*Which Type are You? The Parable of the Sower: Was Jesus speaking in code?
Which Type are You?
by Lois Tverberg
The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great." As He said these things, He would call out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. And He said, "To you it has been granted to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God… Luke 8:4-11
The parable of the sower is very familiar to us, but it contains a saying that might make us uncomfortable. Jesus was giving a great sermon on how to respond to his teaching, but right in the middle he speaks about the “secrets of the Kingdom of God,” which sounds as if he deliberately spoke in a code so that no one but an inner circle could understand. Many have scratched their heads over this passage - is that really what he was saying? Reading this story with an understanding of the Jewish culture in which it was given can solve several mysteries. Knowing more about its language, its use of Scripture, and how it fits into Jesus’ time can help us see its deeper message.
Other Parables About Four Types
First of all, it is important to know that parables were in fact a common style of teaching in Jesus’ time – there are over 4000 rabbinic parables in existence even to this day. They were used to illustrate a point with a concrete story, not to be secretive. And certainly the point of Jesus’ parables is usually clear – who wouldn’t see why the Samaritan was a better neighbor than those who ignored the wounded man?
Hearing Jesus’ parable in the context of other rabbinic sayings is very helpful for understanding it. He uses a familiar format as that of other parables, but gives it a unique flavor to teach about his kingdom.1 His story was using a classic rabbinic teaching style — the "Four Types" parable, which was usually used to compare four possible behaviors and their results. Several date to the first century:
There are four qualities in disciples: he who quickly understands and quickly forgets, his gain disappears in his loss; he who understands with difficulty and forgets with difficulty, his loss disappears in his gain; he who understands quickly and forgets with difficulty, his is a good portion; he who understands with difficulty and forgets quickly, his is an evil portion. (Pirke Avot 5:15) 2
There are four characters among those who attend the house of study: he who goes and does not practice secures the reward for going; he who practices but does not go secures the reward for practicing; he who goes and practices is a saint; he who neither goes nor practices is a wicked man. (Pirke Avot 5:17)
Many other sayings have this four-fold comparison, but interestingly, these two sayings actually deal with a subject very similar to Jesus’ words – the response of a listener to the Word of God. The first is about a disciple remembering a rabbi’s teaching, and the second is about the reward for study and practicing God’s word. These sayings show the great emphasis in Jesus’ time on lifelong study of the Bible, either through attending the “house of study” (bet midrash) at a local synagogue, or by being a disciple of a rabbi. From these parables, we see that God chose to send Jesus at a time when there already was great emphasis on the study of Scripture, so that Jesus’ words would have built upon and expanded the sayings of other rabbis, and brought them to a new level.
Another parable is similar to Jesus’ in an additional way:
There are four types among those who sit in the presence of the rabbis: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. “The sponge,” which soaks up everything. “The funnel,” which takes in at this end and lets out at the other. “The strainer,” which lets out the wine and retains the dregs. “The sieve,” which removes the chaff and retains the fine flour. (Pirke Avot, 5:18)
This third parable also talks about the learning of disciples, and this one initially might seem to be “coded” with words like “sponge” and “funnel,” etc. But a thoughtful reading shows that the imagery is not meant to be secretive, but to illustrate a point. Obviously, one doesn’t want to be a funnel that loses everything that it takes in. But the best thing to be is not actually the sponge, a person who remembers everything without discernment. Rather, a sieve is the best, because that person learns what is worthwhile and ignores what is not. This parable doesn’t include an explanation, because the audience was supposed to be able to figure it out. Not explaining a parable was common in rabbinic preaching.
Interestingly, these three rabbinic parables all focuses on learning the Scriptures, and they actually can help us see the point of Jesus’ words as well. Like the other parables, his words were a call to examine ourselves to see which type of listener that we are. Are our hearts hard to God’s word, or are we shallow, or are we distracted by wealth or daily living? The same good seed is sown in all places, but whether it bears fruit is dependent on the soil. This parable should therefore be called “The Parable of the Soils” rather than “The Parable of the Sower,” because the point is that the impact of the Word is dependent on the listener, not on the message itself (the seed) and not on God (the sower), who shares with people whether or not they are likely to respond.
