15th Sunday Ord. Time – 12th July 2020 — Gospel: Mt 13,1-23
The parable of the sower and its interpretation probes the mystery of mixed responses to Jesus and his ministry of “the word of the kingdom” (13,19). Jesus clearly explains about each element of the parable. He himself is the sower of the word and the ground on which the seed falls represents four different kinds of hearers of God’s word. The interpretation raises some troubling questions: who qualifies the “good soil”? Is there any hope for the hardened, rocky and thorny soil to change, as the soil by itself cannot become better? Are these destined to be unproductive forever?
In the Gospel of Matthew, there are many examples of each of this kind of response. The religious leaders, who are antagonistic to Jesus’ ministry from the beginning, are those who hear the word and do not understand. The crowds, who responded favourably to his miracles and healings (9,8; 15,31; 21,8-9), turned at the end demanding Jesus’ crucifixion are those who never truly understood Jesus. The disciples themselves, who desert Jesus to save their own skins, are those who have fallen away to endure difficulties and persecutions (25,56b. 69-75). The rich young man unable to part with his possessions (19,16-22) provides a stunning example of one who is choked by the lure of wealth. Finally, who are those who “hear the word and understand it, and will bear fruit in the good soil”? Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going to enter the kingdom of God ahead of you” (21,31-32). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous bear fruit by serving the “least of these” and they are even surprised to find that they have been serving Jesus (25,34-40).
What is remarkable is that in spite of the failings of his disciples, Jesus does not give them up. He continues to invest in them, even to the point of entrusting the future of his mission to them (16,13-20; 28,16-20). Although Jesus knew well that all the disciples will desert him and that Peter will deny him, he nevertheless promises that after being raised up, “I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (26,32). This brings us back to the main character of the parable, the sower. Jesus invests in his disciples who are unpromising. In his life on earth, he squanders his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts. Yet he promises that his extravagant sowing of the word will produce an abundant harvest. The sower scatters his seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting much of the seed on the ground that holds little promise for a fruitful harvest. It is noteworthy that Jesus does not use the parable to exhort hearers to “be good soil,” as though we could make that happen. If there is any hope for the unproductive soil, it is that the sower keeps sowing generously, extravagantly, even in the least promising places. Jesus’ investment in his disciples shows that he will simply not give up on them, in spite of their many failings. We trust that he will not give up on us either, but will keep working on whatever is hardened, rocky, or thorny within and among us. We trust in his promise to be with us to the end of the age.
Too often we play it safe, sowing the word only where we are confident it will be well received, and only where those who receive it are likely to become our contributors. In the name of stewardship, we hold tightly to our resources, creativity and energy, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted and failures are avoided. Jesus’ approach to mission is quite at odds with our play-it-safe instincts. He endorses extravagant generosity in sowing the word, even in perilous places. He promises that the end result will be a bumper crop.