Monday, February 6, 2012

Thoughts on the Sower Parable

I've always been befuddled by our Lord's quotation of Isaiah 6:9 in the Parable of Sower. "So that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand." Oh, okay, . . . great. What does that mean?

I've also been confused by the emphasis placed on the different types of soils over against the seed, and how most sermons I've heard and preach emphasize the seed, when it seems that Jesus is emphasizing the soil.

But I think that Isaiah 6:9 really holds the key. It's from Isaiah's call narrative. In it God sends Isaiah to preach God's Word and pronounce His judgment over the His people because of their unrepentant sin.

“Go, and say to this people: “ ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Is 6:9-10)

And then Isaiah responds to his charge with this: "How long O Lord?" And the Lord replies:

“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate

waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of

the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose

stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Is 6:11-13)

So the Israelites would be removed, exiled from the land by the Babylonians. The word that Isaiah was to proclaim was to harden the Israelites' hearts. To ensure that they didn't repent, and his judgment of exile be forestalled, so that God's holy seed could be the stump that remained in the land to provide abundant fruit for future generations.

The connection then is between seed and land. The seed that falls on the rocky, thorny, well-trodden soils is revealed by the seed to be what it is. The seed still works. It does what it was sent by God to do. To show its utter fruitlessness. The soil was surely this before the seed fell on it. But the seed confirms this judgment. It pronounces it. It does what it was supposed to do--so that seeing it doesn't see and hearing it doesn't understand. It shows that we are all still exiled from the good land. And thus we will not bear fruit.

But the good soil, too, is revealed by the seed. This soil is the good land in which the stump remains. This soil is the soil that has the holy seed planted in it. This is the promised seed of Eve, the one promised to Abraham, the one foreseen in Isaiah 55, that would come down and not return to the Father empty. This can be none other than Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who came down to water the earth with his blood, was planted into the earth, and returned to the Father with our recompense.

It seems that the Isaiah 6:9 quotation is there point us to the rest of Isaiah 6. To show us that we are all exiled from the good and fruitful land. That we are all unfruitful soil. And that we all have hope in the the stump that remains, the holy seed (offspring) of God.

Just some thoughts. What say you?


  1. I think you're right. What's jarring about this pericope is that Jesus' own explanation seems to shift the emphasis from the Sower to the ground. So what holds it all together? Judgment. It's pointless to hope you're "good soil." You aren't, and the Sower will make that clear. But the Seed that survives does so in spite of all impediments. There is a link between Christ and his own here: Christ "survived," and in him so shall we.

  2. Wow. Thanks, Jason. I might not hate preaching this text this year.

  3. Jason,

    Let me know if I'm tracking with you properly. The soil is what it is before the seed is received. Thus, this is not a conversion narrative. Instead, the parable is revealing what the Word of God does when it is planted in folks who are already in the habit of responding to it in this way or that.

    What struck me just now was that the ones on the path "have heard" and the description of the next bit of soil has "when they hear."

    I'm beginning to think that what's made this a dark parable to me is that I've always assumed that it's talking about the genesis of faith, but that doesn't seem to actually fit Jesus' explanation very well.

  4. Precisely. The Word of God shows the type of soil it is already. The Word confirms it, shows it for what it is, tells it like it is. It's not the Word's fault. The Word is doing what it is supposed to do. It condemns the wicked. But it does it in order to make it good, justify it, redeem it.

    This is our Lord's riff on Isaiah 6:9ff. God's judgment of the people is harsh: Exile from the Promised Land. And God didn't want the people to repent because he didn't want the promise of the Holy Seed, the stump that remains in the Promised Land but consumed and burning in the fire of God's wrath and judgment, to be delayed.

    It's not conversion. It's for those who already part of the church, just like Isaiah was preaching to people already in the land. But I still don't think the good soil describes believers.

  5. If the good soil is not believers, what is it? (Luke 8:15) "As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience." That sounds like believers to me.


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