Homily for July 16th, 2017: 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
I Is. 55:10-11; Mt. 13:1-9.
AIM: To instill hope by showing that God’s power overcomes weakness, failure, and defeat.
Was Jesus’ life a success story? Hardly. True, he attracted large crowds. But few in the throngs which hung on his words really understood him. Even his closest friends didn’t really get it. At the Last Supper with their Master they were still arguing about “who should be greatest” (Lk 22:24). During his public ministry Jesus encountered mounting criticism and hostility, and at the end rejection and a cruel and unjust death.
Jesus responds to the rising tide of opposition which he saw all around him with the story he tells in today’s gospel. It is a story of contrasts: on the one hand the waste and failure of most of the farmer’s hard work; and on the other hand the abundant harvest despite this failure.
Farmers in Jesus’ day first scattered seed on unplowed ground, and then turned the seed into the soil by plowing over it. Some of the seed sown by this farmer lands on the hard footpath made by people who walk across his field. Before the farmer can turn the seed under with his plow, the birds have picked the path clean. The seed is wasted. Some of the seed falls on soil so shallow and rocky that even after plowing there is not enough depth of soil for proper root development. That seed too is wasted. Part of the seed falls among thorns which, even after being turned under by the plow, grow up again and crowd out the seed. Waste once again.
Up to this point in the story all the seed, and all the farmer’s hard work, have been wasted. This corresponds to Jesus’ own experience: initial popular excitement at his teaching and miracles; but already clear signs of the hostility and rejection which will lead to his condemnation and death. Jesus’ efforts, like the farmer’s, seem to lead only to waste and failure.
Now comes something we weren’t expecting. Some of the seed lands on rich soil and produces an abundant harvest: “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” A modern commentator explains: “A 20-to-1 ratio would have been considered an extraordinary harvest. Jesus’ strikingly large figures are intended to underscore the prodigious quality of God’s glorious kingdom still to come” [New Jerome Biblical Commentary No. 42:25]. Despite all the waste and failure, Jesus is saying, an abundant harvest is certain — indeed a super-abundant harvest.
Faced with mounting evidence of rejection and failure, Jesus could have become a grim preacher of impending doom. Instead he is relaxed, confident of ultimate success. Jesus’ optimism is not superficial, however. He does not proclaim a bright, cheery message of positive thinking, or possibility thinking; with the smiling assurance that everything will turn out all right if only we hang in there and keep the right attitude. By telling a story in which most of the farmer’s hard work is wasted, Jesus shows us that much will not turn out all right. We must expect setbacks, even defeats.
Jesus’ message of confident faith in the midst of discouragement, reverses, setbacks, and defeats, is exactly what we need today. How much of the Church’s work is wasted. Think of all the time and treasure we invest in our Catholic schools. We’re proud of our schools — and we should be. If we ask however, how many of their graduates are still practicing their faith ten years after graduation, we begin to doubt: is our investment in our schools really worthwhile? Or is the bottom line, once again, waste, failure, and defeat?
And what about our personal failures? We have made so many good resolutions. Some we have kept. Many we have not. When we come to confession, it’s the same tired old list of sins. We ask ourselves: “Will I ever make any real progress?” Too often we suspect that the answer to that question is No. Must we simply acknowledge defeat, and hang our heads in discouragement and shame?
Jesus does not deny the power of evil. How could he when it brought him to the cross? Jesus does not deny the reality of failure — whether it is his own seeming failure, his Church’s failures, or our own personal failures. Despite failure and defeat, however, Jesus tells us to be confident, to have hope, to hold our heads high.
‘Have patience and courage,’ he is telling us. ‘Do your work. Keep on. Sow the seed. Leave the rest to God. The harvest is certain. When it comes, it will be so much greater than you can possibly imagine that you will be amazed.’ The super-abundant harvest which Jesus promises depends in the last analysis not on us, but on God. Jesus himself is the one who sows the seed in the often hard, stony, and thorn-choked soil of human hearts, our own hearts included.
Jesus is also the word of God of which Isaiah speaks in our first reading. Jesus is God’s personal communication to us, as my words are a communication to you. In that first reading God says: “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” The final triumph of Jesus, who is God’s Word, his personal communication to us, is absolutely certain. No less certain too is the super-abundant harvest which Jesus promises in his story of the farmer sowing seed.
How do we know all this? We know it from the two central symbols of our faith. At the center of our religion is a cross, the symbol of a wasted life, and ultimate defeat. Behind the cross, however, is the empty tomb, God’s guarantee that his Son spoke the truth when he said: “Some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”