Rebranding the Parable of the Sower: Reflections on Matthew 13

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Lectionary Reflections
Proper 10, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23 (Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:5-8a)
July 10, 2011

Let's Hear Something We Haven't Heard Before
When my son Matt, now 22, was growing up, I would read him Bible passages every night. We read through Proverbs. We read through Psalms. We read through Old Testament stories. And we read through the parables. I remember a comment he would make every now and then, when we would return to a familiar passage. "I've heard that one before. Let's hear something we haven't heard before."

We have heard the parable of the sower before. Many, many times. So let's try to hear something in this well-known, well-worn text that we haven't heard before. You know how you often only think of what would have been good to say after the fact? Well, in retrospect, to rekindle my son's interest in the parable of the sower, I should have talked about rebranding. Rebranding is the act of repackaging and renaming a product to make it more appealing. In technical terms it is "the creation of a new name, term, symbol, design, or a combination of them for an established brand with the intention of developing a differentiated (new) position in the mind of stakeholders and competitors."

The most dramatic example of rebranding in recent years is the renaming of prunes to "dried plums." Other examples include the morphing of Backrub to Google, FreeDiskSpace.com to MySpace.com, Diet Deluxe to Healthy Choice, Radar oven to Microwave, and Diet Dr. Pepper to Dr. Pepper Light.

Let's try several rebrandings of "The Parable of the Sower" and see if any new insights arise.

The Parable of the Careless Sower
The parable describes three failures of sowing: the seed on the path is devoured by birds (v. 4); the seed sown on rocky ground is scorched by the sun because it has no roots (vv. 5-6); and the seed sown among thorns is choked (v. 7). Some of the seeds fall on good soil and bring forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (v. 8).

In the first nine verses it sounds like Jesus is referring to himself as the sower and the seeds as his teachings. We could also interpret God as the sower, since God is the source of Jesus' teachings. Jesus is a careless, extravagant sower. Why would he let his teachings fall on the path, on rocky and thorny ground?

If we are to model our own sowing after this sower, we will share Jesus' teachings extravagantly and indiscriminately, not judging which people and places are worthy of them and which are not.

The Parable of the Miraculous Harvest
Maybe "The Parable of the Sower" is not the best or at least the only brand name for this parable. The sower is mentioned only briefly when he scatters the seed in a careless, haphazard manner. He does not return to rejoice in the harvest or to harvest it. Recent interpreters have speculated about the action of the sower in strewing seed without discrimination across a variety of soils. The indiscriminate sowing at least gives the impression that the harvest is somewhat precarious and depends in part on reaching good soil despite an array of obstacles. (Senior, 149)

Biblical scholar J. Dominic Crossan emphasizes that it is not so much the size of the harvest that counts, but the fact that it happens at all. However big or small the harvest, against such opposition, there is a miraculous quality to it; it is a gift whose graciousness and surprise are meant to make us think of the kingdom of God. By his view, we ought to rebrand this parable the "Parable of the Miraculous Harvest." (Donahue, 33)

The Parable of the Helpless, Hapless Seeds
The seeds the sower sows have no choice in whether they flourish or not. It's all in the quality of the land they land in. If a bird eats you, you're done for. If the ground you're on is rocky, you wither. If the ground you're on is thorny, you're choked. If conditions are not ideal, you cannot yield a harvest. By yourself.

The Parable of the Good Soil
In Mark, the parable concludes with the seed that fell on good soil yielding an ever-growing harvest. Mark says of the seed that fell on good soil that it "grew up and increased and yielded thirty and sixty and a hundredfold" (4:8). Matthew focuses on the fact that the seed that fell on good soil brought forth a harvest of grain, but of varying amounts, according to each individual. "Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."