As I have mentioned before, I am a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. More often than not, Gardner gave his novels a catchy, alliterative title. Here are a few choice examples: The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, and last but not least, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink. Well, if Erle Stanley Gardner had written today’s Parable of the Sower, he might have been hard-pressed to decide whether to call it “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils” or “The Practical Parable of the Profligate Planter.” For each title gives a different insight into the meaning of the parable.
Let’s start with “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus does something he rarely does—he explains a parable! The sower is Jesus himself, spreading the Word of the Kingdom of God. And one point of the parable is to explain the disappointing rejection of the Good News by so many people. Jesus explains that the rejection of the Gospel has everything to do with the condition of the soil, which allegorically represents the mindset of those who hear his message.
Jesus enumerates four distinct kinds of soil, four distinct mindsets. First, there are those who don’t take in what he is trying to tell them. Now, he doesn’t mean that they literally can’t understand his speech. He means that they don’t take his message to heart. It goes in one ear and out the other!
Years ago, when my cousin Leah was three or four years old, my mother was babysitting her. And Leah noticed a Snickers bar on the counter. She asked if she could have it. My mother explained that it was the last candy bar and that she would split the bar 50/50 with her, each getting exactly half. Now, my mother wasn’t about to hand a paring knife to a child. Instead, she took the knife and asked Leah to point to the exact middle of the candy bar. She said she would cut where Leah pointed. Now, the bar was about five inches long, but Leah pointed about half an inch from one end. My mother asked her, “Leah, are you sure that is the middle, that both halves are exactly the same size?” Leah nodded. Then my mother cut the bar at that point and quickly snatched the larger piece. Leah cried, but she learned a lesson about greed. Now, this story of my cousin is charming, but it is also instructive: we learn that greed infects us early on!
Today’s Gospel reading is universally known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but I think it needs a better title. First, no one uses the word prodigal anymore. And second, the story isn’t primarily about that younger son. A more fitting title would be “The Parable of the Family that Behaved Outrageously.” Now, the outrageous behavior in this story may not be apparent at first glance. For one thing, social conventions were very different in first-century Palestine. For another, we have become inured to outrageous behavior; the Republican debates are a case in point.
The story begins with the younger of two sons telling his father that he can’t wait for his father to die to get his hands on his money. Clearly, this was an outrageous way for any son to behave. Common sense alone should have been enough to tell the father that the appropriate answer was “I don’t think so.” But if the father needed some guidance here, he could have relied on Judaism’s wisdom literature. Here is a typical teaching on the subject: “To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, in case you change your mind and must ask for it.” (Sir. 33:20–24). But the father in our story doesn’t take this sound advice. Instead, he divides all he owns between his two sons. An outrageous response to an outrageous request!