One of the great things about being back at St. Paul’s is the opportunity to visit your wonderful parish bookstore. I was doing that this morning, and there I came across a display of magnets with Latin slogans. In light of today’s Gospel [Matthew 13:1-23], I just couldn’t resist one with this quote from Cicero: Ut sementem feceris ita metes. That more or less translates as, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
A sower went out to sow. How many times have we heard this parable? When I was studying the Gospels in the seminary, one of my professors was fond of citing that familiar opening line as an example of how we have become so accustomed to hearing certain parables that, when we hear a familiar line like that, we already know what follows and how it is going to end, and so our tendency is to start to tune out – which, of course, is one of the very things the parable is warning us not to do!
To us here in midtown Manhattan, where there hasn’t been a functioning farm now in a century or more, parables about famers sowing seed sound exotic – and, in this particular case, somewhat strange. What, we efficient modern city-dwellers, want to ask, is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Perhaps it may have seemed somewhat inefficient even to the Greek and Roman urban audiences for whom the Gospels were first written. 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 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 act in imitation of him. Above all, God’s extravagant generosity invites such an extravagantly faithful response on our part – producing fruit as much as a hundred-fold.
Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NYC, July 10, 2011.