A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear. Matthew 13:4-9
It is easy when reading the New Testament to put yourself in the position of the “good” actors in the parables. Of course you are the old woman giving her last two coins, the man who sells everything for the pearl of great price, the good servant who made much of little. You never read yourself as the “bad” actors. I am never the rich man to Lazarus, the self-righteous man praying in the middle of the temple, the unforgiving servant. But sometimes there is no way out of reading yourself as the bad actor, the failure, in a parable.
I read the Parable of the Sower with a somewhat heavy heart. This is a parable meant to warn the faithful about the likes of me. I am not a good crop. I will not even lead to a measly thirty-fold increase. I am not sure exactly where I fall in this scheme. I’m not clear whether my seed fell on hard ground or among the weeds, whether I am more guilty of shallowness or worldliness. Both are options I suppose.
For my part, seeing how easily my representation in scorched or choked plants is tossed away, judged without remorse or consideration, leaves me feeling justified in my rather cold feeling toward the Bible. Once the plant has withered and died, what use is it? What good is salt that has lost its saltiness? It’s trash the Bible says. It means, I’m trash.
When a parable judges without remorse, I think it needs to be reconsidered. These parables might be a certain kind of edifying to the already-in crowd, but they do little to open the church doors wider and, in fact, only shut the doors to all those scorched and choked Christians out there. Same goes for the parable that follows the Parable of the Sower in Matthew (13:47-50):
Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
You will go to hell because you are not a good tasting fish. Ok then.
I don’t know if it’s possible to honestly read yourself into the bad actor parts of parables if you aren’t very clear on their application to you. It’s hard to imagine yourself being judged like these characters are judged. Seeing the less shiny parts of yourself charged with all sorts of fatal flaws is uncomfortable. It allows you to see inside of the language of the New Testament and see how scandalous it really was, and is. It gives you an outsider’s view, a notoriously hard thing for Christians to cultivate
Sometimes you know the bad actor is a really bad actor. Consider the servant who, after his own excessive debt to the king is forgiven, refuses to forgive a tiny debt owed to him by a fellow servant. No one wants to be this guy. No one even wants to contemplate it. The judgment here doesn’t seem so misplaced (what did that muddy-tasting catfish ever do to you?) and it allows us to contemplate the parts of our own lives which we live with harsh double standards. These kinds of parables get my blessing – they encourage compassion, mercy, and generosity, not judgment.
Next time you consider a parable, don’t forget to ask yourself: “could I be the bad actor?” And what does that tell me about myself and the parable?
What parable do you identify with the bad actor in?