What the Parable of the Sower is Not About–Maybe

As 20th century research on biblical and extra-biblical parables showed, the term “parable” (parabolē) could be applied to a wide range of expressions, from terse aphorisms to riddles seemingly pregnant with significance to extended stories such as we usually think of when encountering the term.

A number of helpful insights came about from the rather intense attention that parables received in the 20th century. One distinction among parables that I have not heard made is one that I’m finding more and more helpful in my own thinking: that is the distinction between parables that explain how something is and parables that encourage a certain kind of action or change in behavior—what we might call explanatory versus exhortative parables.

Had I had this distinction in my mental pocket 20 years ago, I might have (sadly) avoided one of my favorite and most memorable arguments. It was with a professor for whom I was a T.A. and the argument was over the interpretation of the Parable of the Sower. He complained that most of the sermons one hears on this parable end with “So, be good soil!” as if “soil” had or could have any role in generating its own fertility and thus producing fruit, his point being that only God can make us good soil, prepared to receive the word and produce much fruit. I argued that point of sermon is indeed to warn people about allowing their hearts to become hard or choked with the cares of the world. Actual soil is inert, true, but we are not. Neither of us would budge on our interpretation. That professor remains one of my best colleague-friends and an unfailing advocate of my work.

If I had had in mind the distinction between explanatory and exhortative parables I might (might!) have been willing to concede that the parable seems to be far more explanatory that exhortative, although I think it treads the line.[1] Some parables are clearly exhortative (the Good Samaritan ends with, “Go and do likewise”) and some seem to be almost strictly explanatory (the parable of the Net [Mt 13] seems simply to be about the comprehensive nature of the judgement that will happen at the coming of the kingdom and the fate of those judged).

The Parable of the Sower (or Seeds or Soils) on the one hand invites hearers to consider what sort of soil they might be and whether they are producing fruit and if not why not. Yet, on the other hand, assuming that the readers are supposed to identifying on some level with the disciples, then Jesus’ statement that “To you has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom” certainly sounds as if the disciples have received the word and do not have the blind eyes and deaf ears that prevent both repentance and fruit-bearing (typical of bad soil). In that case, particularly when one looks at the whole pericope including the rationale for parables and the allegorical interpretation, the parable seems to be essentially explanatory. Although I still maintain that its explanatory point is not our inability to do anything to become good soil.

[1] This without even taking into account the not-altogether-clear explanatory point of the parable. Is it simply instructing the disciples (and us) that the word is sometimes productive and sometimes not? Is it mainly explaining why some people seem to receive the word and others not (or seem to receive it but not to the point of producing fruit)? Is it explaining the rejection of Jesus’ message by those of his own time, particularly the religious leaders?

Ekstasis and Wisdom, or Why Athena is Beside Herself

So, the Athena of the title of this blog stands as a symbol of the rational, philosophical, technical, and (the inevitable) strategically combative aspects of this blog. She is, above all, sound-minded and reasonable.

In fact, sound-mindedness was a high value in the ancient world, and this value shows up in the New Testament as well, as we can see in the many positive uses of words with the σωφρο– root.[1] Being sound-minded was not just an intellectual virtue, it was a moral marker. The opposite was to be out of your mind (usually because of intemperate indulgence in emotion), lacking self-control, or even (in the case of the two gospel uses listed below in note 1) to be possessed. The opposite of sound-minded was to be “ecstatic.” Ekstasis means “standing outside [one’s self],” hence its frequent translation in the past as “beside yourself.” Ekstasis was the realm of the irrational, the mystical, the prophetic, and the oracular.[2]

One might imagine that the New Testament would paint ekstasis in a negative light since it stands as the opposite of the well-regarded sound-mindedness. There are times when both the noun form and the verb form can mean, essentially, out of one’s mind, as when Jesus’ family are concerned that he is “beside himself” (Mk 3:21), but usually it means to be amazed to the point of being out of your mind with awe such that you are without reason, particularly in the face of the miraculous.[3] It can also mean a mystical vision or supernatural revelation, the kind that God gives to dislodge God’s followers from entrenched ideas.[4] So it seems that these are opposites in some sense, but complementary opposites. Paul says to the Corinthians, “For if we are out of our minds, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (2 Cor 5:13). These opposites need each other. Paradoxical though it maybe, Athena needs to lose her mind sometimes just as much as the Oracles need rationality and technē to pull their shadowy pronouncements into beneficial usefulness. Hopefully this blog can tread that line—or perhaps swing that pendulum—aright.[5] Sometimes you have to stand outside to have the right perspective on being inside.

