in Ordinary TimeJuly 10, 2011
Matt 13: 1-9
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
“Jesus spoke to them at length in parables, saying: ‘A sower went out to sow’” (Matt 13: 3).
The Indians near Plimoth Plantation helped our socio-cultural ancestors to survive by teaching them to plant corn efficiently: one kernel to a small hole, covered over, and a fish laid upon it as fertilizer. That method worked marvelously, assuring the Pilgrims a bountiful harvest, and survival.
But that method doesn’t work with most grains and isn’t how people sowed their fields of wheat, barley, rye, and oats for thousands of years. They did just what Jesus pictures for us in his parable today—profligately scattered handfuls of seed broadside as they walked up and down their fields—as you might observe a landscaper today doing with grass seed.
Sower with Setting Sun by Van Gogh (and h/t to the Deacon)By that method lots of seed is lost, even today, landing on rock, being eaten by birds, being trampled underfoot, and in the case of a peasant farmer’s field, being overrun and choked out by weeds. Yet, enuf seed lands on good soil and, with proper moisture, it grows and produces more grain than the farmer began with, so that he can harvest food for the season ahead and still set aside seed grain for the next planting.
Jesus’ parable is a metaphor for God’s profligately strewing his word among the human race. Not every person is receptive, to be sure, but there’s still a bountiful harvest of hearts for the Divine Farmer. In the 1st reading the prophet Isaiah spoke of the effectiveness of God’s word: whatever God has decreed will be carried out. Whatever grace he has sown among human beings will bear its fruit in salvation.
We are some of those human beings among whom God is profligately sowing the word of his grace. Sometimes are hearts are stony and non-receptive. Sometimes our hearts tell us, “This seed is good, and I want to take it in and let it grow”; but—like youthful Augustine—we also want to cling to the weeds and thorns of our passions, our worldly comforts, our inertia, and we don’t nurture the seed and let it grow up.
Fortunately for us, God isn’t easily put off. Just as he kept coming for Augustine, he keeps after us, keeps strewing the word in our direction. If we can just give that word a little soil in which to sink a root, God will do the rest: “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Is 55:11). So let us not be discouraged by our lack of spiritual progress, by our repeated failures to practice this virtue or that, by our having to confess the same sins over and over. Have faith in the power of God’s word to bear fruit in you, to convert you ever so slowly into his disciple.
There’s another way in which this parable carries meaning for us. Scripture commentator Megan McKenna tells of that way in another parable:*
There was a woman who was depressed over the state of the world. She longed for love among her family and friends, peace among all people, compassion for the poor and vulnerable. There were problems everywhere as she saw so much selfishness, greed, hatred, lack of moral values.
One day she came upon a little shop. She walked in and was surprised to see someone behind the counter who reminded her of Jesus. She couldn’t believe it really was Jesus, but the similarity was so striking that she just had to go to him and ask: “Excuse me, are you Jesus?”
“Do you work here?”
“No, I’m the owner.”
“What do you sell here?”
“Well, I really don’t sell anything. It’s all free. I have here just about anything you might want. You’re welcome to walk around the aisles and see what you might be interested in. Make a list of all the things you want and bring it back to me. I’ll see what I can do for you.”
She was amazed at what she saw on the shelves: peace on earth, food to feed the hungry, clean air and water, warm clothing for the poor, forgiveness. The woman compiled a long list and brought it back to Jesus.
When Jesus looked at all the items she had written down, he smiled and said, “No problem.” He bent down behind the counter and ran his finger thru several boxes. He then stood up and laid out a series of small envelopes for the woman.
“What are these?” she asked.
“Seed packets,” Jesus replied. “This is a catalog store.”
“You mean I don’t get the finished product?” she asked.
“No,” Jesus said. “Just take these seeds home, plant them, nurture them, help them grow, and you’ll be quite pleased with the results.”
She said, “Oh!” and left the store without taking anything with her.
Most of us want God to solve problems for us overnite, and when he does, that’s great. But mostly he gives us the means and the help we need and calls us to have faith and patience.
And the point of that little parable is that we who follow Jesus also have to sow his word. It’s hard work, and the results don’t show immediately. Sometimes our efforts to be peacemakers, to reconcile, to improve the physical or the social environment, to get someone to believe in a better future for himself, to round up lost souls for the Lord seem to be getting nowhere, bearing no fruit. But we have to keep trying, keep strewing the word of God all around us by what we say, even more by how we live.
Only in the great harvest at the end of time will we see what God has done—in our own hearts and in the hearts of countless men and women whose lives we’ve touched in some fashion.
* Quoted by Fr. Joe Robinson, Guiding Light: Steadfast to the Son. Cycle A (China, Ind.: Shepherds of Christ, 2010), pp. 116-117, with some minor edits. It’s not clear whether the last paragraph that I quote comes from Ms. McKenna or Fr. Robinson.