The parable found in Luke 8:5-8, Mark 4:2b-9, and Matt 13:3b-9 titled the “Parable of the Sower” by Snodgrass1 is much better titled the “Parable of the Soils” as it is called in Burton’s2 early 20th century gospel harmony, because the point of this parable has very little to do with the sower and everything to do with dirt.3 Snodgrass provides sufficient evidence that the nimshal found in Matt 13:18-23, Mark 4:13-20, and Luke 8:11-15 fits well within the bounds of what Jesus would have taught to his disciples.4 The explanation of the parable in the text makes it clear that Jesus and the Evangelists saw the seeds in the parable as a metaphor for God’s word being preached to God’s people. The soil represents those who Jesus’ message is preached to and their receptiveness to that message. A person with the qualities of good soil will listen to Jesus’ message, work to understand it, and put Jesus’ teachings into action in her or his life.5
Sandwiched between the parable and Jesus’ nimshal, all three synoptic gospels have Jesus explaining to the disciples why he teaches in parables. Snodgrass sufficiently explains Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 as a call to the people to listen to his prophetic message.6 In this section there is an interesting point of redaction between the Evangelists. Matthew quotes the entirety of the Isaiah passage and thus includes the positive healing God would provide his people if they were to listen. E.g. Matt 13:15, “lest they see […] and turn and be healed.” Luke, ever more concise, excludes the positive turn altogether. Mark has the positive turn, but the healing promised by God in Isaiah has become forgiveness. E.g. Mark 4:12, “lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.”
In Mark and Matthew’s turn to healing and forgiveness a deeper meaning is given to the “Parable of the Soils.” The soil in Jesus’ parable is passive and unchanging. The rocky soil starts the parable rocky and ends unchanged just as the good soil does. The nature of the soil has lead many theologians to read predestination into the text.7 They interpret Jesus’ words to mean that God has predestined some to accept his message and others to be insufficient from the womb to be “good ground.” Accepting the argument that Jesus indeed quoted Isaiah 6 when explaining why he taught in parables8 and recognizing that a parable with a “foundational role in all three Synoptic Gospels”9 would have been taught many times by Jesus, I believe Jesus used both healing and forgiveness language in this teaching.
God’s people, unlike soil, need not be passive. They can ask for forgiveness and can be healed. Through listening and obeying and, per Luke, with a little “patience,” rocky soil can become good soil. Those “who hear the word and accept it”10 will, through God, be forgiven and transformed into people who “understand [God’s teachings] with their hearts.“11 They can once again be God’s “holy seed”12 and return to God’s presence from their exile away from his word.
Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), pg. 145
Ernest DeWitt Burton, A Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels for Historical and Critical Study (New York; Chicago; Boston: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917)
Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), pg. 169
Ibid, pgs. 164-166
Ibid, pgs. 175-176
Ibid, pgs. 157-164
Ibid, pg. 163
Ibid, pgs. 157-164
Ibid, pg. 145