For those of us who have just returned from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this morning’s Gospel story of the sower and the seed has a special resonance. There is something about the geography and typography of that part of the world that makes this parable of Jesus come vividly to life: arid and rocky soil, with spots of green lushness that seem to spring out of nowhere, and that make you wonder how life could possibly survive in such desert heat. But it does, and that is part of the unique wonder and beauty of it all. Seeds are always carriers of hope. They can take root and blossom in the most inhospitable of places, but it very much depends on the quality of the soil in which they happen to fall. Jesus certainly knew his audience. He knew that they could relate to this image of different seeds falling on different types of soil. They saw it all the time; they walked that soil every day. The mental jump from the image of seeds to that of the word of God was not, I suspect, a particularly difficult one for Jesus’ listeners to make. It would have made good agricultural sense to them.
Seeds are also fragile things. They carry incredible promise, but they can be easily bruised or destroyed. They carry life, but such life should never be taken for granted. On this pilgrimage, we encountered fragile seeds everywhere—whether it was Palestinian Christians surviving despite incredible odds under hostile and divisive circumstances, or the Catholic sisters who took care of abandoned and orphaned children because no one else wanted to be burdened with them, or Israeli and Palestinian citizens coming together to work for peace after having lost children and siblings to the never-ending cycle of violence. These are seeds that take root, as Jesus says; seeds that come from hearing the word. They yield fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold. They are sown on rich soil, and they give hope and spiritual nourishment to those who so often have neither. This part of the world that saw the birth of Christianity—the very place where Jesus lived and taught—is now the place where Christianity is slowly dying. Fragile seeds indeed.
And then, there are seeds of exclusion, and pain, and humiliation: seeds sown on rocky ground or among thorns, seeds sown for destruction. For me, the most vivid and striking image of this, by far, was that of the wall—the wall built to proscribe and to shame, to keep in but also to keep out. I remember our guide telling us that Palestinians forced to live within the wall (or outside it, depending on your point of view) do not have access to a steady supply of water, while Israeli settlements just a few meters away do: seeds of injustice and of violence. As we left Israel, tensions were once again flaring due to the senseless murder of a young Palestinian man. Of course we prayed for peace, but I really could not help asking myself if it would ever come about. Do some seeds not carry recurring bloodshed?
Jesus says: “Let anyone with ears listen!” Those are fairly strong words of warning. We are asked to listen to the parable, of course, and to try and decipher its hidden meaning (even though Jesus himself tells us what it is), but we are also told—in no uncertain terms—that we need to heed its meaning, and, in fact, to live up to it. Not only do we need to hear, Jesus says; more importantly, we need to understand. We must make the effort to grasp the meaning of “the word,” and not simply think that we can absorb its rich and full meaning by a kind of “churchy” osmosis. We have all done that at some point, and, like me, you probably still catch yourselves doing it on occasion. In fact, hearing, like listening, implies much more than the physiological act of sound entering our ears. Hearing and listening to “the word of the kingdom” is a form of spiritual discipline—quite meaningless, Jesus might say, without some type of active understanding, or without a sense of critical engagement and discernment; without doing something about it.
Actually, a pilgrimage experience is very much like a crash course in true hearing. It’s not always easy to listen beyond the loud and pressing crowds of tourists, or to see the real devotion and fervour that lies behind seemingly tacky souvenirs and glittery altars, but that is where the active memory of the living Jesus is preserved. That is where the living God is to be met. As pilgrims, we needed to move beyond surfaces. We needed to hear and understand things in a register that was different from our usual one. We needed to try and be fertile ground. One of the things we tried to hear on this pilgrimage was the voices of living stones, the Palestinian Christians bearing witness in the Holy Land as a faithful remnant. At times, we had to listen especially attentively. So often, the politics of this world got in the way. As Jesus says, “…the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word.” Yet the word persists. Thankfully.
Actually, when you think about it, Jesus is being quite astute in his story of the sower and the seed. He understands the different circumstances that make up peoples’ lives, and that will impact on how we choose to live out our calling to witness to “the word of the kingdom,” as he names it. He understands that some of us, for a variety of reasons—whether intentional or not—might lack the requisite understanding, or willingness, or persistence, or are distracted by unimportant and worldly things. We’ve all found ourselves there. I don’t think Jesus is suggesting that the different soils that we are cannot somehow be enriched, but rather how vulnerable we might find ourselves if we are not attentive to the fate of a word that is not grounded and rooted in fertile ground, the ground of our faith. In that sense, this parable—as with so much of Jesus’ teaching—is good pedagogy, and not the dire and desperate cry of warning some might wish it to be. Each one of us is good soil. Each one of us, by virtue of our baptism in Christ, is fertile soil.
In a few moments, Rhonda will be asking us, as part of the baptismal covenant, to renew our own baptismal vows. She will ask the question: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Êtes-vous prêts à lutter pour la justice et la paix parmi tous les peuples et à respecter la dignité de la personne humaine ? Je me demande si nous écoutons vraiment cette question lorsqu’elle nous est posée. Peut-être que nous l’entendons sans comprendre sa vraie signification. Pourtant, nous devrions y porter attention, car elle est d’une importance capitale. Elle exige de nous un engagement définitif en faveur de la dignité humaine, pas seulement dans notre propre petit coin du monde, mais au-delà de nos frontières. Cette question, qui définit en partie ce que ça veut dire que d’être chrétien ou chrétienne, se veut une des graines—une des semences—dont Jésus parle dans l’évangile d’aujourd’hui. Nous devons nous assurer de prendre grand soin de cette précieuse semence, et de répondre avec confiance et certitude à la question qui nous est posée.
Do we “hear” the importance of the question? Do we truly understand that we are being called, as persons reborn in the baptismal waters, not only to make a statement about human dignity, but to do something about it? That we must seek justice, and not simply concord and good will. There is a difference. For me, our pilgrimage experience taught me one inescapable thing: that injustice still persists in the land that Jesus walked. That was the seed planted in my heart, and in my consciousness. As I respond to this baptismal question that will shortly be asked, I can only hope and pray that it will bear good fruit…thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.