In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers three parables about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who finds weeds sown in his wheat field. Instead of pulling up the weeds straight away, the man tells his servants to wait and see: wait for the crops to grow, before making a judgement. There is both good and evil in the world, and Jesus tells his disciples to wait patiently, to observe with a discerning eye, and to leave the judgement to God.
The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a strong, vigorous plant. Or the kingdom of heaven is like a small measure of yeast, that is enough to make a whole batch of bread rise. A small number of believers in a community, living out the values of the kingdom of heaven, committed to love of God and love of neighbour, can make a big difference. The Lord calls his disciples to be that tiny seed, or that small measure – living in the world, and building God’s kingdom.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus likens the “word of the kingdom” to seed sown on the ground. Some of the seeds never take root and are eaten by birds. Some fall on rocky ground, spring up too quickly and then wither away, while others are choked by thorns. But some seeds take root in good soil and produce precious crops. This would be a familiar picture to many of Jesus’ disciples, who lived by farming, and knew how much work was involved in getting their food from the soil.
The word of God’s kingdom is good news, but there are many reasons why it can fail to take root in our hearts. We can be distracted by the things of the world, or discouraged by the opposition that we face. As disciples, we are all called to sow the seed – to spread the good news of God’s kingdom, by witnessing to our faith with our lives. Sometimes our witness will be fruitful, sometimes the seed will fall on stony ground. The parable of the sower tells us not to be discouraged, but to persevere in sowing generously, as Christ himself did.
Life is not easy. We all have our “yoke” to carry: the daily challenge of earning a living or caring for a family; the struggles of illness or disability. We all, sometimes, feel weary and “overburdened,” as Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
God doesn’t watch our struggles from a distance. Jesus, the Son of God, was truly human, and he shared in all that we experience. He felt hungry, tired and discouraged. He wept at the loss of friends. The life of Jesus reveals God’s compassion for us. God is closest to us at the saddest and most difficult times in our lives, and God has a special love for the poor and powerless.
Jesus calls us to live our lives by his law of love: love of God and love of neighbour. His “yoke” is easy to carry, because he calls us to be free, truly alive and truly ourselves. His invitation is offered to everyone: Come to me.
It can be difficult to witness to our Christian faith. We may feel afraid that if others – friends, work colleagues or strangers – know that we are Christians, they will jump to conclusions about who we are and what we believe. We fear being labelled as strange or eccentric.
Jesus knew that it wouldn’t be easy for his apostles to witness to him in the world. They would face persecution and martyrdom, just as the prophet Jeremiah did, for faithfully proclaiming the word of God. But Jesus reassures the Twelve. They are loved and cherished by God. Every hair on their heads has been counted.
We witness to our faith, above all, by our lives. Christians should be known as people who act justly, and who show care and compassion to their neighbours. The Lord calls us to trust in him, to let our faith be known, and to take the risk of living bravely and generously. He is with us every step of the way.
As we move through Eastertide, we begin to look forward towards Jesus’ return to his Father, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit will come as an Advocate, or champion, to strengthen and guide the Christian community. The Spirit will be the driving force of the early Church, in the face of difficulty and persecution. Jesus draws believers to share in the love that he himself shares with God the Father; “I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you.” This is the love that sustains us as Christians. But even in difficult times, the Church cannot only look inwards. Today’s first reading describes Philip going to preach among the Samaritans – the age-old enemies of the Jews – and receiving a joyful welcome, while, in the second reading, Peter urges the first Christians to be witnesses to their neighbours. The Church is a community of believers who are strengthened by the love of God to look both inwards and outwards: to love and support one another, and to bring the Good News to the whole world.
We seem to live in unsettled and troubling times. Many people struggle to find steady work and a secure home for their families. Our country, and our world, seem unstable and divided. In the Church, too, it’s a time of uncertainty and uncomfortable change. We might be tempted to try to ignore the changing world around us, or to hark back nostalgically to a past that seems better.
