Pieter Bruegel the Elder
'Parable of the Sower'
19 Mar 2023
Yr B Ordinary Time, 11th Sunday
The parable in today’s Gospel Reading (Mark 4: 26-29) compares God’s Kingdom to a seed. Once sown, a seed grows of its own accord, without human intervention. The earth yields its fruit ‘of itself’ (automate), St Mark says.The harvest does not depend on our efforts nor is it impeded by failure. Salvation is not a human achievement, nor is it a reward for something we have done. It is a gift graciously bestowed. As Ephesians puts it: ‘By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.’ However, there is another parable of Jesus, also involving seeds, which St Mark places some few verses before the one we have just heard. I mean, the well-known Parable of the Sower. The Parable of the Sower speaks of the growth of the seed being stunted, or impeded, because the seeds fell on rocky ground or among thorns, and were prevented from taking root, or found no space to grow. Those seeds came to nothing.
So the harvest that, according to today’s parable, is altogether divine and needs no human intervention, depends after all on the seed finding space and good soil – that is, a generous response in the hearts of individuals. Where it doesn’t find that, it comes to nothing. So the kingdom of God is entirely God’s work – and yet it depends also, and crucially, on us. This apparent contradiction is present everywhere in the New Testament. On one page we read that salvation is pure gift; on another page we are told that it brings a challenge and a demand. Indeed, St Paul can bring together both of these apparently contradictory aspects in one statement, as when he tells the Philippians: ‘It is God who works in you both the willing and the action: Therefore, work hard at your salvation in fear and trembling.’
So is the gospel a proclamation of sheer grace, or is it a challenging agenda? Is it a gift or is it a demand? Is it all God’s work or does it depend decisively upon us? Is it about what God has done or is it about what we have to do. Pope Francis, in his 2013 Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel has a lot to say about this twofold aspect of the gospel, especially in that section where he deals with the homily. It is a major concern of Pope Francis that the Church’s preaching in general has tended to neglect the joy and the beauty of the gift and has concentrated instead on the demand; or rather, because preachers have not proclaimed the gift with joy and enthusiasm, they have tended to reduce the gospel to a demand, detaching it from God’s wonderful grace. Pope Francis is not saying that the demand can be ignored. It is a question of balance. In preaching the gospel, a ‘fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained’, he says. There is a danger of speaking more about law than about grace. We must understand that ‘each word of Scripture is a gift before it is a demand’, he says.
It is the thought of the gospel as gift that inspires the warmth and enthusiasm of Pope Francis’ words in all his teaching and not least in his exhortations to preachers. In fact, when he entitled his Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, it was of course the gift-aspect of the gospel that he had in mind. It is an enthusiastic proclamation of the gift that ensures what he calls the ‘freshness and fragrance of the gospel’. To repeat: it is not a matter of the gift and the demand being alternatives, of the gift replacing the demand. There must be a synthesis. This is a word Pope Francis keeps using in this part of his Exhortation. We are not to preach ‘detached values’ (that is: only the task, in isolation from the gift). Only in grasping this synthesis do we show a proper grasp of the gospel, a proper appreciation of the dialogue between God and his people. ‘Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart’, Pope Francis says.‘We have to find a new balance’, he said in a widely-reported magazine interview. ‘Otherwise, even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.’
Pope Francis is not always easy to follow on this subject. He is, after all, necessarily performing a balancing act. But in focusing on the subject in the first place he has surely put his finger on the central paradox of the New Testament: namely, that on the one hand salvation is sheer, unconditional grace; and yet, on the other hand, it depends crucially on us. Theologians have struggled with this paradox down the centuries.They have not always got it right. If it is true, as Pope Francis says, that, in some quarters, there has been a tendency to over-emphasize the task-aspect of the gospel, thus effectively reducing the gospel to commandments, it must also be said, surely, that in some quarters there is a tendency to detach the gospel from moral demands by focusing almost exclusively on the gift-aspect of the gospel. It is all too easy to polarize these aspects of the gospel, as history shows. Luther saw the gift and the demand, or, as he put it, ‘gospel’ and ‘law’, as radically opposed to each other. The Catholic Church preached law, he said: but he proclaimed a gospel of sheer grace. And the rest is history. Luther split the Western Church.
I suspect there will be tensions over this same issue of gospel and law, gift and demand, in the future. The debates and expectations in this matter are not first and foremost about particular laws, say, about sexual morality or second marriages (although these are also at issue and obviously have greater headline appeal). There is something more fundamental at issue, and it is the tension in Christianity between gift and demand. Let us pray that Pope Francis’ teaching will help the Church to achieve the synthesis he longed for. But let us look to ourselves. If we are to be faithful to the gospel we need to be persuaded – not just intellectually but in our emotions and actions – that there is neither gift without task nor task without gift. The indicative carries within it an imperative. We cannot rightly emphasize the one without being equally emphatic about the other. To understand properly the seriousness of the task we must experience the wonder of the gift; and the more we magnify the wonder of the gift, the more we must stress the urgency of the imperative. The gift must bear fruit. True, it is God‘s fruit, the fruit of the Spirit: ‘love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, self-control’, as St Paul describes it to the Galatians. The fruit grows by itself; but it needs warmth and watering and cultivation and sometimes hard graft and a lot of sacrifice. What we are, we are by sheer grace. But we must become what we are. That is the paradox. We must allow God’s grace to permeate our freedom until what is already, through faith and baptism, a reality at the source of our personality transforms us completely. All our moral endeavour is simply a yes to a prior, unconditional grace. But the yes must be constant and energetic, otherwise grace comes to nothing, like the many wasted handfuls of the sower’s seeds.
We are about to celebrate the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the climax and plenitude of God’s work in Christ. It is the dawning of God’s kingdom. It is the gift par excellence. May it reawaken in our hearts today the joy of the gospel and make our response to it brave and generous.
Fr Tom Deidun