home. A thousand times the father has looked down that road longing for this moment, praying for this moment, and now here it is. He can't wait to get to his son and forgive him and hug him and welcome him home."
"But many fathers could not do that," said the artist.
"That may be true," said the missionary, "but this parable was told by Jesus to show us what God is like, to show us dramatically God's gracious, unconditional love; to show us that God is always anxious to love, quick to forgive, eager to reconcile."
"I see," replied the artist. He painted another picture and called his Christian friend to come back to see it. In this second attempt, the prodigal looks exactly the same—stooped, bowed, humble, remorseful, and penitent. But this time the artist depicted the father quite differently. Now, the father is running excitedly toward the prodigal son, his robes flapping in the wind, a look of joy and relief on his face. And interestingly, the father's shoes are two different colors; the shoes don't match! He has on a red shoe and a blue shoe.
The missionary complimented the artist on the painting but then added, "I must ask you about the father's shoes—one is red and one is blue. They don't match. Why?"
The artist answered, "Because of just what you said. The father is so overjoyed to see his son coming home. He is so anxious to welcome him that he grabs the two nearest shoes and puts them on and runs to meet him. It doesn't matter that the shoes don't match; all that matters is that his son was lost and now he is found. He was feared dead, and now he is alive. The father represents our God who is so anxious to get on with the forgiving and the love and the celebration that his shoes don't match!" The father here epitomizes our God who is always anxious to love, quick to forgive, eager to reconcile.
Isn't that a great story? "The God whose shoes don't match"—a perceptive and profound depiction of what the prodigal son parable is all about. But this magnificent parable shows us not only what God is like, but also what God wants us to be like. He wants us to live in that gracious spirit, in the spirit of unmatched shoes. God wants us always to be anxious to love, quick to forgive, eager to reconcile.
When we read the second half of the parable (in Luke 15:25-32), this becomes clear because while the father is gracious and forgiving throughout, we see a different story with the elder brother. He is angry, resentful, critical, and frustrated. The father rushes out to encourage the elder brother to forgive and to come in to the homecoming dinner. But there is no forgiveness here in the elder brother—no compassion here, no celebration here, no unmatched shoes here. Bitterly he turns away, and he misses the party.
The point is clear: God is like that father.God is always anxious to love, quick to forgive, eager to reconcile. And God wants us to live in that spirit. And when we live in that spirit, life is celebrative. When we don't, we become likely prospects for a life of bitterness, misery, and loneliness. Let me be more specific. In the church, in our families, and in our personal relationships, we can live in that spirit. Look at these with me one at a time.
First, in the Church, We Can Live in That Gracious Spirit
I want us to be a church whose shoes don't match—a church always anxious to love, quick to forgive, eager to reconcile, a church always willing to love unconditionally.
One of the finest professors of preaching in America today is Dr. Fred Craddock. In one of his sermons, he talks about his father. When Fred Craddock was growing up in West Tennessee, his father didn't go to church. He would stay at home, complaining about the hypocrites, grumbling and fussing about lunch being late on Sunday. Once in a while the pastor would come and try to talk to him, but he was kind of rough on the minister. "I know about you folks down at the church," he would say. "You aren't really interested in me. All you fellows want is another name on your roll and another pledge for your budget."
Excerpted from Jesus' Parables of Grace by JAMES W. MOORE. Copyright © 2004 Dimensions for Living. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsINTRODUCTION Jesus' Parables of Grace,
1. THE SOWER, THE SEEDS, AND THE SOILS Broadcasting the Seed,
2. THE PRODIGAL SON Anxious to Love, Quick to Forgive, Eager to Reconcile,
3. THE ELDER BROTHER The Awful Pain of Feeling Rejected,
4. THE UNJUST JUDGE What Can We Count On from God?,
5. THE GOOD SAMARITAN Eyes Too Busy to See,
6. THE LEAST OF THESE Do Everything As If You Were Doing It for Our Lord,
STUDY GUIDE by John D. Schroeder,