[1] A probably-not-exhaustive list: Mk 5:15, Lk 8:35, Acts 26:25, Rom 12:3, 2 Cr 5:13, 1Tim 2:9, 1 Tim 2:15, 1 Tim 3:2, 2 Tim 1:7, Tts 1:8, Tts 2:2-6 (four times), Tts 2:12, 1 Pet 4:7.

[2] If the ecstatic had had a patroness for the Greeks (as Athena was for the rational and sound-minded), it might well have been the Oracle at Delphi (and her kin elsewhere, the Pythia)—the prophetic and oracular priestess of the ancient world.

[3] Mt 12:23; Mk 2:12, 3:21, 5:42, 6:51, and 16:8; Lk 2:47, 5:26, 8:56, and 24:22; Acts 2:7, 2:12, 3:10, 8:9, 8:11, 8:13, 9:21, 10:45, and 12:16. The words with a θαυμά- root aren’t included here, but the connection is not unimportant especially in its seeming overlap in the NT with the terms we’ve been discussing here and its positive use in philosophical literature. Look for a blog post in the future on this topic.

[4] Acts 10:10, 11:5, and 22:17.

[5] Since a good deal of this blog will be about interpretation, some readers may wonder why we have not invoked Hermes, since we are fiddling around with such things. Well, all I can say is, it’s been done, and those with ears to hear will have already realized he has been the patron here of no small bit of thievery in these first two posts. Though I prefer to think of it as standing on the shoulders of giants.

Welcome to Athena Ekstatika

This is a blog whose name and approach needs a bit more exposition than the usual “about” page. These first couple posts will be an extended “about” and introduction to some of the topics I imagine this blog will take up.

The first aspect that needs exposition is the invocation of the goddess Athena as a sort of patroness of our discussion. Perhaps patroness is too strong, but in Greek mythology, Athena is the goddess of wisdom, among other things. As such, she stands for a certain ideal when it comes to theology and biblical studies. This ideal values both rationality and practicality, or perhaps a practical rationality, and so is connected to the wisdom traditions of both the Greco-Roman world and the Israelite-Jewish traditions.

This ideal might be broadly called “philosophical.” and since philosophy is the “love of wisdom,” Athena stands as the patroness of this approach. In our reflections, philosophy will be connected to our subjects not only through what is generally understood as the philosophical aspect of theology but also more subtly through attention now and again to the influence of philosophical ideas in the original writing and later interpretation of biblical texts, as well as in the consideration of hermeneutics (the philosophy of interpretation).

Wisdom and philosophy aren’t Athena’s only areas of interest. She is also the patroness of crafts. Not to worry: this will not become anything resembling Pintrest (although I think she is the patroness of that as well). Her patronage of crafts does include those of homemaking, but it is also the patronage more broadly of technē—skill, technical knowledge of a craft. A master of his or her craft has technē. Athena’s favored technē was weaving, and she is sometimes depicted at the loom. Our reflections here will aim to bring the best of the technē of biblical studies and related fields to bear on our conversations and to weave a variety of strands together into something useful.

Finally, it cannot be ignored that Athena is also the goddess of war. To stand under her formative influence means that sometimes there will be battles. But Athena is not Ares. Ares is the patron of the rage of battle, blood-thirst, will to conquer, and vengeance. Athena is the strategic, tactical side of war: Must we fight? Is our cause just? If so how will we win, and win with honor? Athena does not lose her head. She is self-controlled, knowing that there are heroes and honorable persons on both sides of any battleline.

The next post will explore the second aspect of this blog: standing outside yourself.