A Modern Day Parable

An Adaptation of Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:3 –20, Luke 8:4 –15, The Parable of the Sowing By Michael Rozier, SJ

We often imagine what it will take to build healthier communities in both the U.S. and abroad. But let us engage our imagination in the way that Jesus often challenged his disciples. A simple parable opens us up to both the promise and peril of the good work of international health projects.

When a great crowd gathered around, he said in a parable:

A group of volunteers traveled halfway around the world to restore a failing orchard. As they worked, they saw the trees grow in health and returned home with renewed spirit. They told many stories of their success and began gathering volunteers for the following year. But they did not see what became of the trees once they were gone.

Some of the trees that were watered by hand during their time and looked so strong had no source of continued water after they left, so the fruit never grew.

Some of the trees had low branches trimmed. The higher branches could not be reached by the local workers who were given no ladders of their own, so the fruit grew but withered and died on the tree.

Some of the trees were uprooted and replanted in another part of the field that looked better but that local workers knew often had terrible windstorms, so the fruit grew but was blown off before it ripened.

But some of the trees remained in the part of the field recommended by local workers, had an irrigation system built with local materials and were trimmed in a way that the workers could still access all the branches long after the volunteers returned home. These trees bore fruit a hundredfold and the community had more to eat than ever before.

And he said, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"

Then those closest to him asked what this parable meant.

He said, "To you has been given the secret of curing the sick. The volunteers are well-intentioned medical professionals. The orchard is the community where they volunteer or send supplies.

"The trees that were watered for a while but were left to dry out are the patients who were given short-term fixes to long-term problems. It seems better to give them medication or donate whatever supplies are available, but sometimes, something is not better than nothing.

"The trees that had fruit wither and die on the high branches because the local workers had no ladders are the patients who had complications arise after the volunteers left. The volunteers get praise for the good and the local health workers get blamed for what goes wrong after they leave.

"The trees that were replanted in a seemingly promising but ultimately devastating part of the field suffer because the volunteers failed to recognize that the local workers know vital information about their own communities. Good intentions are not enough when people's lives are at stake.

"But as for the trees that remained in place, were irrigated properly, and could be tended by local workers, these are the patients whose health improved and remained strong for years to come. The volunteers used their expertise to do great work, but they respected the unique knowledge of local workers, they donated supplies that were useful, they provided care with the long-term in mind, and they built capacity by ensuring local health workers were strengthened and not undermined by their work.

"A hundredfold bounty is just the beginning. There is good work to be done, and with God, all things are possible."

Questions to Reflect on the Parable 

Parables are always imperfect lessons, yet they still inform who we are and what we do on many levels. For example, a key lesson of the original Parable of the sowing is God's generosity in scattering seed even where it is unlikely to grow. While generosity would be a great lesson for international health work, this modern parable has a different focus. In reflecting on it you are encouraged to not just analyze it intellectually, but to give time to the emotional and spiritual insights that emerge from its reading.

  • What are your initial reactions to this parable? intellectually? emotionally? spiritually?
  • Can you see yourself in this parable? With whom do you identify?
  • Have you experienced or heard of similar struggles as these volunteers? What goes unseen after they leave?
  • Where have you seen true progress or reward in international health work? What does that look like
  • Are you and your colleagues open to the possibility that this work may require change from what you have done in the past? What are the barriers to this change?