Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 13, 2014
Is 55:10-11, Ps 65, Rom 8: 18-23, Mt 13:1-23
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
The Difference Among Greatness, Mediocrity, and a Wasted Life
Why among the first apostles did eleven become great saints and one become the most notorious traitor of all time? Why among the students of a poor, inner city school will some kids from down-and-out circumstances go on to become famous surgeons and others end up in jail? Why do some children go on to become great athletes while others with the same coaches and even greater physical coordination and endowments never make it? There are several obviously various factors in these disparities, but one of the most basic reasons is because some people are more receptive and more responsive to coaching, to education and to grace.
This is an important lesson for us all to grasp because it will help us to understand better what Jesus is teaching us in the Gospel. Today he gives us what I believe, alongside the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is one of his most important and helpful parables. In Christian life, there are ultimately two things to which we’re called —to holiness and mission, to be a faithful disciple and an ardent apostle — and in today’s parable, Jesus helps us to understand both better, instructing us how to be a fruitful follower and an effective evangelist, how to hear God’s word well and proclaim it well, how to receive God’s grace and how to live in accordance with it.
But we need to pay very close attention to what Jesus tells us. He says at the end of the Parable, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear!,” which is the ancient way of saying, “Pay attention!” This is all the more important today because so many of us have a spiritual attention deficit disorder (ADD). In an age of so many words, of thousands of books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs published every day, we are so bombarded with words that we necessarily begin to become selective listeners. We block out a lot of the verbiage and we only half-listen to much of the rest. And we can take that selective listening especially to the way we hear what is most important of all, the word of God. Today Jesus wants us to call our attention to how we listen to him.
The Point of Parables
In the middle part of today’s Gospel, he explains to the disciples why he speaks in parables. He says that the real reason is to expose whether people really care about what they’re listening to. Just like poetry or any other type of symbolic writing, parables require some work to figure out what the symbolism means and to draw the appropriate moral or morals of the story. Some people will hang on God’s word in such a way that they will listen with faith and make the effort to understand what God is saying and apply it to their life; they want to respond to all God’s work with receptivity, faith and following; they recognize, as Jesus would say, that their eyes are blessed because they see Jesus, their ears are blessed because they hear him, and that so many prophets and righteous people who longed to see and hear God didn’t have the same privilege we do. Other people, Jesus says on the contrary, look but don’t see, they hear but don’t listen or comprehend, because, as Jesus indicates quoting Isaiah, they don’t want to understand “with their hearts and be converted”; they don’t really listen because they don’t want their lives to change according to his word. Many don’t really think they need his word.
I witnessed one great illustration of this principle several years ago when I was pastor of St. Anthony’s in New Bedford. We lost power toward the beginning of Mass because of our outage in our section of New Bedford. I had a weakened voice because of a bad cold and St. Anthony’s was enormous, with 36 rows of pews from front to back. Before I proclaimed the Gospel, I hoarsely asked everyone to move forward so that they could hear the Gospel and the homily since I wouldn’t be able to speak loudly to make up for the lack of microphones. About one-third of the parishioners immediately moved toward the front pews. The other two-thirds didn’t move at all. There was absolutely no way that the people sitting in the back pews would have been able to hear a syllable — I was only a few decibles louder than a whisper — but they didn’t seem to care. That day was one of the greatest examples I’ve seen in my priesthood of the separation between those who are hungry from the word of God and those who are not hungry at all, those who are prepared to strain their ears to grasp whatever they can and those who won’t make the least effort. Jesus uses parables to expose how hungry we are for the truth.
As Jesus proclaims the Parable of the Sower, the Seed and the Soil today, the big question is how we’re going to listen: whether we’re truly going to hear with our ears and be converted, whether we’re going to receive what he teaches on good soil and allow that word to bear abundant fruit in our lives, or whether we’re going to receive what he says on the three types of soil that end up bearing little or no fruit at all.
Taking our Soil Sample
Jesus today is inspiring us to take a soil sample of our hearts, to help determine how we receive and respond to him, to all that he teaches us, and to all that he seeks to do in our life. He is the Sower who goes out to sow. He ultimately sows himself like a “grain of wheat” (Jn 12:24): he sows his word, his grace, his body and blood, all he is and has he tries to implant within us and within the world. But the way we respond to those gifts varies.
To understand what he says, we first need to grasp a little about ancient farming techniques (and how much farming has advanced in 2,000 years!). Sowers would scatter seed on long thin plots before any soil had been turned over. The seed would land on four different types of earth. The first is the hardened land between plots that would serve as the paths on which people would walk and make hard; no seed could penetrate those ancient sidewalks. The second would be the very thin “rocky” soil that would have thick layers of limestone a few inches underneath the surface. Here the seeds would take and quickly germinate because the water would be retained within the few inches of soil and when the temperature would quickly rise in the morning. Because the roots couldn’t penetrate the stone, however, the sprouts would not be able to last for long, quickly dehydrating and withering as the sun grew in intensity. The third terrain Jesus describes as “thorny” soil, which is basically good earth that could have borne a lot of fruit if it weren’t covered with thornbushes and weeds that would grow up exhausting the nutriets of the soil so that the good seed really couldn’t grow. And the last type was good soil that Jesus describes would bear much fruit.
