We begin with the Parable of the Sower, found in each of the synoptic gospels (Matt 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15). Robert Capon classifies it as the watershed of the Lord’s parabolic teaching, both because it stands as the introduction to the collection of stories and because of the disproportionate space devoted to it.
On that day Jesus, going out of the house, sat down beside the sea; And many crowds were gathered before him, so that he embarked into a boat in order to sit down, and the whole crowd stood upon the strand. And he told them many things in parables, saying, “Look: A sower went out to sow. And, as he was sowing seeds, some of course fell beside the path and birds came and devoured them. Others, however, fell upon stony places where there was not much soil, and it sprang up instantly because there was no depth to the soil; But when the sun had risen it was parched, and because it had no root it withered away. But still others fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and throttled them. But still others fell upon the good soil and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Let him who has ears listen.” (Matt 13:1-9)
The parable is presented in three steps: the parable itself, followed by the disciples asking Jesus a question (in Matthew and Mark, a general question about why he teaches in parables, in Luke, a question about the meaning of the parable itself), concluding with Jesus’ allegorical interpretation. Capon notes that modern readers, because of their familiarity with the parable, often wonder why the disciples needed an explanation. “The truth of the matter, however,” continues Capon, “is that if we had been the original hearers, we would probably have understood it no better than the disciples did” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 57). Imagine yourself as one of the disciples hearing the parable for the first time. What’s the point? Surely Jesus is saying something that goes beyond agriculture, but what? And why is Jesus speaking in parables rather than giving us his teaching straight?
And the disciples, approaching him, said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And in reply he said, “Because it has been granted to you to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of the heavens, but it has not been granted to them. For to him who has it shall be given and shall be more than is needed; but from him who does not have even what he has shall be taken away. Hence I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they neither hear nor understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, when he says, ‘With your hearing you will hear and in no way understand, and in seeing you will see and in no way perceive. For this people’s heart has grown crass, and they have listened with their ears grudgingly, and they have closed their eyes, so that it may never happen that they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with the heart and turn back, and I shall heal them.’ But blissful are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For, amen, I tell you that many prophets and upright men yearned to see the things you see, and did not see, and to hear the things you hear, and did not hear. (Matt 13:10-17)
Well, that sure doesn’t clarify matters for us, does it? Now we are even more in the dark. Not only are we still clueless about the Sower, but Jesus seems to be telling us that he tells cryptic stories precisely to keep the hoi polloi clueless. But we have learned one thing: the stories intimate the coming Kingdom of God.
Listen, therefore, to the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the Kingdom and does not understand, the wicked one comes and seizes away what has been sown in his heart; this is what was sown beside the path. And the word sown upon stony places: this is the one who hears the word and immediately accepts it with joy; But he does not hold the root within himself and it is temporary, and when tribulation and persecution come on account of the word he immediately falters. But what is sown among the thorns: this is the one who hears the word, and the anxiety of this life and the beguilement of riches throttle the word, and it becomes fruitless. But the word sown upon the good soil: this is the one who, hearing and understanding the word, bears fruit, one a hundredfold, another sixtyfold, another thirtyfold. (Matt 13:18-23)
Oh, it’s all clear now! Jesus is the sower, and the seeds he sows are his teachings. The parable, therefore, is about the conditions for their fruitfulness in the hearts of his hearers. Right?
Not so fast, says Capon! Christ’s allegorical interpretation does not make the puzzling fable easier to understand; on the conrary, “it drives it for all its worth in the direction of supremely difficult interpretations” (p. 60). And this is true not only for the disciples but also for us.
At this point Capon advances his surprising proposal: the sower is not Jesus but the Father!
Whom do we usually identify as the sower? We think it’s Jesus, don’t we? And we have in our minds an image of him—and then of ourselves as the church—going around sprinkling something called the Word of God on places that haven’t yet received it. But that, on any fair reading of Jesus’ words, makes no sense at all. The primary meaning of the phrase the Word of God in the New Testament, and in Christian theology as well, has got to be one that is consistent with the Johannine teaching that the Word is the one who was in the beginning with God and who is, in fact, God himself. More than that, it has to include the notions that the Word is the one by whom all things were made, that he is the one who, coming into the world, lightens every person, and that he is the one, finally, who became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus. In short, and above everything else, the Word has to mean the eternal Son—God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God—the Second Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.
