Last week I was able to go walking in the beautiful Northumberland countryside. After spending over 100 days in isolation here in the city, albeit in leafy Jesmond, it was a delight to experience once more – but in a more heightened way this year – the world of nature in all its glory. In addition to the wild foxgloves growing in the hedgerows and the purple heather just beginning to flower on the moors, a particular delight for me was seeing once more fields of golden wheat now ready for harvesting after silently growing through the months of our lockdown. We may have been in lockdown but nature and the world of farming was not.
The Gospel today has a story that first appears to be about a peasant farmer sowing his crop of wheat in first century Palestine (Matthew 13:1-9). However, it is really an allegory Jesus uses to predict the future success of the new community he was forming called the Kingdom or Reign of God.
Unlike the rich meadows of Northumberland and elsewhere in Britain and my native Ireland, the land for this peasant farmer in Palestine was stony, compact and full of weeds. For anything to grow, a farmer there would first scatter seeds on all the available ground. Then he would plough the land to make sure the seeds were covered with soil. (We do the opposite here because we have better soil: we plough first and then sow.)
So it would be normal for the farmer in Jesus’ story to scatter seeds, as the Beatles might sing, “here, there and everywhere”. He’d toss them onto worn paths, in stubble and among withered thorns and then to plough them into the earth to be covered with soil before the birds got at them
The usual yield from a crop then was between five and ten fold i.e. for every seed sown the farmer would expect between five and ten new seeds to flourish. However, in Jesus’ story the farmer’s crop yields between 30 and 100 fold … which would be remarkable, even miraculous, by Middle East standards.
This was Jesus’ way of saying that although the seeds of his kingdom might appear to have an unpromising start, a fantastic crop will emerge in time.
And in spite of everything he was right: his kingdom did flourish to an amazing degree. What started out as a tiny sect in Judaism 2,020 years ago now has roughly 2.3 billion people who describe themselves as Christian. We all might not be living up to the standard Christ expects but Christians now form the largest religious group in the world, making up nearly one third of the earth’s 7.8 billion population. The next biggest groups are Islam (24.1%), Irreligious Affiliation (16%), Hinduism (15.1%), Buddhism (6.9%), Folk religions (5.7%) and Judaism (0.2%).
(Interestingly, it took over 200,000 years for the world’s population to reach 1 billion but only 200 more years to reach 7 billion.)
Jesus used parables to make people think about their own response to his Word. So how might we respond to this parable about the peasant farmer?
We might begin by asking what kind of soil I presently offer to Christ’s teaching. Have I become hard and stony in which little or no growth can occur? Am I now someone who has seen it all, got the T-Shirt, am now set in my ways and see no need to change anything in my character? Are there weeds in me that need pulling up, somethings choking or holding me back from being the person Christ asks me to be, the person I need to be for others? Even if I am still in quarantine or shielding, what is the harvest Christ wants my life to produce at this time?
If I have a comfortable life, do I appreciate all the gifts and opportunities that have come my way? If I have cause to be thankful, have I shared some of my good fortune with the less fortunate? Do I recognise that without God’s indulgence I’d never have made it this far on my own – or am I a self-made person who, as the saying goes, worships my own creator? If things are not going well, am I sowing in the wrong field and need to make a radical change in my life?
Like the wasted seed in the parable, do I feel now that I have wasted time and energy on the wrong things? Am I filled with remorse and regret – that I was not a better parent; that I worked too many hours when the children were young; that I was not a better spouse or partner; that I was not a more kind or loving person in the race to succeed.
If any of us feel such regret or remorse, let us not forget that one of the significant seeds of Christ’s teaching is that God never gives up on any of us, even if we give up on ourselves. No one is a wasted seed in God’s eyes: everyone can begin anew.
Holy Name, Jesmond
12 July 2020