The Parable of the Sower is the first parable in Luke’s Gospel, and includes a handy teaching on the very nature of parables and what we can expect from them in v. 10. Richard Rohr compares parables to Zen koans. They’re meant to split apart our normal ways of thinking about things and help us see with different eyes and hear with different ears. Which is why Jesus tells the disciples that the meaning of parables are hidden from most people. In order to truly engage with them, you must be committed to setting aside your current ways of thinking about and doing things, and head off into the numinous but sometimes very frightening unknown. The disciples, who have given up a great deal to follow Jesus, have already taken the first steps. They contain the good soil that Jesus is talking about, and will allow themselves to be challenged by the rest of the parables as he tells them.
Rohr points out that the Parable of the Sower is about exactly such spiritual readiness:
The seed fell on several different types of soil. Some just aren’t ready for the Word. They’re not there yet. It’s not their fault; when the student is ready the teacher will arrive. Normally we let God in the way we let everything else in. We meet God at our present level of relational maturity: preoccupied, closed, struck, or ready. Most spiritual work is readying the student. Both soil and soul have to be a bit unsettled and loosened up a bit. As long as we’re too comfortable, too opinionated, too sure we have the whole truth, we’re just rock and thorns. Anybody throwing us seed is just wasting time.
This is a reversal of how the Parable of the Sower is sometimes read, with the assumption that the good soil is the orthodox soil, all loamy with received wisdom and intellectual obedience. But there’s a second, shocking parable that’s buried in this section from Luke, one that overthrows many of our orthodox assumptions of a proper Christian life. Jesus’ mother and brothers appear, and he’s told about it with the suggestion that maybe he should help them negotiate their way through the crowd so that they can be by his side.He seems strangely indifferent to helping them, saying that “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Everything we’ve been taught about the central role of family is overthrown. Jesus wants us to extend the love and care we might have for our families to everyone, to break the boundary of family so that we might be more like God.
Because God, as Ronald Rolheiser points out, is also subverting our expectations in this parable. God is acting like a foolish, profligate farmer. “Who would waste seed on soil that can never produce a harvest?” Rolheiser asks. “God, it seems, doesn’t ask that question but simply keeps scattering his seed everywhere, over generously, without calculating whether it is a good investment or not in terms of return. And, it seems, God has an infinite number of seeds to scatter, perpetually, everywhere. God is prodigious beyond imagination.” This parable, like all the other parables, is meant to jolt us out of any understanding that would limit God’s love to the good or the worthy.
In fact, our very insistence that God reward our assumed worthiness will make us into bad or rocky soil. It will destroy our capacity to see and to hear. Again, Jesus shocks us in this remarkable passage when he says “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.” He is not talking about material wealth here, but to our capacity to listen, to be plowed up by what we hear so that we can nurture the seeds of divinity when we encounter them. If we resist being unsettled and loosened and turned into good soil, then the religiosity that has gotten us this far will begin to slip away. We will abandon the spiritual life and say that it was doing nothing for us. But if we accept our discomfort and truly listen with open ears, even knowing that what we hear might change and disrupt us, we will begin to grow, and find our capacity to see and hear expanding day by day.