Mixed reception July 12, 2020
Gardeners can relate to the parable in today’s gospel (Matt13:1-9, 18-23), but its relevance goes far beyond its seed-sowing metaphor. It’s this further dimension that deserves our attention.
Here is an abbreviated version of the text. “A farmer went to sow his seed. Some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it Some fell on rocky places, It sprang up quickly but when the sun came up, the plants withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which choked the plants. Other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
One biblical scholar says that “the purpose of the parables is to tease the mind into active thought.” Since not everyone was a farmer, or is a gardener, some may have been confused about the metaphors. ‘What does the soil represent?’, ‘Was Jesus saying that birds were bad?’, ‘why would he sow seeds in places where they wouldn’t grow?’ At least their confusion indicated that they were engaged by the story. Regardless of their background Jesus’ listeners would know that the sower’s intent was not to waste seed but to cast it where it would produce the desired crop. Despite his intent, three of the four locations the seed fell were unproductive.
So, Jesus explained, The parable means: When anyone hears about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word.
Some rejected Jesus’ message outright (the hard ground). Some adopted it enthusiastically, but when they understood the full implications of following his instructions, their zeal waned (It took root, but the roots were shallow). Others had the message taken from them by appetites for other things. (Birds ate the seed). But some heard the word and spread it.
Beyond this reality check, it is the contrast between the three unsuccessful plantings and the fourth, abundantly successful one.
Jesus was realistic. He understood that not everyone welcomed what he had to say. More to the point, he was instructing his followers, including us, that they, and we, could expect the same reaction when they went to preach by word or example.
Another way to look at the story, is that Jesus didn’t just spread his message in obviously tilled soil, but in places you wouldn’t expect. He was almost carless. He hoped that his message would find a receptive set of ears in unlikely places.
One of my friends works as a chaplain in a detention centre. She often sees people who have been charged with major crimes…hardly ‘tilled soil’ waiting for the word of God. Yet she is there to sow the seed of Christ’s message amid the profanity, the threats and the violence. In person, she is tiny, soft spoken and reserved. Her gentle ways and appearance form part of the message of God’s love.
Often, the inmates have no use for a chaplain, but some want to change their lives, perhaps out of fear, sometimes out of a realization that their lives are going nowhere if they don’t change.
A different case might be Desmond Tutu’s and Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, a form of restorative justice program following the end of Apartheid in the early 1990s. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as offering reparation and rehabilitation to the victims.
Initially, the concept seemed like a fantasy. The whites, who had maintained control of the country and the economy through apartheid policies did not seem to be likely candidates to acknowledge wrong let alone try to make amends. Some tried to “game” the system to avoid punishment, but others sincerely acknowledged their wrongs. Significantly, too, the populace granted them forgiveness.
Seed might fall on “rocky soil” but sometimes it produced harvest even there. It was a triumph of the message and has multiplied itself many times over in the years since.
I was on a conference call on Tuesday with some people from the Ignatian Spirituality Program. Most of them were from the US. One woman said that she watched the nightly news on the Public Broadcasting System all the way through to the end, despite the discouraging reports about Covid-19 cases, unemployment and racial tensions because the producers always ended the show with a news item that exemplified resilience, kindness or generosity. Sometimes the stories were about well-organized work, but often they were about local communities or individuals who saw a need and responded. For her it was a story of the wheat among the weeds.
· Can you recall a time in your life when the message of God’s love, in an act of kindness or a caring word, produced a big change in you… in other words, when the “seed” of a seemingly small good word or act, had a profound influence?
· What is the hardest form of rejection for you? Is it internal? Is it the rejection of God’s word by family and friends? Is it the state of the world, that cynically rejects the message? Does this gospel strengthen you in the face of these challenges?
· When you consider this gospel, what is the personal “call to action” for you? Is it to be patient and consistent in the way you spread the word of the gospel, by word or deed? Is it to remain resilient in the face of rejection? Is it to know that Jesus, himself, experienced the same?