Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Luke's Parable of the Sower Considered

First a quick word on my lack of blogging. In a recent posting, well ... "recent" ... I said that the crisis I was experiencing was getting better. Alas, it got much worse before it resolved. But for the grace of God I do not know how I would have coped. But in any event, I feel now as though I can blog again, and so ...

The reading in the LCMS One Year Lectionary for Sunday, I am told, is the Parable of the Sower from Luke (Lk 8:4-8, but we'll be discussing the wider context of Chapter 8:1-18). I thought, as an interesting exercise to set myself, I'd ask what I might make of this text. This is one of the most famous of the Parables, narrated in all three Synoptics. It was clearly a favourite of the Followers of the Way.

In Luke's version the "lead up" to the parable begins with a proclamation. This is an important feature of this particular Gospel. The Gospel itself begins with a proclamation from Caesar, Christ begins His public ministry with a proclamation (see Chapt 4). Thus proclaiming the Gospel is an important thematic feature of this Gospel, more important than it being the Gospel of forgiveness (i.e. the only Gospel to include the Prodigal Son, for example) or of acceptance of the marginalised (i.e. the only Gospel to contain the Parable of the Good Samaritan). This proclamation is then followed by the women followers bearing the fruit of that proclamation.

In other words, the parable is explained before it is given. Again, read Chapter 4, where the Nazareth tale clearly happens after Capernaum (see verse 23 in 4), but is narrated before those stories.

And so the parable. The parable serves many purposes, some obvious, others not. One of the primary purposes is to debunk the idea of Christ's preaching being perspicuous. Indeed, it is clearly not. If it were clear, why would anyone ask for it to be explained? Indeed, as an experiment one could narrate the parable, without Christ's explanation, to non-believers who have never been exposed to it before to see how many could grok it right away. I'd be willing to say very few. Indeed, its opaqueness to all except those to whom He reveals the explanation is the point as made clear by verse 10. It is this verse (and its parallels in the other synoptics) that make me want to scream whenever I hear someone preach that Jesus used parables so as to be easily understood by his audience. FALSE! And how do we know it is false? Jesus says so! So the parable serves to illustrate this important point, the purpose of parables. But that is very minor when compared to the other purpose(s).

We can read the explanation for ourselves, and see that we're called to be Little Sowers in imitation of the Great Sower (and here I think of Tolkien's idea of subcreation most strongly). And we can recognise the groups in the Church that this addresses. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas would have a field day with the four different groups. He especially would see the four as significant; he believed that all humans had three choices, and with grace, four. He would point out that the first group represented those who had chosen supernatural evil. The next group experiences a kind of passive indifference that proves they had no foundation to begin with; a natural evil. The next group recognises the good and responds to it, except the worries of the world prevent them from going beyond natural good. Only the last group responds fully to the grace offered and thus flourish, persevere and bear fruit. I'll get to the Molinists in a second, as their response is predicated on an observation I have not yet made.

What of the soil? To me the soil, and its condition, is of critical importance to the parable. The soil was put there, filled with good nutrients and expected the Sower well before He ever set out to sow. It was meant to receive His seed. It was meant to grow, nourish and bear good fruit. And this is important. The soil is the soil if election. The Molinists say that the soil is proof that God actualised reality in response to His middle knowledge of counterfactuals; He knew that we would respond well if the seed fell on us in such a way, and actualised reality to effect it. Thomists say the soil is demonstration that the recipient souls were put in just the right place and properly disposed to receive and respond well to the grace and thus bear fruit. Meh. With all due respect to my side and the other, they miss the point. Here is a simple, and I might add comforting notion, that God has chosen whom He has chosen. But unlike the hard, no holds barred Predestination of the Calvinists, there's more.

The purpose of the parable of the lamp is key. Once sown, the seed must bear fruit, and that requires us to freely respond to the grace. If we don't respond, the light will stay under the bushel and be as useless as James warns (i.e. James 2:18 and/or 20). Jesus doesn't say here "Once you receive the light, WHAMO, you will irresistibly show forth your light!" Instead, He says that so important is this relationship, that even poorly listening to the Word can be catastrophic. In other words, another purpose of the parable is to explain, without getting too technical, the compatiblism of the synergistic approach. Obviously, the choice is still fueled by grace, not every synergist is a Pelagian; but neither are we passive automatons, riding upon the donkey of Christ or the donkey of Satan as a German theologian once wrote.

The whole point of the parable is to admonish (for even inattentiveness can be disastrous), encourage and comfort. To know that God elects whom He elects, and that we will know this by the fruit produced, is a great comfort. To know that with His grace we can grow in Holiness is a great testimony to His mercy. And this to me is the real purpose of the parable.