Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not only stenographers, taking down the words of Jesus Christ and recording them for future generations. The four evangelists were also editors, revising and adapting the words of Jesus to fit the changing circumstances of the early Christian community. The lengthy Gospel passage for this coming Sunday is a good example of how original words of Jesus addressed to small band of original disciples was later amended to fit the needs of the growing Christian community.
The parable of the sower as it came from the lips of Jesus was a parable of confidence, an allegory meant to assure Jesus’ first followers that their ministry would often be frustrating and discouraging but, eventually and assuredly, their preaching would be productive, indeed “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Jesus outlines the many frustrations that a sower might encounter while planting his annual crop. Indeed birds might well come and eat up the newly scattered seed as any home owner planting a new lawn can attest. Again, shallow soil is not going to be fruitful terrain; roots have no place to go. Even the sun, ordinarily so vital to a successful sowing, can scorch the infant buds. And yes, crab grass, wild grape vines, and briars can overwhelm any planting provoking much frustration. Jesus wisely advises his novice followers to expect frustration, hindrances and annoyances. But, Jesus insists, enough seed has always fallen on “rich soil” to produce harvests that have feed mankind for centuries. This message of ultimate confidence in the preaching of the Gospel must sink in, Jesus insists. “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
This initial advice from Jesus was obviously intended for evangelists, for the first line of preachers, who would be charged with sowing the seed of Christianity among a sometimes disinterested, sometimes distracted, and sometimes hostile audience. Not everyone would sit at their feet as Mary of Bethany sit at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word. Some hearers, in fact, would be like the rich young man, who sadly left Jesus, unable to carry out the demands of the Gospel message. Nonetheless, perseverance and persistence are the qualities Jesus expects from his missionaries: Don’t quit!
The second rendering of the parable of the sower does not focus on the challenge of converting new believers but rather on the challenge of keeping current believers. This revised version of the parable certainly comes more from the pen of St. Matthew than from the lips of Jesus. This rendition speaks to the problems of an already converted community, perhaps into its second or third generation, that now is facing the challenges of failed catechesis, political threats and worldly temptations. In the early generations of Christians, as in the present day, how many Catholics “hear the word of the kingdom without understanding it”? The best attempts at Catholic education – parochial school, high school, and college –sometimes simply do not penetrate. How many Christians today as then fall away when “some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word”? And certainly many believers then and today lose their faith when “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word.” In all of these post-conversion instances, the faith had already been handed on but it bore “no fruit.”
However, for succeeding generations of believers, like us, there were happily enough Christians in the Church’s first decades who were rooted in “rich soil,” who heard the word and understood it, and bore fruit “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” These are indeed our ancestors in the faith – those who heard the word of God and kept it and, better still, eagerly handed it on.
Through this Sunday double parable, the present day Church is given two glimpses of the very early Church – the evangelizing Church of the first generation of believers and the catechizing Church of a later generation of believers. Both Christian communities had their complications. The initial generations of preachers needed to retain their enthusiasm in the face of apathy; succeeding generations of teachers had to sustain their convictions when met with indifference.
The Church’s twin ministries of preaching and teaching continue today. And the Church’s problems of dullness and defections remain today. But, “whoever has ears ought to hear.” Jesus’ words of encouragement are as needed today as ever.