Churches are on the back foot. The financial situation is dire. The morale is low. The four month closure caused Covid-19 has been a body blow from which many will not recover. What does Jesus have to say to this situation?
If we read today’s Gospel passage, if we look at the Parable of the Sower, there are lessons that churches may learn about their own efforts, about the philosophy with which they might approach the coming months.
Look closely at this passage and it is surprising, it says something might not expect be expected. 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, a picture of the work of the church. In Verses 18-22, it says 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 says, 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”.
Reading the parable of the sower, no-one would say that Jesus should not have quoted the bad examples, no-one would 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, about problems, about failure, shouldn’t the church have the confidence to do so? Thinking of one’s own church, there should be no-one afraid to speak truthfully of what is going on, there should be no-one afraid to tell stories of working hard at things that failed.
Even if three times out of four, efforts fall on rocky ground, the parable says 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.