Numbers seem to indicate power and popularity. I think Jesus’ disciples thought that about numbers too. In Mark’s gospel, which we’re reading at Mass these days, Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum before an enthusiastic crowd. At the end of his first day, the whole town gathers at the door of Peter’s house and word reaches out to other towns and places that a prophet has come. The numbers go up. (Mark 1, 21-34)
But then enthusiasm dies down as Jesus’ authority is questioned. His own hometown, Nazareth, takes a dim view of him; religious leaders from Jerusalem and the followers of Herod Antipas cast doubts about him. Gradually, Capernaum and the other towns that welcomed Jesus enthusiastically turn against him. His numbers go down.
His disciples must have wondered why. Why are the numbers going down? It didn’t make sense.
Jesus’ answer comes in today’s gospel. God‘s working in this world, the kingdom of God is coming, but human beings are mostly unaware of it:
“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.” (Mark 4, 28-34)
A greater power is at work in the scattered seed; but we know little about how it grows. The seed takes time, with its own law of growth; a great harvest will come, but still there’s mystery.
Meanwhile, we worry about numbers. Why are a growing number of Americans– giving up going to church or synagogue? Why are there so few vocations to our religious communities? So many of the good things in this world seem to be diminishing.
What can we do? Treasure the seed we have, scatter it as we can, look into the signs of the times. The Kingdom of God comes.