The Gospel says that “Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore.” (Matthew 13:2) The Gospel also says that not all of these people who followed Jesus were willing embrace the change of heart he preached. Some were curiosity seekers, while others were enthralled by his miracles. Only a small number were willing to make the commitment to be his disciples.
The half-hearted reception that Jesus received must have been troubling, or at least disappointing, to him. The Gospel makes no mention of it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Twelve grumbled about the crowds: of the many who listened to his words, why were there so few who took them to heart? Why did so few come to his defense when the Pharisees ridiculed him? So many were impressed by his preaching, why did so few of them actually strive after holiness?
The parable of the sower and the seed is Jesus’ interpretation of the seemingly lackluster results of his efforts to call God’s people to a change of heart. In the parable, “some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirty-fold.” (Matthew 13:4-8)
It might be helpful for us to have something with which to compare the projected results that Jesus mentioned in the parable. He said that the seed that fell on good ground would produce “a hundred or sixty or thirty-fold.” (Matthew 13:8) At the time, the normal crop production that a farmworker or landowner could expect was about four or five-fold. Given normal crop losses, a tenant farmer would have been fortunate to harvest enough seed to plant next season, along with enough to pay the landowner and a little left over to feed his family. “A hundred or sixty or thirty-fold” was an impossibly high yield. A crop yield that high would be roughly akin to a bank today promising a 25% return on savings deposits: it was so high that anyone would be skeptical.
Jesus’ confidence in an overwhelming response to his preaching should make us take notice. He was rejected by the religious establishment. He was treated as a curiosity by many. He was not completely trusted even by his chosen inner circle of friends. Today, the community of Jesus’ followers is not much improved. For example, the Institute for Religious Works, aka the Vatican Bank, has been radically reorganized by Pope Francis. The reorganization was necessitated by the fact that the Vatican Bank was, among other things, being used by some priests in southern Italy as a means to launder money for the mafia. One Italian priest, suspected of money laundering, earned the nickname “Father Five Hundred” because of his habit of carrying around a stack of E500 notes (a 500 Euro note is worth about $680), in his wallet. This is hardly an example of someone who took to heart the message “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
Where is the unprecedented harvest that Jesus was so certain would result from his ministry? Where are the faithful who “learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin, but not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them”? (Matthew 6:28-29) It would seem that Jesus’ claim to success was just as preposterous as the inflated crop figures that he used in the parable.
Let me propose one possibility for a harvest of preposterous proportion. Last week I mentioned a few of the pastoral outreach activities that our parish supports. Volunteers from our parish visit Mease Countryside Hospital and several large nursing homes in the area. Eucharistic ministers take Holy Communion to the homebound. We participate in a monthly meal service at Pinellas Hope, and we contribute generously to FEAST Food Bank.
The numbers of people who are involved in these activities is rather small. Most Catholics agree that these types of volunteer activities have merit, but most Catholics don’t get involved in these activities. One of the primary reasons that so few get involved in the activities that they personally acknowledge as valuable is that they are afraid of failure. It is common, and understandable to be concerned about the success of one’s activities. However, we should pay close attention to Jesus’ criteria for success. Jesus saw the faithlessness of the many as less powerful a force than the faithfulness of a few, or even one (himself).
The preposterous harvest that punctuates the parable of the sower and the seed is intentionally unbelievable; it is an invitation for us to give serious thought to Jesus’ words. The crowds who followed him listened to these words, gave no real thought to them, and failed to understand. Even the Twelve failed to grasp the meaning of the story; Jesus had to interpret the parable for them. Jesus had a firm faith in God’s power. This parable is a lesson about how God exercises divine power. According to Jesus, God’s Grace will have its full effect in the world, despite whatever indifference or opposition it might encounter. The results of God’s power are beyond the human capacity to imagine. In retrospect, the results make perfect sense, and they make sense out of the seemingly senseless efforts.
To many, Jesus’ life and ministry looked like failure. He died a criminal’s death after having been abandoned by his so-called friends. God, on the other hand, judged Jesus’ life to be an eternal triumph of faithfulness over sin. Jesus’ mission was a success, not because of numbers of adherents or public recognition, but because he remained faithful to the end. His death was a triumph because he did not swerve from the path that led to God.
Even large numbers of volunteer ministers could not address completely the pastoral needs that are found just in this small region of Clearwater and Palm Harbor where our parish is located. However, Jesus does not call us to change other people or the world around us. Rather, Jesus calls us to change ourselves, to be the abundant harvest and preposterous yield that is a life of faith. Success in the life of faith is not measured by how many people we cause to imitate us; it is measured by the degree to which we imitate Jesus.
If you are engaged in some sort of pastoral ministry or community service you have experienced the out-sized benefits of giving a little of yourself to others for the sake of the Gospel. If you are not currently engaged in some aspect of our parish’s pastoral outreach I invite you to join the harvest of “a hundred or sixty or thirty-fold.” (Matthew 13:8) To be successful at the project of discipleship does not require you to produce miraculous results; miracles are God’s work. To be a successful disciple of Jesus requires only that you make yourself a part of the miraculous harvest that God produces; accomplishing this is as easy as giving visible witness to your faith through your actions of justice and charity.