Parables are designed to make us think. Thinking is a surprisingly rare thing.
The Parable of the Sower is unusual in that it has both the parable and an explanation of the parable. The explanation lets us off the hook so that we do not have to think about what the parable means because we assume we know what it means already.
Jesus probably did not explain his parables, which would mean this explanation was not original and was added later by early followers of Christ. If this is true, then we can approach the parable on its own terms rather than merely in the terms set out by the explanation.
George Aichele has said that Christians have either taken the explanation of this parable and ignored the parable itself, or have taken the parable itself and have ignored the explanation.
We have either focused on the parable or on the explanation, but not both. This means that the meaning of the parable itself is not the same as the meaning of the explanation of the parable given in the text.
I suspect that Aichele is right, but because the explanation comes after the parable, it is usually given the last word, so that that for us what we take away is the meaning of the explanation, and we often do not even think about the parable itself.
Why would we try and figure out a math problem when we have been given the answer already? But what if the answer is wrong?
What might this strange little parable mean if we do not presume the meaning provided in the explanation? It is so ordinary: a sower goes and sows seed – some are successful and grows, while others fail, for various reasons.
Is this a story about a careless farmer? Is it a morality tale about the dangers of carelessness? The farmer, after all, spills seed everywhere it seems – perhaps the message is that we should be careful in those things we try to do – more care than this farmer at least.
But if this was what this parable is about, why is the sower rewarded at the end with such a wonderful harvest?”
What if this isn’t a story about carelessness, but exuberance? Perhaps it is a story about a farmer who sows with reckless abandon?
This raises the question as to who the sower represents. There is no need to answer this question too rigidly. The sower might represent anyone who sows.
What does sowing refer to, and what do the seeds represent? The explanation given in the Gospel is that the seed represents the word of God, which means that the sower is one who disperses the words of God – preachers.
This explanation takes the parable allegorically, and in allegory each individual detail represents something. Allegorical interpretation was very popular for a long time in the church but has fallen on hard times in the last hundred years or so because it is too arbitrary.
If we try to avoid reading this as an allegory, what does it mean? Perhaps sowing might represent any effort expended towards a future positive outcome. Just like in sowing, we do this work now so that in the future we might get that good thing.
Who is the sower? Perhaps the sower is anyone who exerts effort towards a positive outcome in the future? This would make God a sower – God who scatters with abandon in hope for a better future for humanity. Jesus is also a sower; this parable gives us another way to look at his ministry.
The reader too can be a sower. This parable can also be a way of looking at one’s own ministry. The reader is called to give recklessly – like God gives – she is called to a giving that does not calculate loss – that does not ask whether the investment is going to provide a worth while payout. This might be unrealistic – but it is what the text calls the reader to do.
But what about the lost seed – the failed harvest? One of the problems with the explanation given in the Gospel is that because it spends so much time on the different types of ground and the different types of error, the emphasis is on failure.
In the parable itself, there is less time focusing on the failed seed than there is in the explanation. There is a greater balance between the few seeds that fail and the many seeds that succeed wonderfully.
There are three types of failed seed (by the road, on the rock, and in the thorns) and three types of successful seeds (those that yield a hundredfold, those that yield a sixtyfold, and those that yield a thirtyfold). Success is the more important outcome of the parable as it has the final word, and because there are more successful seeds than failed ones.
But that still doesn’t answer the question as to what to what we make of the failure in this parable.
Isaiah speaks of God’s word as if it were like rain; “it shall not return to God empty, but it shall accomplish that which God purposes, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it” (Isa 55:10-11). For Isaiah, failure is simply not a possibility. God’s desire simply will succeed, and will not fail. Isaiah imagines a harvest without any loss or failure.
But it doesn’t always go that way, does it?
Maybe Jesus was telling a story about what we experience every day – that the success of the harvest only comes through loss? That sometimes, even the word of God itself fails, but that that failure is actually part of a bigger more important success. The failed seeds are part of the whole process that led to the wildly successful harvest in the parable.
This is a broken world – but it is also a world that occupies God’s thoughts – it is a world God dreams and desires about – it is a world where many beautiful dreams fail, despite the fact that they might be accompanied by solid effort and worthy intent.
We have all known failure – even Jesus himself experienced failure –even God experiences failure. Failure is painful – it is discouraging and sometimes heart breaking and even soul crushing. But what if that failure is part of something bigger?
Perhaps this parable is challenging us to look at the all of the actions and outcomes of the sower, not just the failures or the successes. Looking at all of the outcomes together as part of one action connects the failure with the success. Perhaps we should consider the totality of the actions within the parable as part of one whole movement, rather than comparing and contrasting failure and success. Rather, both are part of the whole process.
Our failure and our successes are linked. Indeed, our failure might even be part of someone else’s success? If we are all in this together, then one person’s success is everyone’s success, just as one person’s failure is everyone’s failure. If my failure is somehow connected to someone else’s success, then I am successful despite the failure – or perhaps because of it.
In a world where failure so often seems to have the last word, where death is the only seemingly certain outcome – in such a world as this do we dare imagine success?
Not the crass success of more money or more power – rather the success of imagining a better world with God and having a bit of that dream come to pass. Maybe not in our time – maybe in the time of our children, or their children. That sort of success demand that we all be willing to fail.
What could be a better way to spend one’s life than in failure such as this?
 George Aichele, “The Text Reads Itself,” Jesus Frames, (London & New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 75–98.The Sower (Part 1)