The various books in the New Testament were not written days or even weeks or even months after Jesus returned to his Father in heaven. The sacred written word had at least 30 years to mature and ripen in the minds and hearts of the early Christian community. This coming Sunday’s Gospel passage about the sower scattering his seed is a key example of how words spoken by Christ for the very first generation of followers were later applied to a more mature Christian community.
Christ first speaks about the unhappy events in which the Christian life might sadly be nipped in the bud. He cites that the seed is indeed scattered but immediately birds come and eat it up. Or the seed is tossed about but much of it lands on rocks with no soil to sustain it. Or again, some seed is tossed among weeds which smother it before it can take proper root. These three situations fit persons to whom the Gospel has been preached but with whom it simply does not register. Think of those massive crowds to whom Christ preached the sermon of the mount. Recall the multitudes that filled the local seashore forcing Jesus to preach to them from a boat. Consider the 5,000, “not counting women and children,” who were amply fed out of the kindness of Christ’s heart. Yes, these multitudes heard the message, but an overwhelming response was not the immediate result. Much of Jesus’ eloquence fell on deaf ears. Some evangelical discouragement would be understandable.
Jesus, however, insists that the sower did not completely waste his time. “But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Although much of the seed was uselessly scattered, a decent amount of the seed took root, grew, and produced fruit. This bit of reassurance is precisely Jesus’ point to the first generation of Christians, Jesus’ initial followers. Jesus advises that much of the preaching of the Gospel is going to seem like time ill spent. The message is so sublime, but the response is so meager. Is evangelization worth it? Yes, Jesus reassures his first followers. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, enough seed will fall on fertile soil to make your zeal worthwhile. Jesus then adds pointedly, “Whoever has ears, ought to hear.” The Master’s message is one of untiring confidence in spite of relentless challenges. This is clearly a parable of confidence for the first Christian missionaries.
A later generation of Christians will face a similar, yet different challenge. A believing community raised in the faith, nurtured on the Word and nourished by the sacraments, will still be tested by the disbelief of some within the Church population. There are baptized Christians who hear the Word of God but, not understanding it, fall by the wayside. There are baptized Christians who hear the Word of God but allow some personal tribulation or testing to extinguish their maturing faith. There are baptized Christians who hear the Word of God but the attractions of the world and the allure of riches smother their ripening beliefs. There are always going to be sinners among the saints, but these offenders must not discourage the faithful. Jesus wisely instructs, “But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirty-fold.”
Again, the Gospel author offers a message of confidence for Christians who might be weary of and perhaps scandalized by the failure of so many to persevere in the faith. The author insists that every generation of Christians will have enough “rich soil” about them that many will both “hear” and “understand” the truths of revelation and happily bear manifold fruit. Once again, a parable of confidence is applied now to a generation that has inherited the faith from the saints who have gone before it and must now struggle to preserve that faith for the generations to come. “Whoever has ears,” Christ again rightly insists, “ought to hear!” Don’t quit! The disturbing lapse of some believers must not discourage the eager efforts of the committed.
The prophet Isaiah, many generations before Christ, offered similar words of confidence to his believing community: “…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” Every generation will experience some ill scattered seed, some wasted efforts, some idle labor. Still, a thirty-fold, sixty-fold, hundredfold harvest awaits!