In the last essay we studied Luke 7:36-50, which is the story about Jesus, a Pharisee, and a sinful woman. In this essay we are ready to take up chapter eight. Although we rarely hear anyone speak of verses 1-3, they are quite important because Luke here supplies some very important information. First, he tells us that at some point in his Galilean ministry, Jesus left his base at Capernaum and began an itinerant ministry, traveling from town to town in Galilee and other places, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Commentators generally don’t talk about how that ministry was carried out. I suspect that they camped out in tents, because the inns of the day were nasty places, and they probably could not have handled such a large group anyway.
Second, Luke informs us that the Twelve and a band of women accompanied him. The women all had been delivered from demons or healed in some other way. Obviously, this apparent camping arrangement was very unusual for first-century Jewish society; and I am certain that the fact that mixed company was involved would have generated a lot of criticism and gossip. Three of the women are mentioned by name: Mary Magdalene [Magdala was a town on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, about three miles from Tiberias.], who had been delivered from seven devils, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza, and Susanna, who is not further identified.
Finally, third, Luke tells us that the women had the financial resources to support the ministry and did so. This also would have been unusual. Supplying food for such a large group would have been fairly expensive, but apparently, these women did that.
Next we find the famous parable of the sower. Before we discuss it, let me give you a brief overview of what parables are. Jesus’ parables represent one of the most characteristic elements in his teaching style, especially as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Most people, when they think of the meaning of the term “parable,” think of stories such as the parables of the Prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) or the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:29-37). They are correct, but the concept of parable is much more complex than that.
The term “parable” itself comes from two, little Greek words, para and ballo. para is a preposition meaning “beside;” and ballo is a verb that means “to throw,” or “cast.” Thus “parable” means literally “to throw beside” and suggests the idea of comparison. That is, two things are thrown beside one another for purposes of comparison.
There are two basic types of parables. First, there are the narrative or story type parables. They are fully developed stories that normally make a single point. The parable of the Good Samaritan would be a typical example.
A second variety of parable is the simple parable, or similitude. Simple parables do not involve an extended narrative. And they are introduced by a formula of comparison, e.g., “the kingdom of heaven is like . . . .” Like the narrative parables, they normally make a single point.
As you can see, verses 4-8 contain the so-called parable of the sower. Then the parable is followed, in verses 9-10, by a statement about the function of parables. And that is followed, in verses 11-15, by an allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower.
Notice in verses 11-15 that Jesus gives each type of soil in the parable (hard, rocky, thorny, and fertile) a symbolic meaning representing differing responses on the part of persons who hear the Word of God. Thus it is obvious that Jesus interpreted the parable allegorically. Any time symbolic meanings that are not part of the text itself (in this case the parable itself) are assigned by its interpreter, that interpreter is doing allegorical interpretation.
The fact that Jesus used allegory is not a problem. He did that with a couple of other of his parables as well (the parable of the Wheat and Tares (Mt. 13:24-30), and the parable of the Royal wedding, Mt. 22:1-14). However a problem did develop in the church when the church for many centuries assumed that all parables should be interpreted allegorically.
For example, the church father, Augustine, interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan as an allegory on the plan of salvation, as did other Church leaders before and after him. This was typical of parable interpretation until the nineteenth century.
Augustine identified the man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho as Adam. He said that Jerusalem represents “the place of heavenly peace” and Jericho our sinful human life. Augustine declared that the robbers who attacked the man and left him for dead represent the devil and his angels, and the Good Samaritan the Lord Jesus. The inn represents the church and the innkeeper the Apostle Paul. The two pence are the two love commandments: love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. And he continued on and on, giving symbolic meanings for every detail.
The truth is, Jesus told that story not as an allegory on the plan of salvation, but to make a particular point. He told the parable in answer to a question by a lawyer who had stood up in a meeting and asked Jesus who it is one should consider a neighbor. Jesus’ point in telling the story was to make it clear that one should consider anyone who is in need to be his neighbor; and to help a person in need is to act as a neighbor towards him. That was the point of the story. Turning the parable into an allegory on the plan of salvation leads us away form the actual point of the story that Jesus was making.
Obviously, the only limit to allegorical interpretation is the limit of one’s imagination. And for many years interpreters, using their imaginations, gave allegorical interpretations to parables that Jesus told to make a single point. What the church failed to realize was that Jesus’ allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower and a couple of others, were exceptions to the rule rather than the rule. The rule for parable use (and Jesus did not originate their use by the way) was to make a single point; and that is generally the case with the parables of Jesus.
All right, turning now to the parable of the sower, I am not going to rehearse the well-known parable itself in verses 4-8. In verses 9-10 we see what Jesus had to say about his reason for speaking in parables. The disciples ask Jesus the meaning of what they have just heard. And Jesus replies, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’”
The word translated “secrets” literally means “mysteries.” And when the word “mystery” is used in the New Testament, it always refers to some “secret” of God’s plan that he is only now revealing. So Jesus is saying that he was revealing God’s plan to the disciples. “But to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’”
You may recognize that the last part of that statement is based on Isaiah 6:9-10. It isn’t a quotation, but it gives that basic content. This statement by Jesus has puzzled some, because it seems as if Jesus is saying that he intentionally did not want the people to understand his words. Mark’s parallel makes the same impression. But if you turn to Matthew’s parallel, you will see something different.
Matthew’s parallel is in Mt. 13:10-15. Please turn to it. Matthew has two major differences. The first is seen in verse 12. Neither Mark nor Luke has that saying at this point. They include it, but later on (LK. 8:18).
The second major difference, and this is the more important one, is located in the next verse, verse 13: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” Clearly Matthew’s account is not saying the same thing that Luke’s and Mark’s seem to be saying. Matthew is reporting that Jesus taught in parables, as a result of the unbelief of the people. Luke and Mark seem to be reporting that Jesus taught in parables for the purpose of keeping his salvation from the people.
Some liberal scholars believe that Mark and Luke meant that Jesus intended exactly what we see on the surface, and what they say contradicts what Matthew says. Other scholars (Joachim Jeremias and evangelicals) suggest that Mark and Luke meant the same thing that Matthew clearly says. That is, they harmonize the two accounts. I am not going into all of that, because it involves a lot of Greek and so on; but it can legitimately be done.
In summary, I would say that Jesus, when teaching with parables, used two different methods with two different groups. First, with the unbelieving multitudes, there was partial disclosure of God’s revelation in the parables, with a possibility of their understanding. That is, if they really wanted to understand, and paid attention, they could “get it.” Or at last they could make further inquiry. The parable of the sower is itself an excellent example. It explains how different people respond differently to God’s “seed” as it is scattered.
Second, when Jesus explained the parables to his disciples, there was full disclosure of God’s revelation. But interestingly, there was only partial understanding. The disciples didn’t always “get it,” even with the explanations.
Verses 11-15 give Jesus’ allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower. The seed symbolizes the Word of God that is scattered on various people. And the four kinds of soil (hard, rocky, thorny, and fertile) symbolize the receptivity of those on whom the Word of God falls. Thus Jesus gave allegorical meanings to the story. Again, I am not going to work through the types of soil, because the parable is so familiar.
The obvious application is that those of us who are like the good soil will be fruitful in whatever ministry God calls us to do.