Sprouting peas on a damp layer of cotton wool is probably among the first few “science experiments” people in my generation did while growing up. I still remember waking up every morning and eagerly rushing to see if the pea started to sprout a small root. What I loved most about it was seeing the progress of the sprouts growing. For an inquisitive child, this was the first foray into the world of science and agriculture and it can be fascinating. However, my journey into the agrarian world didn’t go far and stopped there.
The society during the time of Jesus was primarily agrarian and knew well about seeds, planting, and harvests. That is why many of the parables of Jesus were built around these examples. On this Fifth Sunday of Lent, in the gospel of John (12:20-33), Jesus uses two paradoxes in trying to explain the mystery of His passion, death, and resurrection.
Firstly, it is the paradox of the grain, a theme familiar to Jesus’ audience. A grain of wheat, left to itself, produces nothing; only when it is buried and appears to have died, does it then bring forth fruit. The second paradox has to do with life – whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever hates his life, will preserve it for eternal life. In both these paradoxes, unknown to the audience, Jesus is figuratively referring to what is in store for Him in Jerusalem. Though the audience may have understood how a grain has to die in order to bear fruit, they surely did not understand the mystery of God’s saving action made visible through the cross.
For the first time in the Gospel of John, we now hear Jesus proclaiming that “the hour has come” – the decisive turning point. The scene in Jerusalem and the Jewish feast of the Passover is set. The time is near for the Good Shepherd to lay down His life for His sheep. But what becomes clearly visible as Jesus takes the road to Jerusalem is the self-giving and sacrificial love that is going to take away the sins of the world and save us all from the clutches of the evil one.
In fact, each time we celebrate and partake in the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, the sacrificial nature of God’s love is being made visible to all of us and reminding us to die to our selfishness and self-centeredness. Both the paradoxes that we hear in the Gospel today speaks of “dying” – a seed that dies to give fruit, the life that sacrificed for eternal life.
Christian discipleship cannot run away from self-denial; there is no following of Jesus without the cross. However much we want to deny or run away from it, the cross is the pathway to eternal life. We live in a world where worldly pleasure and selfish pursuits dominate. Our myopic view leads us to think that true happiness is only found in them. On the contrary, the Gospel today points to the fact that we are made for God, and only God can fill the desires of our hearts. As St. Alphonsus Liguori says: “Nothing can satisfy one whom God does not satisfy.”
Listening to the Gospel today, we may think that it is only Jesus who, like a grain of wheat, falls into the ground and dies so that He might bear much fruit. In fact, the Gospel message is addressed to all of us because we can quite easily fall into what some spiritual authors call the ‘selfish faith syndrome’. This syndrome has to do with a sense of apathy – I don’t care about others and such a syndrome only leads to ruin, confusion, and emptiness.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus had pointed out to the disciples, “what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Matthew 16:26). The dying to selfishness and self-centeredness will only bring forth the fruit of Christ. As we move closer to Jerusalem with Jesus, let us ask ourselves, what attitudes do I need to “die” to in order for the sprouts of Christ to grow out of us? When we can rid ourselves of selfishness, self-centeredness and apathy, only then God has the freedom to work through us as we learn to love God and one another more and more each day. “Unless a wheat of grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.” As disciples of Jesus, may we always seek to yield a rich harvest.
Fifth Sunday of Lent (21 March 2021)