A sower went out to sow [Matthew 13:1-23]. How many times have we heard this particular parable? One of my teachers used to be fond of citing that familiar opening line 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 virtually all my life in cities, parables about famers sowing seed sound somewhat exotic to me – and, maybe even somewhat strange. What exactly is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Of course, Jesus’ actual hearers – the original audience for this parable - would have understood. Israel’s arid climate and rocky soil are not very farmer-friendly. Finding in advance the pockets of good fertile soil, with the limited technology available to traditional agriculture, would have been be very difficult - and inefficient. Throwing the seed all over the place may mean a lot will be wasted, but it probably guarantees that some will fall on good soil and take root and produce fruit. So what may seem like inefficiency to us turns out to be really quite efficient indeed!
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 how he expects his Church to behave 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 honor and celebrate the great missionaries of the past who travelled to India and Japan like Saint Francis Xavier or from France to Canada like Saints John de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues 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 at present a somewhat shrinking 20 percent of the national population, at least another half as many or more Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.”
Well before the pandemic took over our lives, Sunday Mass attendance was declining dramatically. And, since 2000, Catholic marriage rates are down almost 50%, infant baptisms are down 40% percent, and adult baptisms more than 50%.
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.
As American Catholics we need to examine our consciences concerning the ways we have allowed the good news to be heard as bad news by so many in our society. 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 12, 2020.