By Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear!…The one who received the seed in rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it; he is the one who yields a harvest and produces now a hundredfold, now sixty, now thirty.” Matthew 13: 1-23
Today’s gospel-reading is Matthew’s version of the parable of the sower, the seed and the soil. He borrowed it directly from Mark but added a reference from Isaiah relating to how the prophet, after volunteering to be God’s messenger, was instructed by God to tell the people of Israel, who had already closed their minds and hearts to God’s word, to go ahead and close their ears and eyes also, so as to match their hardness of mind and heart.
What is significant about the way in which this parable unfolds is that Jesus’ disciples demonstrate that their minds and hearts are not closed. They witness to their openness by daring to ask questions. However, rather than admitting to their own inability to understand the parable they had just heard, they asked Jesus: “Why do you speak to them (the crowd) in parables?” Their question was tantamount to their saying: “We don’t get it, either! ” y And isn’t it like that for all of us? We know that we will not make space in our lives for the word of God to penetrate unless we keep asking questions. Are we slow to ask the questions for fear that the answers might demand some action from us?
Worthy of note, too, is that, when Jesus explained the parable to the disciples, he used an allegory which was more than likely as puzzling for the disciples as was the original parable. To put it all together, they would have had to realise eventually that Jesus was likening himself to the sower, the seed to the word he was teaching, and the soil to them, for they were the ones in whom he was planting his message with a view to its taking root in their lives before they could share it with others. What is unique about this parable of the sower is that it is the only parable in which Jesus used an allegory (rather like another parable) to explain the parable he told in the first place.
If there is one thing which we can say with certainty about Jesus likening himself to a sower, it is that he was not attempting to give anyone hints about how to sow crops. The seed is spread with such extravagance that no ordinary farmer would have been able to afford to pay for it. The lavish scattering is a reference to God’s generosity. Once God’s word has been let loose on the world there in no stinting of it. God’s unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness and mercy are for everyone, even though there are some who cannot find it within themselves to accept what God offers. Even those open to God’s word might well have, at different times, every kind of terrain listed in the parable. There are times in our lives when, despite our best efforts, our capacity to welcome and respond to God’s word is less than we might like. Moreover, when we are open to receiving God’s word, our reception might be limited by external factors beyond our control. Such external factors are represented in the parable by the birds of the air, the sun and other forces of nature. At other times, oppositional and antagonistic people, represented by thorns and briars, might insert themselves as obstacles to prevent our hearing. The reality is that there will always be circumstances beyond our control that prevent us from being the good soil we hope to be. When we come to realise that about our life situations, we might be more inclined to resist judging others who don’t measure up to the standards we imagine we can set for them.
In another point worthy of note, the fact that Jesus talks about various returns from the seeds that fall on productive soil alerts us to just how realistic he was. He knew both the power of God’s word and the vagaries of the human condition that work against the production of perfect harvests. At the same time, today’s first reading from Isaiah ch. 55 reminds us that God’s word, like the rain and snow falling on the earth, will always produce some good. Once we allow the seed of God’s word to find its way into our lives as water seeps into soil, we can anticipate that God will surprise us and prompt us to be agents of God’s action in our world.
Over the course of our lives, most of us have encountered followers of Jesus who have reflected something of the extravagance of the sower in the parable. They are people whom we can admire without needing to imitate them. Back in the early 1980s a film was made of the life of a retired nurse called May Lemke. May had acquired a reputation for her skill in working with children who had a disability. When a baby boy born in a Milwaukee hospital was put up for adoption after being diagnosed with grave physical and intellectual disabilities, Wisconsin Social Services personnel approached May and her husband Joe with a request to care for the child for the few weeks he was expected to live. May’s response was sharp and short: “I and my husband will gladly accept this little boy, and I assure you that he will not die young.” The couple proceeded to adopt the child legally. They named him Leslie and had him baptised. The care Leslie needed was intense and very demanding. Still, they persevered despite being urged to place him in an institution. Sixteen years elapsed before Leslie was able to stand, and, as yet, he had not spoken a word. May massaged his body daily over all those years and did not stop praying for him. She and her husband repeatedly shed tears for him. They told him stories, wondering if he would ever comprehend them, and they played music for him daily. Classical music seemed to have a calming impact on him. One day they saw him plucking at string that was tied around a package that had come in the mail. In response, they bought an old, upright, second-hand piano and put it in Leslie’s room. May tried to show him how to press the piano keys, but that seemed to do nothing for him.
Some months later, May was wakened in the middle of the night by the sound of someone playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. She shook her husband awake and asked him if he had left the radio turned on. When he told her that he didn’t think so, they decided to investigate. They discovered Leslie sitting at the piano and playing it by ear and smiling. Before that night, he had mot managed to get out of bed by himself. Neither had he sat on a piano stool or struck a key independently. And he had not uttered a single word. Now he was playing beautifully. May and her husband dropped to their knees as May said: “Thank you, God. You didn’t forget Leslie.” In next to no time, Leslie was playing classical, country & western, jazz, rock and gospel. Everything the couple had played for him had somehow become stored in his brain, and now it was flowing out through his hands. Medical professionals have categorised Leslie as an autistic savant, a person who is intellectually disabled because of brain damage yet extremely talented. Cases of autistic savants have been documented for well over a century. Yet nobody can explain them.
May and Joe Lemke, like the sower in the parable, sowed seeds of care, compassion and love endlessly, lavishly, extravagantly season after season, from one year to the next. While their earthly lives have ended, the harvest they reaped lives on. Leslie still lives with disability. He has become more verbally articulate and has a verbal IQ of 58. He is a very accomplished singer and pianist and has performed in public in the United States, Canada, Japan and Norway. Some might say that the yield of the sowing carried out by May and Joe Lemke is only thirty percent but without their sowing there would be less evidence of God’s creative goodness at work in our world. Sowers come into our lives in countless guises. They come as parents, carers, encouragers and friends. They often sow liberally and harvest in abundant, medium and small measure. What matters most is the quality of the seed they sow, the generosity of their sowing and the fact that they sow in the first place. This parable might be inviting us to assess ourselves as sowers, to look at the seed we sow and to examine the quality of the soil in which we are sowing that seed.