JER 31:31-34; HEB 5:7-9; JOHN 12:20-33
“Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, It remains only a single grain; But if it dies, It yields a rich harvest.”
A small-town country farmer has a watermelon patch and upon inspection he discovers that some of the local kids have been helping themselves to his prized watermelons. The farmer thinks of ways to discourage this profit-eating situation. So he puts up a sign that reads: “WARNING! ONE OF THESE WATERMELONS CONTAINS CYANIDE!” He smiled smugly as he watched the kids run off the next night without eating any of his melons. The farmer returns to the watermelon patch a week later to discover that none of the watermelons have been eaten, but finds another sign that reads: “NOW THERE ARE TWO!”
In today’s gospel Jesus says, “Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, It remains only a single grain; But if it dies, It yields a rich harvest. Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life.” (John 12:24-25). As we continue our journey through Lent and draw near Holy Week, let us ponder on Jesus, the grain of wheat who fell on the ground and died but yielded a rich harvest.
Being a disciple of Jesus does not mean that we have achieved perfection. It means we are making progress. And the progress we make need not be earth-shattering. It can occur in small steps. This is what is so encouraging in Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. We know that Jesus sacrificed and died that we could live. We also know that we are called to follow his example and sacrifice and die to self through good works and avoiding sin. However, when Jesus places this challenge before us, he does so with a very consoling image. He says,” Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” When Jesus wants to tell us that we must sacrifice and change, he uses the image of a very small thing: a single grain of wheat. By this image he tells us that our sacrifice need not be huge, that our dying can be limited, that our growth can occur in little steps.
To be a disciple we do not have to reach a state where we can claim that we never lose our patience. We only need to be more patient than we were last year. To follow Jesus we do not have to achieve a generosity and simplicity to rival St. Francis. We only need to be more generous than we used to be. In following Christ’s example we do not need to possess a perfect love which never judges another or speaks and unkind word. We only need to have a love which is growing rather than shrinking, expanding rather than turning inward.
Realistically, a disciple is one who is making progress. And it would be wise to set our goals accordingly. So do not say, “I will never lose my temper again.” Just try to be patient with your spouse, with your children, with your parents for one day, for a half a day, for a few hours. That would be a step in the right direction. Do not say, “I will never judge another person or close my mind to a new idea.” Just single out one occasion in which you truly try to listen, in which you take in the truth that another is trying to offer you. That would be genuine growth. Do not say, “I will be totally selfless and only think of others.” Just find one person in need or trouble and put yourself out so the he or she might know that someone cares. That would be a single grain of wheat falling to the ground and bearing fruit.
Being a disciple does not mean we have achieved perfection. It means that we are making progress. You do not have to be the best parent in the world. You only need to be a better parent in your own home. You do not have to be the most generous person in the United States. You only need to be someone more inclined to show interest in the elderly neighbor who requires your help. You do not need to be the holiest person here at St. Joseph. You only need to take a step closer to becoming the person God calls you to be.
One day, a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The boy replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going down. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “See, I made a difference for that one.” “The Star Thrower” is a classic story of the power within each one of us to make a difference in the lives of others. Today’s Gospel challenges us to make a difference in the lives of other people by our sacrificial service to those around us in the family, in the workplace and in a wider society. As we die to ourselves during Lent through our penance, may we produce a rich harvest and celebrate that harvest during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night.