'Is your church growing?' This is the question asked by an internet website concerned with church growth. It offers to help you double the numbers of your congregation so that the pews will be overflowing with enthusiastic worshippers. And the financial support will grow too, with the possibility of large donations.
Who could resist this offer at a time when many Christians in Europe get depressed with the constant drip-drip of news about declining church membership, the closing of church buildings and crippling financial burdens? Who would not welcome just a few tips about how to make your church grow?
It seems from today's Gospel that Jesus could have done with some advice in the face of his disciples' disappointment that their Master's campaign was not attracting more followers.
He had announced the presence of God's kingdom in a world dominated by the rule of Satan. The battle had begun but was not going as well as expected because already some of the religious leaders were accusing Jesus of being in league with Beelzebub. John the Baptist was wondering whether Jesus was indeed the Messiah and even his own family were turning against him.
But today Jesus has his own kind of advice and it comes in parable form. He gets his disciples thinking by telling them about a farmer who is prodigal in the sowing of seed: he throws it all over the place. Some seed does fall in fertile soil but much is wasted. His method reminds me of a cartoon I saw. One farmer is asking another 'What are you growing this year?' 'Poorer', comes the reply.
So having provoked the disciples with the parable Jesus now explains it with reference to his own preaching of the Word. He has been very generous in teaching and performing miracles, reaching out to all sorts people especially misfits and sinners.
Jesus makes it clear from the beginning of his ministry that he wants a greater righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees. He calls for a change of heart and mind in his hearers. But many of his hearers resist his appeal and their hearts become as hard as the path on which some of that seed fell. They lack understanding.
What is this understanding? It is an act of faith, an act of generous response to Jesus' call. Having such understanding is the only way their hearts can be opened up, freed from Satan's grasp, freed from a superficial welcome of the gospel which crumbles under testing and freed from the choking lure of riches.
Jesus knows his own people's history, so is not surprised at its lack of faith. The prophet Isaiah had encountered the same hardening of hearts.
So Jesus explains the lack of numbers and the resistance to his gospel but God is not defeated. His kingdom will come; its coming is conditioned not only by refusal but also by the generous response of open hearts like the one
who hears the word and understands it ;he is the one who yields a harvest and produces now an hundredfold, now sixty, now thirty.
Now that is a prodigal response but it seems a bit over the top. Is such a response possible or is it just hyperbole? In the face of disappointment and low morale it is important to recognise such abundant harvests are possible.
Where and when?
First in Jesus' own faith. His willingness to die, as the grain of wheat dies, and face the desolation of the cross produced the abundant harvest of the new creation God brought about through the resurrection.
Second, the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of amazing growth of the church as the Holy Spirit worked in the generous hearts of apostles like Peter and Paul as the faith spread from Jerusalem as far as Rome.
And third, see how God worked through the rich soil of the early Christians as a small Palestinian sect grew into the religion of the empire despite the persecutions they endured.
God's kingdom does not grow bigger and better along human models of evolution. No one knows how it will come in its fullness, only God. It is a mystery, but Jesus gives us understanding into that mystery.
And we learn in faith that although it would be foolish not to hope for a generous (and numerous) response to Jesus' call to discipleship, growth comes not just when the church is prosperous and triumphant but more often when she is weaker and persecuted.
For then she understands for certain that she will grow only if she allows the power of God's word to enter those generous hearts who have faith that He alone can produce the rich harvest.