The Gospel readings for this Sunday and the next two Sundays are from what is known as the Parable Discourse in the Gospel of Matthew. It is thus necessary to understand the meaning of the word Parable in order to appreciate the text. The word parable (Hebrew mashal; Greek parabolē) signifies in general a comparison, or a parallel, a casting side by side, by which one thing is used to illustrate another. It is a likeness taken from the sphere of real, or sensible, or earthly incidents, in order to convey an ideal, or spiritual, or heavenly meaning. This meaning is not given by the one telling the Parable. It is the listener who must supply the lesson or meaning.
A visit to an artist friend of mine brought out powerfully the meaning of a parable. As I viewed all his paintings, I was struck by one and was anxious to know what it meant. I went and asked him for the meaning, but he was elusive. I began to judge him as selfish and proud and in my irritation; I kept insisting that he tell me the meaning alleging that perhaps even he did not know it. “Tell me what it means”, I demanded. He looked at me as only a friend will look and said, “If I tell you, that is all you will ever see there”. So like Jesus, who by using parables allowed the listener to supply the lesson.
Aware of the image from Isaiah of the word of God as rain and snow that nurture a fruitful seed and do not return until their purpose is accomplished, Matthew wrestles with the failure of the word manifested in the most unique of ways in Jesus. The fates of the seeds (three fourths of which are apparently lost) are an index of ways in which followers of Jesus can seem to fail and thus be tempted to give up and give in, yet with the same assurance from Isaiah that the soil will also produce astonishing results.
In the initial parable we are in touch not only with a Jesus who offers images of hope, but one who expresses his own hope as opposition mounts. As for Jesus and Paul who writes to the Romans, so for ourselves creation becomes a text that leads us deeper into the mysteries of God. In the allegory of the responses, even human failures will not overwhelm the power of God’s word to take root in rich soil. Like all parables, we are left with questions. As we look around our world, where can we find images and messages of hope amid repeated loss and ever-recurring human failure?
One place to start is by remembering that, these days, this parable is about us. That is, we are the sowers, we are the ones called to “go out to sow,” to try to live as our faith calls us to live, to try to share our faith in word and deed with those whom God puts in our path; to share the love of God so abundantly given to us and to do so optimistically and with the sure hope that growth will take place even if at first glanced it seems to us that much is being lost.
This sharing has to involve action. It has to involve reaching out to people; it has to involve serving, and caring, and risking. However, if we try to do this, if we try to offer ourselves, our time, our energy, our caring, to others, then before very long, we are going to wonder whether it’s worth it; we are going to wonder whether anything of value or meaning is going to come from all of our efforts.
We will wonder that because we will notice that a whole lot of what we do is wasted. Nothing much seems to come of it. However, there is one thing that was really shocking to the first people who heard this parable and will continue to shock us even today. That was the yield, the harvest. Seven or eight fold was hoped for. Ten fold was phenomenal, and anything above that was simply unheard of. Yet even the poorest yield in the parable was beyond their experience, and the greatest almost beyond comprehension. To promise this sort of result was more than optimistic, it was to live in a whole different order of creation; it was to operate out of a whole different vision.
To sow with this sort of hope and vision is to have the perspective of the Kingdom of God. With this vision we will not mind the birds or the rocks or the thorns or whatever else may get in the way. All of that just does not matter. It is swallowed up in the promise of the whole enterprise. This perspective, the promise of a vast harvest, is at the heart of this parable. This perspective of hope and confidence is the gift of the parable. There is a carefree abandon to this image. We are to love and to serve in broadcast fashion, knowing full well that most of what we do will not seem to us to amount to anything, that failure and loss might stare us in the face, but trusting, nonetheless, in the incomprehensible abundance of the harvest. Certainly, much will be wasted, at least as we see it. Maybe even our very favorite seed, our best, most self-sacrificing good deed, our smartest remark, our greatest insight, will end up on the path, or even fall among thorns. But that is not ours to control; it is not ours to fix; it is not even ours to worry about. We do not focus on the result of our action. We focus solely on the action that we must perform and leave the worrying and the harvest to the Lord of the harvest. We plunge into the din of battle but leave our hearts at the feet of the Lord. What God will make of our efforts is more than we can imagine.