Opinions and ideologies abound in our world. Often we hear the statement that there are many ways to God. But for Jesus the preaching of the kingdom was revelation of a unique message, not one opinion among many in a melting pot of ideas. This portion of Luke highlights the centrality of the word of the kingdom for Jesus. The parable of the seed contains a mystery, one which disciples have the privilege to behold while outsiders are blinded and unable to see its truth. Such revelation is like light, illuminating the way to God. In fact, Jesus indicates that being related to him is a matter of responding to the message he preaches. The parable of the seed indicates the variety of responses to the word Jesus sows in his preaching (see Is 55:10-11 on God's word as a seed). Not everyone embraces his message, but those who do yield a life of fruitfulness that honors God. For Jesus, the kingdom message is special and unique. To heed it is to find blessing.
The picture of the word as seed is important. Often we think of evangelism and preaching as something that happens in an instant. But the picture of a seed makes us think of a farmer who prepares the ground, sows seed, waters and then must wait for the crop. Producing a crop is a process over time. Often the message of the word, too, takes time to bear fruit.
Today Gallup, Harris, Reuters and Barna polls can acquaint us with the range of reactions to any event or idea of interest in our culture. Since everyone is different, the reactions are varied. Responses to spiritual truth are also varied. The parable of the seed, or better the parable of the soils, is one of Jesus' most popular. It describes four reactions that Jesus' preaching produces, though the story concentrates on those who make at least an initial response. Of the various options, only one type of soil yields fruit; every other type proves inhospitable to the precious seed.
Jesus lived in an agrarian culture, so his parables often use farming imagery. Such is the case here. As the crowds are drawn to Jesus, he adopts a new teaching style, one he will explain in verses 9-10. Parables are comparisons in which spiritual truth is pictured in vivid terms (Blomberg 1990). In a Palestinian setting a farmer would walk a path through a field and distribute seed from a bag draped over his shoulder. Sowing was done between October and December, since harvest came around June. Between harvest to sowing the field was left alone. In the ancient world the key to a successful harvest was the soil in which the seed fell.
So Jesus tells of four places where seed lands—on a path, on rocks, among thorns and in good soil. The variety of possibilities reflect the kinds of soils the ancient Palestinian would have encountered. Some seed never makes it to the soil; it falls instead on a path, where it is exposed to birds and travelers. Other seed lands on a type of soil that was common in the area—thin topsoil with a hard layer of rock underneath. This allows a plant to grow quickly, drawing moisture from the rock; but with the sunshine that moisture disappears and the plant, unable to send its roots deeper, withers. Still other potentially fruitful fields are infested with parasitic thorns. Palestinian weeds could grow up to six feet tall, gobbling the land's nutrients. The seed on the good soil, however, produces a hundredfold. (Unlike the other Synoptics, which speak of a variety of yields in the good soil, Luke's version notes its fruitfulness with a single example.) Most seed in the ancient world would produce a crop of thirty-five or so times, so the yield here is high (Linnemann 1966:117). When Jesus finishes the parable, he issues his standard call to hear (Mt 11:15; 13:9, 43; Mk 4:9, 23; 7:16; Lk 8:8; 9:44; 14:35; compare Ezek 3:27).
After Jesus tells the story, the disciples ask why he is resorting to parables. They know him well enough to recognize that this is not a lesson in agriculture for a 4H class or a polytechnic school. In response, Jesus observes that knowledge of the "mysteries" of the kingdom of God has been given to his disciples. Numerous points are made here. First, Luke places to you in the emphatic position in Greek. They have been privileged to understand these things. Second, the passive "is given" indicates that the gift has come from God. Third, what is given involves secrets about the kingdom of God. So the message of the seed is related to the promise of the kingdom of God. Fourth, others get parables as judgment.
"Mystery" is an important biblical term. Its roots go back to the image of the raz in Daniel (Dan 2:20-23, 28-30; Bornkamm 1967:814-15, 817-18). There Daniel unlocked the mystery hidden in an already revealed dream. Some New Testament texts on mystery highlight the newness of the revelation (Eph 3:4-6; Col 1:27-29), while other mystery texts note the connection of what is revealed in Jesus to what was revealed in the Old Testament (Rom 16:25-27). Thus the term speaks of new truth emerging alongside old promise. Discontinuity in God's plan emerges within continuity. Jesus is revealing further detail and fresh twists in God's plan, but those details fit together with the program that God has already promised. The twists and turns in the promised and progressing kingdom program are being revealed to the disciples in these parables.
