I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard our first reading
from Isaiah read at openings to a retreat, or at a preachers’
conference. It is a favorite of those who try to preach, or teach
the Word of God. We’re so aware of our own inadequacies and the task
that lies before us, to bring God’s Word home to our hearers and
students, that we find comfort in the Isaiah reading. It reminds us
that, despite our human limitations, the task of applying God’s Word
to a particular people, in particular settings, is not wholly
dependent on us. We’re not just speaking on our own, but are
partnered with God’s fruit-bearing Word.
Isaiah himself is not speaking on his own authority either. He
begins, "Thus says the Lord…." He, like us, is trying to be faithful
to communicating the Word of God that he has heard. Isaiah justifies
his proclamation about the fruitfulness of the Word by identifying
God as its source: "My word shall not return to me void, but shall
do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it." It has not come
to him from some other source, but from God. The prophet stresses
that God’s Word is powerful and, inspired by the natural world, he
likens it to the rain with which God nourishes the land and makes it
We Christians believe that God’s Word has come to fruition in
Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh. God has sown generously in
Christ and through him God continues to send blessings
indiscriminately among us.
We pray today we will be well disposed to welcome and receive
those graces and put them to use in our lives, so that we can help
bring about a rich harvest for the Lord. The Word, once welcomed,
yields effects for those who, not only receive it, but put it into
practice. The life-giving Word will affect how we live our lives;
the friends we choose; how we care for the earth’s resources;
respond to the needs of the poor and marginalized. There is no end
to the impact the Word can have on us and those with whom we share
it, because we trust Jesus’ promise, it will yield "a hundred or
sixty, or thirtyfold."
I would choose the short version for today’s gospel. Usually I
read the longer version to keep the context intact, but biblical
commentators tell us that the shorter version, the parable, is
probably the original one spoken by Christ. The parable is set amid
stories of opposition and it must have been an encouragement to the
disciples, as Jesus and they faced opposition and suspicion. Seed
was spread by hand and lacked the precision of our advanced planting
methods. So, the random way seed was sown inevitably had waste:
birds, rocky ground and weeds destroy it.
What Jesus describes in his parable would match the effects of
the early church’s preaching ventures. Things may have looked rather
depressing at its beginnings, but Jesus assures his disciples God is
in charge: despite the bleak initial stages there will be a harvest.
Don’t be distressed, God’s ways will bear much fruit – a hundred, or
sixty or thirtyfold. So, don’t give up, keep casting seeds of God’s
Word and someday you’ll see extraordinary results.
If a farmer had a good harvest he/she would have a sevenfold
yield to the planting. Rarely would there be a tenfold crop yield.
But Jesus isn’t a farmer. We could ask, what does he know about
planting and harvesting? He is not teaching farmers how to improve
their crop yield, is he? What he knows from first-hand experience is
how things are when God is in charge. He knows the ways of God and
so he is speaking of the abundance that God can produce even when we
meet frustrations and our own limited abilities. Jesus is speaking
out of his own experience as he spreads the Word. For the next 15
chapters in Matthew’s gospel, he will keep preaching, teaching and
healing, no matter how much rocky-ground opposition he faces. He is
encouraging us to do the same. As a dear senior Dominican friend
advised me, "Keep on, keeping on."
Jesus doesn’t simply give a pep talk to his disciples. He
promises them a miracle. Despite the rejection they are having and
will meet in the future, in the end, God will bring about an
abundant harvest. He is also describing the kind of God we preach –
ours is a God of abundance. Jesus could have promised a very good
harvest of seven or tenfold. His hearers would have been satisfied.
Instead, he reveals the God of superabundance; promising much more
than just satisfaction. Who wouldn’t love working and, continuing to
work for, that kind of God?! God will not let us run dry but will
provide more than enough for those who spread the Word of God and
for those who receive it on good soil.
It does seem that this farmer scatters seed haphazardly. The
method of sowing seed in Jesus’ day was first to scatter the seed,
then turn the soil. Still, it’s clear in the parable, a lot of seed
is wasted. I am a planner and I wonder if we careful sowers aren’t,
at times, too cautious in our planting: how we start new ventures in
the parish; how we try to pick the best settings and make sure the
right people are invited; how we pay too close attention to the
bottom line? Is Jesus inviting us not to be afraid to take chances,
since the results of our sowing aren’t totally dependent on us? We
are the instruments of a venturesome and abundant God. After all
aren’t we prime examples of how God takes big chances by choosing
disciples like us to preach the Word?
The Word of God speaks personally to each of us on how, why and
where we spread the Word. But the gospel is also addressed to the
whole community – the church. The Word is a bold one for us today;
it speaks of courage and offers us hope. We may wonder at times how
effective the church is in the world. We’ve had enough evidence of
our limitations and sins.
At times it is hard to see just how God’s kingdom is taking hold
and bearing fruit. Where, we might ask, has the church’s values had
any effect on the world’s values? The gospel tells us today, as my
old mentor would say, "Keep on keeping on." God is working through
us flawed instruments to bring about God’s plan for the world. There
will be an abundant harvest, even if we don’t see it now. The
parable encourages us to have hope, as we wait to see the seed come
for a link to this Sunday’s readings: