One day a small boy named Jack was leading a cow down the road. The cow was very thin, because Jack and his mother were very poor and couldn’t keep the cow fed very well. Jack wasn’t very ambitious in life, and he was leading his cow down the road to sell it so that he and his mother would have some money to buy a little food. Jack ran into the butcher and offered to sell him the cow, but the butcher had something better than money to offer him. The butcher had a bunch of magic beans. Jack traded the family cow for a bunch of beans.
Jack’s mother wasn’t too happy with the deal he made. He had traded away something that produced their daily nourishment for essentially nothing. They didn’t have anything for supper that night, and Jack’s mother was so mad that she threw the beans out the door. The next morning, something had happened. The beans sprouted a plant overnight that reached so far up that it reached the clouds.
I’m not going any farther into this story right now: all I want to focus on is how the beans worked. They weren’t worth much by appearances, but when they were put into the ground, when they were buried, they produced something that transformed the lives of Jack and his mother.
When Jesus walked the earth, he talked a lot about planting and other everything agricultural matters. He lived in a rural society, and even the people in the city weren’t that removed from the Land and how things had to be in producing food. A handful of wheat will keep you fed for one day: we don’t think about eating raw grain, or eating cooked wheat (unless in a gourmet restaurant), but it’s possible. Planting wheat into the ground will kill it in one sense of the word: it will be a while before you can use it directly. But given time, it will sprout up and produce enough to keep you fed; keep the people around you fed; keep the world fed.
We don’t like to talk about dying; we don’t like to talk about losing things we care about. During Lent we are called to die to ourselves, and we can find all kinds of ways around doing anything substantial about that. We give up a few things, we don’t eat meat on Friday, but when Lent is over we’re going to go right back to most of the things we’ve given up, probably. Some of us can even take some macho pride in what we’ve given up: I’ve given up television this Lent; I’ve given up smoking; I’ve given up being a witch with a capital B. The danger in all that is that even when we give things up, we still put the focus on ourselves; we talk in terms of “I’ve done this. . .” The question might better be: what have we died to? How have we died to ourselves?
The death of the beans in the Jack and the beanstalk story meant that Jack had a ladder to the sky and through his adventures came back with great treasures which helped him take care of his staving mother. The death of the grains of wheat mean that many, many people can be fed instead of just one. When we look at what we have to die to, it might be good to ask, “Who does this death benefit?” How does this make us people more able to feed others, to serve others, to do what needs to be done so that all might benefit?
In a way, sin makes the same kind of promise as the magic beans: it gives us something special we don’t have to work for, takes the place of something we need to survive, it promises us power we can’t really use. They make us feel good until someone points out to us they’re really useless, and nothing good can come of them until we let go of them.
We are called to throw away a few sins so we can grow, so we can find new life. We are called to die to our focus on ourselves so that we can focus on Christ. It is tough to do: even in the best things we try to do, there are temptations to get back to worrying the most about how if affects us, how it improves our reputation, how we look by being virtuous or by doing good things.
We come together today to trade our selfishness for some seeds. We come to share the body and blood of Christ, the seed of Jesus that will grow in us. As we cultivate the harvest Christ plants in us, we can find ourselves on the ladder to heaven without even realizing it, and have the benefit of great harvest without worrying about where our next meal comes from. Through Christ, we are called to be the harvest of Justice that feeds the world today.