THE SOWER PARABLE
In explaining the Sower Parable (Mark 4:3-9; Matthew 13:3-9; Luke 8:5-8) N.T. Wright warns us not to reduce Yeshua’s sayings to vague, timeless truths about personal salvation (Jesus and the Victory of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, pg. 228). Yeshua’s words do have timeless relevance, but they are about specific and powerful things going on at the time he spoke them. There was something revolutionary about the time of Yeshua’s coming and in our time what we must do is look back and see how the events of Yeshua’s life, death, and resurrection changed history. Thus, while the Sower Parable can be reduced to a message about “the power of the Bible to produce righteous behavior” or “the potential of the gospel to save people spiritually,” there is much more to it than that.
Wright notices something many might miss: the Sower Parable is a four-part story about the kingdom of God, much like the four-part story of the statue in Daniel 2 (231). There are certainly differences between Daniel’s story and Yeshua’s. Daniel’s four-part statue vision is not exactly the same as Yeshua’s parable about four different sowings of seed. Daniel’s story is about empires in history coming one after another whereas Yeshua’s involves four different reactions to the announcement of one empire, God’s. But consider what the two stories have in common: in four parts they lead to the arrival of the kingdom of God. As Daniel puts it, “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will establish a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (2:44). All of Yeshua’s teaching has been colored by his announcement, “The time has come, God’s Kingdom is near!” (Mark 1:15).
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Josephus tells us that there was an “ambiguous oracle” from Daniel which was used by many to stir up fervor for revolution against Rome (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, pg. 304). What was so exciting about this “oracle” (clearly he means Daniel 2) is that it identified Rome as the final human kingdom, at least in its common interpretation. That meant that in Yeshua’s time, many were looking for God to insert himself into history at last and restore Israel with the messianic kingdom. And Daniel’s story came in four parts (a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, and legs and feet of iron mixing at the bottom with clay).
So when Yeshua tells a four-part story, it may have occurred to people that this also was a story about Israel and the kingdom. Daniel’s was about four human kingdoms (perhaps Babylon, Media and Persia, Greece, and then Rome) followed by the coming of God’s kingdom. Yeshua’s was about four sowings of seed and different reactions to them. But since Yeshua’s parables were about the kingdom, we are to understand the end of his parable as describing something about it. The key thing in Yeshua’s story is fruit. People were looking for revolution and war. Messiah came and he was looking for the fruit of deeds of loving kindness.
Yeshua’s story evoked another theme from the prophets, specifically from Isaiah: a sower and seed. Wright has no problem finding the connection with two significant places in Isaiah, namely 55:10 and 6:13 (Victory, 232-233, 236).
The passage in Isaiah 55 is about Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. Many people in Yeshua’s day would have thought of themselves still in exile. They may have lived in the Land but they were under the rule of Rome. Isaiah 55:10 is about how “rain and snow fall from the sky” but they “do not return” to the sky without first watering the earth. Similarly, God is “giving seed to the sower.” In Isaiah the sower is the prophet and the seed is “my word that goes out from my mouth . . . [and] it will not return to me unfulfilled” (55:11). The seed is God’s promise: you, Judah, will return from exile.
Yeshua’s teaching was primarily about the kingdom of God, the coming messianic era when God reigned on earth instead of human empires. So when Yeshua said, “A farmer went out to sow his seed,” he was also speaking of the end of Israel’s exile, the dawning of the messianic era (Mark 4:3). The kingdom message was the seed Yeshua was spreading. Yeshua claimed to be the one bringing about this kingdom time.
The other Isaiah connection reinforces this interpretation. We can observe in later examples of Jewish parables, which admittedly come hundreds of years after Yeshua’s time, a certain way of referring to scripture. In later Jewish parables when a teacher cites some words from a scripture he invites his hearers to think also of other verses in that same passage. In the same way, Yeshua brings up Isaiah 6:10 but there is a clear invitation for hearers also to think of Isaiah 6:13.
Isaiah 6:10 is about Isaiah’s difficult mission. He was to preach to a generation that mostly would not listen. God would, ironically, judge that generation even more harshly because they heard Isaiah and did not listen. God said, “Otherwise, seeing with their eyes, and hearing with their ears, then understanding with their hearts, they might repent and be healed!” Yeshua said that he too spoke words many would disregard. In fact he spoke in figures so that the authorities of Israel would not quickly be able to accuse him of fomenting rebellion.
But when Yeshua referenced Isaiah 6:10, what if you, as a hearer, knew that in the same passage Isaiah also talks about a very important seed. “A farmer went out to sow his seed,” said Yeshua. Isaiah also had words about a seed. Judah was going to be destroyed, like a tree cut down, but its stump would remain. But just as new trees often grow from a stump of one cut down, so Judah would rise again someday: “the holy seed will be its trunk” (6:13).
Yeshua’s parable is about a sower putting out seed. One reference in Isaiah to a sower is the promise of return from exile (Isa 55:10-11). And another reference in Isaiah, one Yeshua pointed to by bringing up a verse from its near vicinity, made the word “seed” a figure for the restoration of Judah (Isa 6:13).
What seed was Yeshua sowing? Like Isaiah before him, Yeshua’s seed was the dawning of God’s reign, the messianic era when Judah is restored and the long exile is over. But this wasn’t going to happen the way people generally expect. It wasn’t going to be about revolution and war. It would be about something seemingly small and powerless: a circle of people making the fruit of good deeds, the kind of good deeds that Yeshua modeled for his disciples and taught them to imitate.
This is what N.T. Wright meant about not reducing Yeshua’s words to timeless truths. He meant that he was starting something right then and there in his time. The kingdom was about to break in. And the “seed” of his parable is not “the Bible” in general or “the Gospel message” as it has come to be proclaimed in modern Christianity. The seed Yeshua referred to was about Israel coming out of exile and the messianic era dawning on the earth. The kingdom of Daniel 2, the return from exile of Isaiah 55, and the restoring of Judah from Isaiah 6 were all part of the background.
And Yeshua’s readers need to do something more specific than “read the Bible and be good” or “explain the plan of salvation to people and save their souls.” Yeshua said the kingdom would come through his words and deeds and would continue in the work of disciples who received these and kept them. The message of the Sower Parable to Yeshua’s own circle was discipleship and imitation of him in community. That message translates directly to our generation as well. The way for the Twelve is not so different from the way for modern followers of Yeshua. We gather in circles also and we continue the bringing of the kingdom by the seemingly powerless act of making fruit.