Just as a sower would scatter seed over all four types of earth, so Jesus scatters his word, his grace, his saving deeds over all four kinds of people represented by the respective soil samples. We see all four soil types among his first listeners.
We saw in many of the scribes and Pharisees the hardened soil that totally resisted Jesus’ words and the testimony of his miracles, closing their ears and their hearts to his message and actually accusing him of working his indisputable miracles not by God’s power but by the devil. No matter what Jesus said, no matter how he said it, no matter how he backed it up by deeds, they weren’t going to listen and be converted. The evil one, as Jesus mentions in the Parable, would come to snatch the seed away before it could ever get planted.
We see the rocky or superficial soil in the people for whom Jesus worked the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. They listened to Jesus for hours, they even followed him after the miracle along the entire upper lip of the Sea of Galilee, but most of them abandoned Jesus as soon as he asked them to believe something they found hard, his teaching on the Eucharist, that to have life we need to gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood. They were willing to listen to Jesus’ words for a time, but when he asked them to do something that made them uncomfortable, their faith withered and died.
We see the thorny soil in those who said that they would follow Jesus but first they wanted to bury their father, or go on their honeymoon, or inspect their new oxen. We also see it in the Rich Young Man, who came to Jesus as a good teacher and who kept all the commandments from his youth, but who — when Jesus gave him a choice between storing up for himself treasure in heaven or holding on to his earthly riches — chose the thornbush of his worldly wealth. His materialism choked his growth in faith and prevented his seeking “perfection” together with Jesus.
We see the good soil in people like the Blessed Mother, who, as the ancient icons attest, conceived the word of God first through her “ear” before she conceived him in her womb, whom Jesus praised for hearing the word of God and putting into pratice, who wanted her whole life to develop, as she told God through his angel, according to God’s word. We see this good soil in so many other saints like elevent of the apostles, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, St. Bernadette and others who bore abundant fruit by allowing God to work through them.
The point of today’s parable is that God wants us all to receive his word and to respond to him with good soil. To become a saint we don’t have to be a spiritual superhero; we simply need to give God permission and correspond to what he wishes to do in and through us. We just need to have good, receptive and responsive soil. If we’re going to do that, however, we have to graps what good soil is. And there are three things we need to grasp about good soil.
The first quality of good soil: attentive listening
The first is that Jesus tells us that good soil produces fruit, and not just a little fruit, but abundant fruit: 30, 60 or 100 fold, all huge numbers according to the Jewish mentality of the age. Do we listen to God’s word with the intention to bear great fruit? Do we respond to God’s work in our lives with an openness and a desire to do something great for him? I mentioned a few weeks ago on Corpus Christi that most Catholics seem to place more trust in Tylenol and Advil than they do in receiving the Holy Eucharist. They know that these pills will almost assuredly do something to relieve their pain after ingesting them but they don’t expect Jesus in the Eucharist to do much of anything at all. Many Catholics likewise approach the word of God with a similar lack of expectation. If a famous self-help entrepreneur were in Fall River speaking about how to become successful, rich and happy, many of us would listen attentively. If he said, “Do this,” or “Never do this,” many of us would immediately change our habits. But many of us don’t approach the Word of God with the same attentiveness and willingness to change and act. We listen to worldly gurus more attentively than we do to Jesus. We don’t approach him as if what he’s about to say is meant to change our life at all, not to mention 30, 60 or 100 ways for the better.
To illustrate my point, I’d like to give a little quiz. In order for the word of God to change us, we need to listen with a willingness to be changed. And for that, we need at least to remember the word of God. Most Catholics, frankly, can’t even remember what the reading at Mass was the day after, and that’s a sign not of a bad memory but of a defective listening. And so I’d like to present a quiz to help us to determine whether we listen to God’s word with good soil. Here it goes. What was last Sunday’s Gospel about? (answer: it was about Jesus’ yoking us to himself). What was the Psalm we sang five different times? (answer: “I will praise your name forever, my king and my God”). What essential choice did St. Paul give us in the second reading? (answer: The choice between life according to the flesh and life according to the Holy Spirit). If the word announced last week had an impact in our life over the past seven days, we would likely be able to remember at least a little of it. If we can’t remember anything about last week’s readings, it’s probably because we weren’t listening with listening hearts. Let’s make the quiz a little easier to determine if we were listening today with good soil. What was today’s responsorial psalm? (answer: “The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest”). If the Word of God is going to bear fruit, we have to listen to it with bearing fruit in mind.
