July 10, 2011 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time A Isaiah 55:10–11
With this parable of the sower we have arrived at chapter 13 in Matthew’s Gospel. This is just about half way through the gospel of Matthew. This is also the third of five sermons that Jesus delivers in Matthew. That we have reached a high point in Matthew’s gospel is also indicated by the fact that there are 7 parables in this sermon, seven is the biblical number for wholeness, perfection. We heard Js first sermon on the mount before Lent; we did not have a chance to har the second one because of the feasts after Pentecost But now we can settle down and listen to Jesus’ summer sermon as it were.
On our part we are well into the growing season and so an agricultural parable like that of the sower and the seed fits well into our own experience. There is a good possibility that some of the things planted earlier are also bearing fruit and we are enjoying them at the table. There is a touch of harvest already. And harvest is one of the key elements in this parable of Jesus.
Jesus uses parables in this summer sermon and so it might be a good idea to remember what a parable is and does. Parable is first of all story; story taken from everyday life. Today the agricultural world. But the local scene, the familiar household story is really meant to pull us into the larger world of who Jesus is and what Jesus is all about. That larger world, Jesus tells his disciples, is the Kingdom of heaven or the Kingdom of God. Every parable no matter how short or how long; no matter how simple and ordinary it seems is meant to wake us up to the larger reality of what God is doing. Parables are Jesus’ way of showing us the big picture that God is drawing. In reality a parable is about God’s way of doing and acting. The name the way God sees and acts is called the Kingdom of heaven. It is not so much a place, but the way relationships are between God and his world and people and hence the kind of relationships we have with one another.
There is inevitably a shock value in all parables. Today’s parable reveals two shocks, two surprises as it were.
In the parable things start off as usual, someone sowing his field in typical Palestinian fashion. It is so every-day that we can easily estimate the end of the story. In our case today, we see that 3/4ths of the seed is wasted-it falls on the path, on the rocks and among the thorns. The rest manages to fall on good soil; so maybe there will be a harvest of about 5%. Remember the Palestinian farmer is not a 21st century farmer who sows with much precision and does not waste a seed on unfertile soil. The Palestinian farmer sows in abundance everywhere. The seed will fall where it will. Afterwards he goes back and tries to “plant” it in the traditional sense. The natural expectation is that the harvest will be according to the little seed sown on fertile ground. The shock is that there is a harvest that produces 100, 60 or even 30 fold. Never mind 5% yield! This is unthinkable. Of course even Jesus’ listeners would be a bit taken back by the fact of so much loss of seed, but they would not expect Jesus to say that the harvest was a 100-fold! This is impossible.
But this is a parable about the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom is built up by sowing the word, the good news of the Kingdom, but the fact is that it doesn’t seem that Jesus’s sowing, his preaching is producing much of a harvest. In terms of membership it is pitifully small given the effort and time he has put into preaching the word. But this is the Kingdom and it works in Kingdom ways. There will be a harvest that will seem all out of proportion to the sowing. The disciples are worried that Jesus is not really catching on with his listeners, especially among the religious leaders. So Jesus tells this parable about sowing and harvesting.
Statistics today reveal that there are more ex-Catholics in the USA than from any other Christian Church. Today the fastest growing religious denomination according to one survey is labeled “None.” Candidates for religious life and the diocesan ministry of priests are down; some parishes are sharing priests or are amalgamating. And along comes Jesus to say yes, you sow, you preach the word. No harvest. But who says there is no harvest. On whose terms is the harvest counted. We are pretty much addicted to success in the American culture and success is indicted by numbers. If we don’t see numbers, we worry about the numbers.
But maybe we need to look at the situation from the Kingdom’s point of view. Maybe we ought to focus on the sowing. Maybe the task is throwing the seed. Throw abundantly and wildly like the sower. If the word we sow is from God, we can afford to be like God who speaks his word and knows that it will not return empty. Is the harvest what we need to focus on as a church or is it the sowing? God sows and sows generously, he is not stingy. We can join God in the sowing and then join him in the same hope that the harvest will go beyond the sowing.
The second surprise in the parable is that suddenly we become the soil. When Jesus sets out to give his view of the parable, the focus is on the soil and we are that soil. Suddenly we find that we do have some responsibility about how we receive the Word. It lies in the mystery of God how he can make results come from a seeming waste of time and energy and poor soil, but he does it. But there is our responsibility once we have heard the word. Jesus offers 4 alternatives for receptivity. Some people allow others to take away the gift of the word about the Kingdom; others just have no time to allow it to even penetrate, their lives are hard a rock and focused elsewhere; and some just toss it aside in favor of something else that seems much more alluring and attractive.
The key to the Kingdom of God is that it is a gift; it is given not earned. You either recognize it or you don’t. That is part of its mystery. On the other hand everyone needs to connect with the Kingdom in order to bear fruit, to live. Everyone needs the larger picture of God’s way in the world in order to grow and mature. We are created for something bigger than ourselves. We are created for the Kingdom. The word about the Kingdom, the seed may look small, but don’t be deceived it contains the Kingdom. It seems that for ¾ to whom the gift is given, its insignificance is a deterrence. Yes, to step into the Kingdom means a full rich life. But the seed must fall into the soil, lie buried and die there. Only then is there a harvest. We are the soil on which the seed falls. We have a heart and there the word of the Kingdom can work.
The sowing of the Word is gift; the responsibility lies in its reception. Jesus calls it hearing the word and understanding the word. That is the soil that can be cultivated. The Kingdom grows into in harvest for those who listen and understand and in understanding say “yes” now I see.
And how are we doing in cultivating the soil of our lives this summer season?