Do you see what that says? It says, first of all, that the Sower is God the Father, not Jesus. What Jesus turns out to be—since he is the Word—is the seed sown. But note what that in turn means. It means that on the plain terms of the parable, Jesus has already, and literally, been sown everywhere in the world—and quite without a single bit of earthly cooperation or even consent. But can you tell me that Christians in general have ever for long acted as if that were the case? Have we not acted instead as if the Word wasn’t anywhere until we got there with him? Haven’t we conducted far too many missions on the assumption that we were “bringing Jesus” to the heathen, when in fact all we had to bring was the Good News of what the Word—who was already there—had done for them? Haven’t we, in short, ended up just as he said we would as a result of his explanation of the Sower? We see and hear and still don’t catch on. For twenty centuries we have read that the Word of God is what is sown; yet to judge from the way the church does business most of the time, Jesus might just as well have said that the Word is precisely what is not sown. (pp. 60-61)
Capon is not saying that Jesus had this Johannine interpretation in mind when he told the parable; he deems it unlikely that Jesus understood himself as the divine Word. “And yet,” he goes on to say:
There is no way of completely separating the parable of the Sower from the subsequent developments of its themes in other parables. Indeed, if we believe in the inspiration of Scripture, there is nothing finally desirable about divorcing it from the later contributions of, say, John or Paul or any other New Testament writer. For example, on the presumption that the author of the Fourth Gospel was familiar with the parable of the Sower, it is likely that he was not unaware that his development of the doctrine of the Word as divine would bear directly on the interpretation of the Word as sown. At the very least, the Holy Spirit was definitely aware of it, and as the ultimate genius presiding over the formation of the whole canon of Scripture, the Spirit had no more difficulty working backward than forward. Concepts that he had not fit in by means of an earlier passage, he easily retrofitted, as it were, by means of a later one. (pp. 62-63)
Capon classifies the Sower as a parable of the Kingdom. He specifies four characteristics of these parables: catholicity, mystery, actuality, and hostility and response. The Sower highlights the first:
The idea of the catholicity of the kingdom—the insistence that it is at work everywhere, always, and for all, rather than in some places, at some times, and for some people—is an integral part of Jesus’ teaching from start to finish. True, at the outset of his ministry it is expressed by little more than his irksome tendency to sit loose to the highly parochial messianic notions of his hearers—by, for example, his breaking of the Sabbath, his consorting with undesirable types, and his constant challenging of the narrow views of the scribes and Pharisees. But it becomes practically the hallmark of his teaching once he begins his use of the parabolic method in earnest. (p. 64)
Keep these four elements of the Kingdom in mind—catholicity, mystery, actuality, and hostility & response—as we ponder the parables of the Kingdom.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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Last night I accidentally hit the “publish” button before I was ready. I was actually planning to publish this piece on Monday. I have proofread the piece and found several errors and typos, but I’m sure there must be several more. I have also rewritten several sentences, etc.
I really loved this piece. It is odd that I don’t think I’ve ever considered the Sower to be God the Father sowing the seed of the pre-existent Word of Wisdom to all people, the kind of “ground” of the soul where God is encountered (I read Meister Eckhart’s Christmas sermon for Christmas, which also fits nicely with Capon’s point here), and yet, given the omnipresence of God as Gardener in the OT, it seems almost the more natural reading. Plus, this works brilliantly with my favorite NT work, the Epistle of James, the Brother of the Lord:
Every good act of giving and every perfect gift is from above, descending from the Father of the Lights, with whom there is no alternation or shadow of change. Having so resolved, he gave birth to us by a word of truth, so that we should be a kind of first-fruits from among his creatures…Hence, putting away every defilement and surfeit of evil, receive in gentleness the implanted word, which can save your souls. And become doers of the word, and not only hearers, thus deluding yourselves…If anyone fancies himself religious while not bridling his tongue, but instead deceiving his own heart, his religion is empty. Pure and undefiled religion before the God and Father is this: to watch over orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep oneself unstained by the cosmos. (1:17-27)
I love this passage, a recognition of that first and universal impulse of piety common to all people, sown by the Word, basic to and prior to all revelation, is that. Whatever is generous and good, wherever it is found, is the a sign of the sown Word in souls. I’m one of those who thinks it’s at least possible that James the Just actually wrote this, and I’d like to imagine that, if Jesus were ever to have written something himself in his earthly life, it would be like James’ Epistle. As a triplet myself, I know how valuable it is to have brothers as a sounding board.
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On what basis can Capon argue that since “the primary meaning of the phrase the Word of God in the New Testament, and in Christian theology as well, has got to be one that is consistent with [John’s] teaching” about the Word who was with God, and that invoking John’s usage of the term “Word” is necessary or even legitimate for interpreting the Synoptics?
It might be theologically entertaining on some level to do this, but that’s not exegesis, it’s eisegesis.
Why does *Mark* have to “include the notions that the Word is the one by whom all things were made, that he is the one who, coming into the world, lightens every person, and that he is the one, finally, who became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus”? If we start with that, then we will never discover how Mark subtly but steadily identifies Jesus with Yhwh, Israel’s Creator God. We already know all mysteries and have no need for anyone to teach us; nothing new here!
“In short, and above everything else, the Word has to mean the eternal Son—God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God—the Second Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.”— Really?? Is that what Mark, Matthew, or Luke is talking about??
Using John to interpret the other gospels makes hash out of all of them. As eisegesis— well, let the reader decide whether he likes it or not, but it won’t take you an inch closer to understanding the Synoptics themselves, much less any of the Synoptics in its own distinctness.
In Mark’s Gospel, for instance— I’m not going to talk about Matthew and Luke, but both of them start from Mark, and it’s therefore interesting to see how they modify Mark’s story for their own purposes— this parable comes at the end of Jesus’ Galilean campaign, which has mostly ended in failure. Jesus is already a hunted man (3.6), his family is trying to grab him (3.21), and he’s rejected them (3.31-35). The “federal police” (scribes from Jerusalem) have gotten involved, charging him with being a dangerous witch (3.22), and he has refuted and utterly repudiated them and judged them completely outside the coming Age (3.28-29). So now, at the end of the entire sequence (1.14–3.35) that already began with a confrontation with the scribal establishment in a synagogue (1.21-28), he withdraws to the “Sea” and sits down to reflect in parables with some apocalyptic imagery on what has happened: “Some seed fell on the way…”; “immediately he sends out the sickle, because the harvest has come” (4.1-34).
In Mark, the parable of the sower heads up the first of two long discourses, both of which are about what Ched Myers calls “revolutionary patience”. The second concludes his Jerusalem campaign (11.1–12.44), where once again he withdraws from the scene (in this case the Temple), having rejected and even humiliated the entire hierarchy (11.27–12.44), who once again are seeking to “destroy him” (11.18; cf 3.6), and he sits down to reflect on what has happened, this time mostly in apocalyptic imagery, but with a couple of parables— “wars and rumors of war…”; “learn from the parable of the fig tree…” (ch 13). After the first sermon on revolutionary patience, he began his wider campaign by going to “the other side” (4.35), calming a storm (4.36-40), so that the disciples ask, “Who is this, whom even the wind and the seas obey?” (4.41), and then casting the legion out of a Gentile in the Decapolis (5.1-20). Now, when he finishes the second, “After two days it was the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to take him by treachery and murder him” (14.1).
So you see, Mark (as well as each of the other Gospels) is telling his own story of Jesus, and doing it in a specific way. We have to respect that, and let each of the Evangelists speak with his own voice. To mix them up and to “explain” Mark by applying concepts from John (or Matthew or Luke for that matter) is to overlook Mark’s unique story— and therefore his particular message— and to deprive ourselves of the enjoyment and discovery that Mark offers. In addition, in this way we substitute our own abstract theological ideas for the Gospel narrative itself and for the way Mark uses his words his own way, allowing them to be defined by his own story. Insofar as we do this to the others, we miss out on the unique stories they tell too. We really need to stop doing that.
As to Capon’s four “characteristics”— catholicity, mystery, actuality, and hostility and response— these might or might not be applicable in the abstract but, again, to read the parables in abstract terms is to prescind from their actual context and meaning within the story that each writer is telling. And when we do that, we blend the four Gospels that God has given us into one general “story of Jesus” that doesn’t actually exist in any of the Gospels but only in our own heads. We substitute our own Jesus for the one we meet in the Scriptures— and that, i submit, is very much the problem in all the churches today.
John, 30 years ago I would have agreed with you, but over time I have come to realize that there exists a critical difference between reading the various writings of the Bible as historical artifacts and reading them as Holy Scripture. A philosophical case for this can be presented (see, e.g., Richard Swinburne, ‘Revelation’); but perhaps even more decisive is the simple fact that from the beginning Christians have read the Scriptures typologically and allegorically; in other words, eisegetically. Or as John Behr puts it, “Unless you’re reading Scripture allegorically, you’re not reading it as Scripture.”
And who among the Fathers and Medievals ever distinguished the Markan Jesus from the Lukan Jesus from the Matthean Jesus from Johannine Jesus, even though differences between the four gospels were widely acknowledged. That kind of canonical, narrative exegesis is fine in the academic world, but it falls flat once it enters the pulpit. We only have one Jesus to preach and the four gospels witness to him.
