The Parable of the Sower is found in each of the synoptic Gospels, as well in the Book of Thomas. But why? Each of the writers must have seen fit to include it for some reason or another. Luke saw the way in which the parable could be used to address the poor people of his time. His concerns for the financially impaired and outcast were some of the most prominent aspects of his Gospel. He was also very concerned with the plight of women during his time. Although it is found in the New Testament, many Church Fathers have written commentaries on this parable, examining different aspects of the story and explaining their symbolism. The Parable of the Sower is not a literal story of a farmer; it is a way in which Jesus conveys the message of God’s Kingdom to the people who were listening by comparing himself and the message of God to a sower and a seed.
Luke does not indicate where Jesus is when he is giving this parable. However, it is known that Jesus is travelling with his apostles and with a group of Galilean women. This same group of women will also travel with Jesus to Jerusalem and be witnesses to his death. But for now, they are sustaining their itinerant teacher out of their own means (Just 130-137). It is also important to note that travelling with women in this fashion is counter-intuitive when looking back on the culture of the time. Women were practically second-class citizens and the fact that Jesus was bringing them with him fits very nicely into Luke’s views of women’s rights and needs during the time he was writing.
The crowd that Jesus is preaching to is a somewhat random assortment of people. The passage states “a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him” (Luke 8: 4). This suggests that there is a unifying theme behind Jesus’ stories. His ability to teach is impressive, but the fact that he can reach out to so many people, including Greeks, Romans, Jews and Gentiles, is fascinating. There are women in the crowd as well, which comes as another surprise. The normal Semite tradition would not allow women in an area or session such as this. Also, it is noted that Jesus’ family is in the crowd, waiting to see him. He responds, saying that “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8: 21). This implies that Jesus has cut some of his worldly ties and that the ones who act in accordance to God’s will is his family.
This section of the book consists of two main parts: the parable and Jesus’ explanation of the parable. Jesus helps his disciples to understand his words, yet still uses a large amount of symbolism when he talks. For example, he spoke frequently about ears. Ears, in a biblical context, often represent the acceptance or rejection God’s word (Macmillan Dictionary). According to Cyril of Alexandria, “Jesus clearly divides people into two categories: those who have been given by God knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom, and the rest, who do not know the mysteries” (Just 130-137). Cyril is in agreement with the symbolic notion of ears because both passages seem to divide the audience into two camps: those who have heard or accepted God’s word and those who have not. Both of these ideas are useful in explaining this passage because Jesus later says “Let anyone with ears to hear listen,” (Luke 8: 8) suggesting that anyone who has the capacity to hear and that is willing to understand and accept God’s message should listen to his words. Basil the Great says that “the ear gives access to the heart and the inner person” (Just 130-137). In this sense, the ears are an effective way of reaching a person. By sharing the message of God, Jesus is effectively sowing the seeds of a fledgling religion.
Another word that is frequently used in the passage is seed. The seed, though it is primarily used for agricultural purposes, is described “to illustrate patterns of growth in the kingdom of God” (Macmillan Dictionary) in biblical texts. In this case, the seed is supposed to represent the word of God and how it is received among the various peoples of the time. Cyril of Alexandria says, “in addition to identifying the seed as the Word of God, Jesus also implies that the birds are the devil, who snatches the good seed on the path” (Just 130-137). The devil is snatching the good seed “by removing from the memory the words of the catechetical lectures,” says Symeon the New Theologian. Even the objects that impede the seeds growth on the path, such as the dry land and the thorns have underlying meanings. Ephrem says that “the ungrateful soul is like a pathway for evil” and that “the Word of God finds hard soil during times of persecution” (Just 130-137). In this section, Ephrem is pointing out that it is difficult for the Word of God to spread during times of extreme persecution. People will be less likely to hear the Word if there is a solid threat of death accompanying it.
If the seed is the word of God, then the sower, the one spreading the seed, must be Jesus. Many Church Fathers wrote commentaries concerning this part of Luke’s gospel. They all tend to agree that Jesus was the sower in this parable. According to Clement of Alexandria, “he (Jesus) is the only cultivator of the soil from the foundation of the universe.” Cyril of Alexandria says “Jesus is the sower who sows the seeds” (Just 130-137). Even Origen seemed to agree, writing that “Seed should not be sown beside the way but in the way itself, which is Jesus, who is the Way” (Just 130-137). These three interpreted the parable to mean that Jesus is the main figure of the parable. The sower is responsible for the future growth of the plant and is supposed to plant the seed where he thinks it will best flourish. If Jesus is the sower, it is his responsibility to do his best to give the seed a proper place to start and to help the word of God spread as quickly as possible.
The Parable of the Sower is an important message. However, it is known that Luke was not an eyewitness to most of Jesus’ ministries. Therefore, many of his accounts must have been taken from others. Because he is a secondary source, there are many differences in recording between his Gospel and the others. The discrepancies usually concern what Jesus actually said. For example, the Gospel of Matthew states that the person who is like the seed sown along the path does not understand the word of God and is therefore susceptible to the evil one. However, Luke suggests that the word of God is stolen and that the people are not given the opportunity to understand it (Hultgren 180-202). The difference is that Matthew writes that a person (singular) does not understand the word of God, where Luke suggests that the people (plural) are not given the word so therefore they are robbed of the opportunity to understand God’s message. Luke writes so that the people who are poor or outcast can relate more readily to Christian beliefs. If they think that they are downtrodden because they have not been exposed to the message, they are more likely to accept the message in hopes of a better future.
Another aspect that should be examined is the differences between the tellings of the parable. The story appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. There are not any serious textual and translational problems between the texts, aside from the aforementioned discrepancies concerning what Christ actually said. However, the order in which the parables were written is apparent. After examining verbal similarities between the gospels, it can be concluded that both Matthew and Luke based their telling of the parable on Mark’s version. Matthew writes in a very similar fashion, which would indicate that he drew his material from Mark. Luke’s version is much shorter than Mark’s (Hultgren 180-202). This shows that he borrowed material from Mark because it would be difficult for him to write a longer version of a story that he did not witness.
The Parable of the Sower is one of the stories that is used in each of the Synoptic Gospels. It has values that each of the writers can manipulate to fit their agenda. Luke used the parable as a way to address the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast and the women. By utilizing what Jesus said and slightly changing the wording, he was able to connect the message of God to the people with which he was concerned. He was a gifted writer with much more literary practice than most of the people during his time. However, the story that he relays about Jesus’ interactions with the poor people have been the subject of scrutiny by scores of biblical scholars. Church Fathers look into parables like this one in order to understand the deeper meaning behind the Word of God. It is this scrutiny that displays the authors’ individual concerns with the people of the time. Luke’s feelings toward the poor and oppressed are highlighted by writers such as Origen and Cyril of Alexandria as they dig deep into the symbolism of Luke’s writing. However, this parable sheds another light on Jesus, showing him as a teacher who accepts those who follow God’s will as his family. The story that Luke shares is not about a farmer and a seed; it is about Jesus and his message. What we choose to do with that message now is all that matters.