“. . . what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” Matthew 13:23
Did you ever look at a church newspaper or magazine or at a parish bulletin? A colleague once described the magazine of the diocese in which we worked as “that land where nothing goes wrong”. We like to be able to report success, we like to tell the world of our achievements, we think people will be impressed by tales of perfection. Being honest, we all know that things are not always as they are reported; that the mission maybe did not bring the changes we had hoped; that the special services did not attract the capacity congregations we would have liked; that the initiative to strengthen the finances didn’t bring the returns we would have wanted.
But it is easier to say the nice things, isn’t it? It is easier to smile and carry on as if all was well and that there were no problems. How often do we as Christians have the honesty to say, “we tried, but we failed”. Maybe it’s the case that people just do not want to hear bad news, maybe telling the truth would only compound a bad situation, but how can we be followers of Jesus if we cannot speak the truth? We cannot build the church on the basis of dishonesty.
Perhaps we have come too much under the influence of “prosperity theology”, too much aware of “health and wealth” preaching; the idea that if we are faithful, then everything will go well and that failure arises from a lack of faith. Read the Gospels and we quickly see that expecting life to go easily is contrary to Jesus teaching, he does not promise comfort and wealth, he does not promise success and prosperity, he offers the way of the Cross, a way altogether different from a land where nothing goes wrong. In Saint Matthew Chapter 16 Verses 24-25, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. Jesus does not say we should expect everything to go smoothly; he does not say that everything we do might be reported in a glowing light in the church magazine.
If we read today’s Gospel passage, if we look at the Parable of the Sower, what is there that churches may learn about their own efforts? Look closely at this passage and it is surprising, it says to us something we might not expect. The story is familiar, the first part would have been immediately understood by those who worked the land, those who tried to grow crops in unpromising circumstances.
The sower is spreading the seed by hand and is anxious to use as much as possible of the small amount of land he has. Because he is doing his best with limited resources, sowing out to the very edge of the land that had been cultivated, some of the seed falls where it will produce no crop. Jesus tells his listeners,in Saint Matthew Chapter 13 Verses 4-7, “Some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them”.
Why does the sower persist in his efforts? Why is he prepared to spend so much time spreading seed that yields no harvest? Because, Verse 8, tells us, “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. The sower knows that much of what he does is going to be in vain, that he is going to fail,but he keeps going because he knows that if sticks to his task, then there will be a harvest. It is not easy work.
Jesus uses the work of the sower as a picture of the preaching of the Good News. In Verses 18-22, we read that sometimes the word is not understood, and is snatched away by the evil one; sometimes it finds no root in people’s heart, and is forgotten when things become difficult; sometimes it is heard, but other things are more important and it is squeezed out, bringing no fruit in the person’s life.
Three out of the four examples Jesus uses are of failure, but the preaching continues because, Verse 23 tells us, there will be the word that finds good soil, “this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty”.
When we read the parable of the sower we do not say that Jesus should not have quoted the bad examples, we do not say Jesus should not have told of all the ways in which the word failed to bring change in people’s lives: if Jesus speaks openly about effort that sometimes doesn’t work, shouldn’t we have confidence to do so? When we think of the work of our own church, our own parish, we should not be afraid to speak truthfully of what is going on, we should not be afraid to tell stories of working hard at things that failed.
Even if three times out of four, our efforts fall on rocky ground, the parable tells us to recognize this and to keep going, to do the work of Jesus and to pray that there will be seeds that bear fruit and yield.