Does that mean anything goes in the churchly interpretation of Scripture. Maybe so, maybe not. I have no problem insisting that the Scriptures must be interpreted according to the dogmatic rules stipulated by the ecumenical councils, even though academic historians would reject that insistence, and rightly so. Nor do I know how to bring together the modern historical hermeneutics and biblical-patristic-medieval hermeneutics. All that ultimately gets worked out in the Sunday by Sunday preaching of the gospel, which is the only place it can get worked out.
In light of what I suspects ails much of American ambient cultural Christianity, where, as a Catholic outside observer, even American cultural Protestants, who used to be so good at this, have largely forgotten the Scriptures as either a library of books, with their own narratives arcs, or holistically in favor of a handful of passages filtered through cultural background noise, I gotta say I really resonated a great deal with your point, that “that is very much the problem in all the churches today.” I agree wholeheartedly on the problem of Scriptural illiteracy, especially each of the Gospels as whole narratives. I don’t mean to make this political or denominational mud-slinging, but David French has made many of the same points in his French Press Substack Dispatch columns. It’s just something I’ve long felt about modern American Christianity as a culture.
I think there’s room for both lenses, if done responsibly. The liturgies and New Testament writers regularly reapply new meanings to Scripture – so, for example, Paul’s unusual use of Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4 or the royal name-giving oracle in Isaiah 9 applied to Jesus.
Here, however, I think there’s a logical “development of doctrine” in the case of the Parable of the Sower. It seems mostly a byproduct of the Gospel writers’ different Christological images. As you mention, Mark has a functional Christology, to steal from Richard Bauckham, where Jesus does what the God of Israel does. Luke has shades of a Spirit or even a vaguely theo-angelomorphic Christology, which the Synoptics broadly share, i.e. Mark 1:10-13 (not that I think Luke was an adoptionist). Jesus by and in the Spirit, in the Synoptics, is always the “transparent” agent of the Father – even performing deeds of God in a theophanic action, as you mention – through whom the Father’s will – and hence the Father – can be seen, bringing the “mystery of the Kingdom of God,” and the “mystery of the Kingdom of God” is the Father’s to sow (so the grain of mustard in v. 30), even more so in the Synoptics than in John, where in the Synoptics the focus is almost always towards the “Heavenly Father” and the “Kingdom of God” rather than Jesus for himself, who acts completely as the Father’s agent. I agree that, on the purely Markan narrative-textual level, the sown word may not be John’s Logos, but it is “on the way” insofar the word “is the mystery of the Kingdom of God,” annunciated by the Spirit of Wisdom in and with Jesus who is the “transparent agent” of the Spirit. He and the Spirit announce, embody, and inaugurate the “mystery of the Kingdom of God,” the “last word” in history, as it were, the “last word” of God’s revelation, perfecting and completing the divine “words” that “run and return,” if I can invoke Ezekiel just once, breathed and articulated by the Spirit through creation and the prophets.
If the sown word in the Parables is the “mystery of the Kingdom of God,” (Mark 4:26, 30), and the Kingdom of God is first and foremost the Father’s, especially in the Synoptics, and Jesus, as the “last word” of the Father on history by the power of the Spirit of Wisdom, who embodies and brings the Kingdom to completion in Jesus, then I don’t think it’s that big of a jump. I’m sorely tempted to bring the Wisdom of Solomon or Sirach into this, about the “swift running” of Lady Wisdom, who reveals mysteries to prophets or instills virtue (Wisdom 7:27), or the divine Power which overshadows and articulates the divine Word (Sirach 24), but I want to respect your request for narrative confines. Just seems to me that the Spirit, the Spirit anointing and filling the Son Jesus, and the “mystery of the Kingdom of God” as word announced and realized in the heart by the Spirit all kind of flow together in the Synoptics since it is the Spirit who annunciates and brings about the word of the mystery. The language John applies to the Word in his Prologue overlaps, at least partially, with the role of the Spirit in the Synoptics – for us, canonically, attesting to the thoroughness of divine perichoresis. I find the work on incipient Christological Spirit binitarianism by Michel Barnes at Marquette University or Sarah Coakley somewhat helpful here.
I hope this isn’t too confusing, but I’m more experimenting with an instinct about Synoptic Christologies than taking a firm position.
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Father, I wander if you are familiar with the work of Gerhard Lohfink, a German Catholic theologian and also a biblical scholar. He comes from a different tradition than folks like Behr but he is generally open to different interpretations of scripture and would not necessarily disagree with Behr. He tries his best to look at the “historical Jesus” (though he goes to great lengths to stress that he cannot be separated from the Christ of faith), and what he really intended. Forgive me, I am not doing it justice here, but he does have brilliant insights into the parables. He just came out with “The Forty Parables of Jesus”.