But the parables do not only reveal secrets to the disciples; they also conceal truth from outsiders, those Jesus calls others. At this point he alludes to Isaiah 6:9. The other Synoptic versions also cite this text, but Luke's version is shorter and more paraphrastic. The goal of such comparative stories is so that though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand. The danger of exposure to revelation is that if we do not respond in faith, eventually hardness sets in and God acts to judge. Here is a warning about the ultimate perils of rejection: God may sovereignly involve himself in cementing the process. These words are harsh, yet they serve as a warning of the extreme danger of rejecting Jesus' message.
Now Jesus turns to explain the parable. The seed is the word. Contextually it is clear that the word here means the preaching of the kingdom (v. 10). Jesus' message is about entry into God's plan and rule. The seed on the path represents those who do not get to respond to the message because the devil comes and takes the seed before it can even penetrate the ground, much less bear fruit. When God seeks to speak to humanity, a cosmic battle breaks out.
The seed on the rock represents a message that falls into a person's heart but penetrates only shallowly. There is initial response, but eventually temptation causes the person to abandon that initial response. Initial receptivity and short-lived belief are followed eventually by a falling away. The engagement the word produced at the start does not last. Both Old and New Testaments issue dire warnings about the consequences of falling away or departing from faith (Jer 3:13-14; Dan 9:9; 1 Tim 4:1; Heb 3:12). Jesus offers no comfort for the person represented here; he merely notes significantly that the seed never bears fruit.
The thorny soil represents those who are choked out of a walk with God by life's distractions. The world's worries, riches and pleasures take any benefit the seed has to offer or any nutrients the soil possesses. They swallow up any opportunity for fruit to come to maturity. Luke often notes how wealth can influence people adversely and become a harmful distraction (6:24; 12:16-21; 14:12; 16:1, 19, 21-22; 18:23, 25; 19:2; 21:1). Pleasures translates a Greek word from which our term "hedonism" is derived. Clearly, wrong priorities can kill off the seed of the word.
In the one positively assessed case in the parable, the good soil pictures those who hear the word and hold fast to it. They possess an honest and good heart and so bear fruit with patience. The mention of patience (persevering) is important, for Luke assumes that believers live under much pressure because of their faith. Associating with Jesus will not help people to win popularity contests. If we care about the world's respect or are too weak to resist temptation, we will not hold on to the word with patience; tragically, we may fall away, or our potential for fruitfulness may be choked out. Three of the examples end with the seed failing to produce that for which it was sown. God sows the word to bear fruit in the heart. Only by clinging patiently to what God offers does the seed reach maturity. In other New Testament texts such reliance is called faith.
This parable is not about a response to the word at any given moment. It sums up the different ways the word is received over a lifetime of exposure. It takes time to fall away from an initial attraction to the word. Only over time do the pleasures of life erode the seed's effectiveness. The parable calls for reflection. We need to cling to the word in patient faith. If we desire to be fruitful, especially given that the obstacles to fruitfulness are so varied, then we must hold fast to God and his message of hope. We focus either on God's promise or on our circumstances. Which we choose makes a difference: one leads to fruitfulness, the other to barrenness.
After the parable Jesus uses imagery of light to characterize the word. We could call this passage "the parable of the lamp." In the ancient world, such a lamp would have been a candlestick or an oil-burning lamp (Michaelis 1967b:324). Since a stand is mentioned here, an oil-burning lamp is likely to be in view. Jesus' message is put on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. Like light in a dark place, Jesus' message can guide us through life in the darkness of this world (Wisdom of Solomon 6:22; Sirach 39:12). But light does not just shine to illumine the way, it also reveals how things really are. The word shows the way and brings to light the secret things in people's hearts. Whether we realize it or not, the word shines and exposes. It may well be that the picture of Jesus as light influences the portrait of his message as containing light (1:78-79; 2:30-32; Jn 8:12; 9:5).
So Jesus urges his audience to be careful how they listen. The stakes are high. The one who has listened by responding to the word will receive more. But as for those who think they have something but do not have anything (because they do not receive the word), even what they thought they had will be taken away. To refuse to hear God's word is to be left desolate and naked before God.
To drive the point home even more, Jesus contrasts his biological family with his real family. Hearing that his mother and brothers desire to see him, Jesus remarks, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice." Jesus affirms kinship with those who have heeded his authority and responded to his message. As he has said in Luke 6:47-49 (and as his brother notes in James 1:22-25), we should hear and do what the word calls for. James apparently learned from the Lord's remark here. Kinship with Jesus means responsiveness to his message.
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