Theological Mistakes: Sower or Soil?

In teaching the Bible to college students, I often feel like I’m swimming upstream. There are many issues of interpretation that seem simple to me, but are only simple for those who read the Bible with context in mind. Some issues have been muddled for years. There are two mistaken notions that seem to cause much mischief and misunderstanding.

The first set of problems come when we have the “treasure box” approach to Scripture. This is when the Bible is treated as a catalog of verses, each of which is independent and contains free-standing theological truth. While each verse is important, responsible reading of the Bible will take verses as part of a larger whole. We would never fool ourselves into thinking we could read a random couple of sentences from the middle of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and understand what the author was trying to say.  Here, give it a try:

Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.

How’s that working for you? We need the whole story to appreciate his message.

The second and more insidious error comes from an approach to Scripture that always thinks it is speaking to us directly and individually. There is no question but that the Bible has timeless truths that apply to our lives, but, to paraphrase Rick Warren, “It’s not always about you.” Let me give you an example of misinterpretation that has rattled my cage for many years: the Parable of the Sower.

Here is the question: is the parable about the soils (people, so by extension, about us) or is it about the sower (a preacher, by extension, about Jesus)? This is seen in the titles assigned to this parable: “Parable of the Sower” or “Parable of the Soils.” If you google “Parable of the Soils,” you will find hundreds of sermons by that title. This is despite Matthew’s choice to call it the “Parable of the Sower” (Matthew 13:18). If we think this parable is about us, we will focus on the characterizations of the four types of soils pictured in the parable, and end by asking “What kind of soil are you?” This leaves the impression that we should change our personal soil type and become like the fourth soil, the good soil that produces a great harvest.

But even a cursory reading of this parable in context (found in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8) would show it is not about the soils, not about us. It is about the sower, an allegorical representation of a preacher. As Jesus says in the beginning of his explanation of the parable, “The sower sows the word” = preaching. This is about a preacher who experiences four different reactions from hearers of the preaching of the word (the Gospel). In the book of Mark, Jesus encounters all of these reactions when he preaches. If we are preachers of the Gospel, we will experience these reactions, too. But, if we, like the sower, scatter the seed widely (or preach every chance we get), our preaching will sometimes be heard by those with fertile hearts, ready to believe and respond to the message with a life-long commitment. Soils don’t change, but people do, so keep preaching, keep preaching faithfully.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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4 thoughts on “Theological Mistakes: Sower or Soil?

  1. Good post. I like to teach this section with Isaiah 55:10-11 and Isaiah 6:9-10 in mind. I think it’s partially a critique of Israel but mainly instruction for the disciples. I imagine they were pretty excited to see the large crowds responding but Jesus gives them a dose of reality and what lies ahead for them.

    • Thanks, Phil. I agree that Isaiah 6 especially must be kept in mind. I think we need to remember that a parable is a “story within a story.” Mark presents it in such a way that it helps him tell his story about Jesus.

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