John Dominic Crossan
Crossan [Historical Jesus, 295] draws on this parable as an example of those sayings that express a "serene" confidence in our access to God and of eventual success despite variable outcomes in the meantime:
Any peasant would recognize its balance of three, that is, multiple, losses and gains in the normal process of sowing. yet its serene message of gains despite losses and even of multiple forms of gain puts in narrative form the same message of assured success. The roots of that assurance become clear in 082 Against Anxieties [1/2], where God's care for nature's birds and flowers should obviate human worries about food and clothing. The parallels to Stoic-Cynic admonitions are, as F. Gerald Downing indicates, quite striking [Christ and the Cynics: Jesus and Other Radical Preachers in First-Century Tradition]. (JSOT Manuals, 4. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press,1988. Pp. 70-71). The serenity and security passed by Jesus to his followers derives not from knowing hidden mysteries of past or present but from watching nature's rhythms of here and now.
The commentary in [The Five Gospels] (54) reports that the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar concluded that the underlying parable could be traced back to Jesus as a parable that is now attested in two (Mark and Thomas), and possibly three (Mark, Thomas and Luke) independent sources. While Mark has preserved much of the original triadic structure of the parable, and is perhaps the only source to preserve the original ending, Thomas has preserved the form closest to the actual words of Jesus. Mark has modified the parable to reflect his idea (made explicit in vss 11-20) that the secret of the kingdom is only revealed to the disciples in private: see also Mark 7:17-23; 9:28-29; 13:1-37.
Lüdemann [Jesus] (25-29) identifies stages in the tradition history for this parable. He distinguishes between the original saying, its later Christian interpretation (vss. 14-20) still in the pre-Markan stage, and then the form in Mark and the Synoptic parallels.
His reasons for attributing the interpretation to later tradition are:
- Christian terminology alien to the remainder of Jesus' teaching but well attested in the writings of early Christianity. He notes the absolute use of 'word': which is spread by the preacher (Mark 1:45; Acts 8:4; 2Tim 4:2; etc) received by the hearers (1Thess 1:6; 2:13; Acts 17:11; etc) with joy (1Thess 1:6); attracts hostile reactions (1Thess 1:6; 2Tim 1:8; 2:9) and becomes an offence (1Pet 2:8); and yet grows (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20; Col 1:6) and brings forth fruit (Col 1:6,10).
- Other terms in the text occur nowhere else in the Synoptics but are familiar in other parts of the NT: the metaphorical use of 'sow' for preaching (1Cor 9:11; etc) and of 'root' in the sense of inner steadfastness (Col 2:7; Eph 3:17).
- A psychological interest in the disposition of the various audiences displaces the original <??> eschatological focus.
- GThom is literary evidence that the parable actually did circulate without an interpretation.
He concludes: "the parable goes back to Jesus: however -- because we do not know what it really refers to -- that does not yet tell us anything about its meaning." Luedemann then cites, with implicit approval, the comments of Rudolph Bultmann:
Is the meaning consolation for everyone, even if not all the work bears fruit? Is the parable in this sense a quasi-resigned, quasi-grateful monologue of Jesus? Is it an admonition to those who hear the divine word? The preaching of Jesus? Or in the original parable is there no reflection on the word at all and is the meaning the people sown in the world?
Luedemann's own interpretation runs as follows:
First the sowing is depicted, and in the final verse it is already harvest time. The breaking in of the kingly rule of God is compared with this. It is confronted with manifold failure and resistance in the present. So the message of the parable calls for confidence. Despite all failure and resistance, God produces the glorious end from the hopeless beginnings. As a parable of Jesus, it then expresses Jesus' confidence -- a confidence which suffered a defeat because the kingdom of God did not in fact break in. (p. 29)
John P. Meier
While he does not discuss this parable in the first three volumes of his [Marginal Jew], Meier does cite with implicit approval the suggestion by Tuckett that "some redactional traits from Mark can be found in sayings 9 and 20" of Thomas (136).