A sower went out to sow [Matthew 13:1-23]. How many times have we all heard this particular parable? One of my teachers used to be fond of citing those familiar opening words to illustrate how we have become so accustomed to hearing certain parables that, when we hear a familiar line like that, we assume we already know what follows and how it is going to end, and so tend to tune out the rest – which, of course, is one of the very things this parable may be warning us against!
Having lived almost all of my life in cities, parables about farmers sowing seed sound strangely exotic to me. What exactly is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Of course, Jesus’ original audience would have understood the farmer’s behavior. Israel’s arid climate and rocky soil are not very farming-friendly. Finding in advance the pockets of good fertile soil, with the limited technology available to traditional agriculture, would have been difficult at best. Throwing the seed all over the place may mean that some seed will be wasted, but it probably also guarantees that at least some will fall on good soil and take root and produce good fruit.
Jesus uses this familiar fact to say something about how God produces fruit in the world, reaching out to us with extravagant generosity, recognizing that maybe not everyone will respond – or, having responded, really persevere. Even so, he reveals himself as widely as possible, in many and various ways. He does that because that is who God is and how God acts – and so is how he expects his Church to act in imitation of him. And that is why God’s extravagant generosity invites such an extravagantly faithful response on our part – producing fruit as much as a hundred-fold.
We talk a lot in the Church nowadays about evangelization as the essential mission of the Church. Perhaps we talk too much about it - if in fact all we do is talk. We rightly honor and celebrate the great missionaries of the past who journeyed to India and Japan like Saint Francis Xavier or from Spain to California like Saint Junipero Serra in search of pockets of fertile soil in which to plant the Gospel.
But we do have to travel to far off mission lands. One of the most challenging realities about contemporary Catholic life in our own country is that for every new adult member who responds to the invitation to join the Church, some six or more leave. If we Catholics constitute some 20-something percent of the national population, at least another half as many or more Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.”
So, wherever we turn, we meet not only those who have never yet heard the Word, but also those who have heard it and forgotten it, and also those for whom the Good News isn’t news at all, or (even worse) those who have heard it in a way which has made it sound more like bad news than good news.
Hence Pope Francis’ evangelization prayer intention for July: that those who have strayed from the faith, may, through our prayer and witness, rediscover the merciful closeness of the Lord and the beauty of the Christian life.
Like the farmer in the Gospel, we are commanded to continue to reach out as God does – sharing our story in every possible way, without preconceptions or preconditions, undoing whatever bad news has gotten in the way with the amazingly good news of God’s extravagant generosity.
As the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, once wrote, in a letter to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them. The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true, permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”
Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church. Knoxville, TN, July 16, 2017.