If this is the point of Jesus’ parable, it actually allows us to unlock the sentences in the middle. If it is saying that good seed can’t grow well in bad soil, then it follows that the reason people didn’t understanding Jesus is not because his words were deliberately confusing, but because of their own hard-heartedness. The good seed of his teaching was bouncing off of them because of their lack of desire to obey it. The disciples, on the other hand, were responding in obedience. Only then did God’s truths become clear to them in their own personal experience, so that they would “know the secrets of the Kingdom of God.” (Ps. 25:17
Prophetic Irony in Jesus’ Words
There are a couple more ways that we can see that this was Jesus’ point. Another rabbinic habit that Jesus had was alluding to a Scripture passage with the assumption that the audience would know its broader context.3 This was common because Jewish society was well-versed in the Bible. Here, Jesus quoted from Isaiah when he said,
Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed. Isaiah 6:10
This passage is from the commissioning of the prophet Isaiah as God’s messenger. Knowing its greater context, Jesus’ listeners would have understood its great irony – God commissioned Isaiah to go out and preach to his people, and certainly gave him clear words to say. God was not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though his teaching would be rejected by most. Jesus was saying the same thing - that like the prophets he spoke to clarify God's word, but from hardness of heart, many would not hear or obey him. In both instances, God’s greatest desire was to see his people return to him and be healed, but with frustrated irony, he proclaims that for the most part, they will not.
Another insight comes from the language of Jesus’ words. In Hebrew, the word “hear,” shema, doesn’t just mean to listen, but also to respond and obey.4 When we read the phrase, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear," we may ignore it as a common exclamation in Jesus’ day. But in this passage it seems to be Jesus’ main point – if you hear, than you must obey as well! The entire passage is about hearing and obedience, and how the state of our hearts impacts how we shema, hear and obey.
The Kingdom and the Hundredfold Yield
The fact that the crop that the good soil yields is a “hundredfold” is significant. In biblical times, sowing a crop and reaping a hundredfold was unheard of, while a five to tenfold crop all that was expected. It is quite possible that Jesus was again using the rabbinic habit of Scripture allusion with the phrase a “hundredfold,” because it occurs only once in all of the Hebrew Bible, in Genesis 26:12
, "Now Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold." The rabbis loved to discuss the stories of the patriarchs, and Isaac’s shocking yield of a hundredfold would have quite memorable – completely impossible in their imagination without divine help. It was an amazing miracle that God alone could achieve! In the same way, Jesus was saying that the impact of God’s word on those who obey him will be obviously miraculous – beyond anything a human could do on his or her own. While responding to God’s call takes our willingness, the spiritual fruit is so miraculous that it can only come from God!
A common question on people’s minds might have been, “If you are the Messiah, why aren’t you a glorious king that has taken charge by now? Why are so many people not following you? Why isn’t your kingdom huge and powerful?” This parable, as well as others about the yeast and the mustard seed, seem to be an answer. Jesus is defending the fact that he truly is the Messiah and God is truly expanding his kingdom even now, even though it may not be visible yet. God is like a farmer that sows a field knowing that much of the land is poor – that many hearts are not open to him. He knows that many will not respond to his call, but this will not defeat his purposes. He knows that like the tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous tree, when his kingdom takes hold of the few who will receive it, what an incredible impact it will have!5
The Importance of Discipleship for the Kingdom
Understanding the parable can give us insights for our own lives. Obviously, we need to examine ourselves and look at what kind of hearts we have. Are we distracted by the cares of this world? How can we be more obedient to do God’s will?
It’s easy for us to insult Jesus original audience and assume that he was tossing them aside by telling them how dull they were to his preaching. But are we so different than them? Who of us isn’t choked by weeds in our lives? How many of us truly follow wherever Christ leads?
One thing the parable says may surprise us. We often focus on evangelism – the sharing of the Gospel with non-believers – as the central goal of the church, and believe that the most significant event in a person’s life is the day they accept Jesus as Savior. But in Jesus’ parable, the sprouting of the seed is not the goal, but only an important beginning. We like to count the number of hands that go up at an altar call as a way of seeing the kingdom expand, but in this parable, the counting is only done at the end, after the fruit has matured. As critical as evangelism is, Jesus is saying that discipleship is just as important to God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ words about becoming a disciple are hard for us to hear – that the road is narrow, and that we should count the cost and take up our cross. And it is discouraging to hear how few will really respond, given the thorns and rocks that are so common in this world. But Jesus promises that through an obedient disciple he can do truly miraculous things to expand his kingdom – far beyond the dreams of human ability! This is what should make us want to set our hearts and wills to following him. Only then will we know the secrets of the Kingdom of God.
1 C. Safrai points out the link between study and the kingdom in the sower/soils parable in “The Kingdom of Heaven and the Study of Torah” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Vol. I, (ed. R. S. Notley et al; Brill, London, 2006), pp 173-175.
2 Pirke Avot is the Hebrew name for “Sayings of the Fathers,” a collection of rabbinic teachings from 200 BC to 200 AD that was collected in a book called the Mishnah.
3 See “Jesus’ Habit of Hinting” at this link.
4 For more on the word shema, see p. 3-4 in Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Tverberg & Okkema (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004).
5 J.Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, pp. 149 – 151. For more on the Kingdom of God, see “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News” at this link.