At the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples are troubled because they know that change is coming. Judas has already gone out into the night, to betray Jesus. Peter’s denial of Christ has been foretold. The disciples realise that the Lord will not be with them for much longer, and they fear for the future.
Jesus’ response to their fears is to tell them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He will suffer and die, but his Father will raise him up, and his Resurrection will bring salvation to the world. Only by putting our trust in Jesus can we find our way through a world that seems strange and confusing. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The life of a shepherd probably isn’t very different today from what it was in the time of Christ. We might have a romantic idea of the shepherd strolling through the fields with his flock, but in reality, it’s a hard and exhausting job. The shepherd is out in all weathers, caring for the sheep and keeping them safe from danger.
Jesus describes himself as a good shepherd, who knows his sheep, and calls them one by one. Unlike the leaders of Israel in his own time, who exploited their positions for their own power and advantage, Jesus’ concern is for the sheep – his disciples. His desire is for the sheep to have life to the full.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, when the Church prays for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. Pope Francis says in his message for today, “The People of God need to be guided by pastors whose lives are spent in service to the Gospel.” The pastors and ministers of the Church are called to model themselves on Christ, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep by name and keeps them safe. Let us pray for many young people to respond to the challenging call of Christ.
The two disciples walking to Emmaus know all the facts about Jesus: where he came from, what he said and did, and the circumstances of his terrible death. They even know about the empty tomb. But the story makes no sense to them. To follow Jesus, and be one of his disciples, was exciting and life-giving: but now, it all seems to have ended badly. The adventure is over, and the disciples are leaving Jerusalem, sad and downcast.
In the time that Jesus spends with the two disciples – unrecognised – he changes everything for them. He opens the Scriptures and explains the prophecies that were pointing to him. He makes their hearts burn within them. Finally, they recognise Jesus when he breaks the bread for them.
Knowing about Jesus can never be enough for a disciple. The facts alone won’t change our lives. But when we encounter the risen Christ in person, then it will begin to make sense, and our hearts will burn within us. Jesus is walking with us on the journey of life, even if we don’t recognise him. We meet him as the first disciples did, in the Word of God, and when he feeds us in the Eucharist.
Today’s Gospel shows us the humanity of Jesus. He weeps at the death of Lazarus, his friend. He shares in the grief of Martha and Mary. But this miracle is also a sign that Jesus is the Son of God, with power over life and death. Lazarus was thoroughly dead, four days in the tomb. At a word from Jesus, he is restored to life, and returned to the people who love him. It’s a stunning demonstration of Jesus’ power, and of his unity with God his Father. It brings many people to believe in him.
God’s will is for all his people to be fully alive and free. When we choose sin, we choose to be less alive. We may be tempted to hide in the dark tombs that we make for ourselves. But Jesus comes to seek us. Like Lazarus, he calls us to come out of our tombs, and to enjoy the fullness of life and freedom that comes from faith in him.
In Jesus’ time, it was taken for granted that sickness or disability was God’s punishment for sin. This idea lies behind the disciples’ question to Jesus: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?” The man not only has to live with his blindness; he is also despised by those who judge him as a sinner, and has to live by begging.
Jesus rejects this whole way of thinking. By giving the blind man his sight, he also gives him dignity and independence. God’s power is displayed in the man; he can now recognise Jesus as a prophet, and witness to him courageously in the face of the Pharisees’ hostile questioning.
The Pharisees, in contrast, reject Jesus, even when they can see the miracles he works. They “know” that Jesus must be a sinner, because he heals the sick on the sabbath. Their reasoning blinds them to the truth that Jesus is the Son of God.
The blind man has been given his sight by Jesus. The Pharisees remain wilfully blind. By the gift of faith, God opens our eyes to see Christ, and our ears to hear the Good News that he brings. The season of Lent is a privileged time to renew the gift of faith, and to clear away the obstacles that can prevent us from seeing Christ clearly.