The second quality of good soil: eager longing to bear fruit and let God’s purpose be accomplished
In order to listen to God’s word as God wants, we need to be attentive to what St. Paul says in today’s second reading. He declares that we should listen with an “eager longing” to bear fruit, that we who have received the first fruits of the spirit ought to be in “labor pains.” In other words, the word of God is meant to impregnate us and lead us to want to give birth to fruits, and not just one fruit but a whole “litter.” The real test of good soil is how we look to let the seed grow in us and give birth to massive amounts of deeds of genuine love for God and each other over years. God reinforced that point through the Prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading. God tells us how his word in us is meant to develop: “For just as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth: it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” When we receive God’s word on good soil, we do bear abundant fruit. When we hear his word on forgiveness, for example, we begin to receive and share that mercy. When we hear his word on being peacemakers, we seek to go out with the Prince of Peace and spread that tranquility of order with God and others. When we hear his word on seeking first the kingdom, we begin to seek him in our study, our work, our relationships, our family life. When we hear his word to chop off our body parts if they lead us to sin, we focus with brutal determination on eliminating from ourselves not just sins but near occasions of sin. When we hear his word to love others as he loves us, we begin immediately to look around us and ask for the grace to love each other here at Church with the love with which Christ loved us, as well as to sacrifice like Christ for those in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, to lead them to salvation.
The third quality of good soil: eradicating the hardness, the stones and the thorns
In order to be good soil, we need more than to listen attentively and eagerly to God’s word so that we allow it to accomplish its purpose in us. We also need to be aware of the types of things that can make infertile the good soil we receive on the day of our baptism. This morning in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis reminded us, “This parable speaks to each of us today, as it spoke to the listeners of Jesus two thousand years ago. It reminds us that we are the land where the Lord tirelessly throws the seed of His Word and His love. What is our disposition when we receive it? How is our heart? What does the ground look like: a path, a stone, a thorn bush? Then he called us to responsibility, saying, “It’s up to us to become good soil without thorns or stones, but tilled and cultivated with care, so that it can bring forth good fruit for us and for our brothers.” And so we need to spend a little time discovering how good soil turns unfruitful by paying attention to what Jesus says about the three types of unproductive soil in the Gospel.
Let’s take up first the thorny soil. Jesus says this refers to those who hear the word and understand it, but then “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” Often we can think that these weeds and thorns would be sins, which would certainly choke the word of God, but Jesus doesn’t mention sins. He says “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches.” In St. Luke’s Gospel, he addes something else, saying, the growth of the seed is “choked by … the pleasures of life” (Lk 8:14). In others words, the growth of our spiritual life is suffocated by competing factors that suck away our energy. Jesus names three.
The first thorn is riches. There’s nothing wrong with material wealth as long as we use it for building up God’s kingdom. Very often, however, people start to serve “mammon” rather than God. We see an example of this in those who, when faced with the choice between worshipping God at Mass on Sunday or working overtime choose work, because at a practical level they think they need the money more than they need God.
A second thorn is pleasure. There’s certainly nothing wrong with pleasure, for God has made many human activities quite pleasing. But when pleasure starts to be sought as a value in-and-of-itself, our spiritual life begins to get choked. This thorn is one of the greatest tools in the devil’s arsenal, getting us to commit sins for the sake of pleasure or to cease to value the things of God because we don’t find them sufficiently enjoyable. For example, the evil one can use the desire for sexual pleasures to alienate multitudes from God by sexual sin. He can use people’s desires to be entertained to keep them from Mass. He can use their love of comfort to get them to reject the Cross. An inordinate desire for pleasure can certainly strangle the growth God wants to give us.
The third thorn is the “cares of the world,” our various anxieties and preoccupations. It’s important to state that caring for our loved ones, for our home, for our job, are all good things, but sometimes we can become so concerned about them that God can no longer get through. There’s no longer any room for spiritual growth because these preoccupations are taking up all of the nutrients. Just think about it. If we come here to Mass and we’re worried about a loved one who is very ill, it’s hard to pay attention to what Jesus wants to teach us. If we’re wondering where our next meal is going to come from, we, too, will succumb easily to distraction. What’s he asking of us? To pretend that we don’t have problems? Not at all. He wants us to acknowledge our fears and anxieties and take them to Him in prayer, so that they can no longer distract us, but actually unite us to the Lord. St. Paul tells us to throw all our cares on the Lord because he cares for us. We entrust our loved ones to him because he loves them more than we ever could. We entrust our own needs to him, knowing that he cares for us more than the lilies of the field or the sparrows of the sky.
We’re never going to respond to the Word of God and bear great fruit, however, as long as we don’t work to eradicate the thorns from our life.
The second type of infertile earth is what Jesus calls stoney soil. Jesus says that these are those who “hear the word and receive it with joy.” But because of the lack of roots, whenever some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, the growth of God in the person’s life ceases and the person falls away. We see people with this type of soil very often during Lent. Many will come on Ash Wednesday, hear the appeal of the Lord calling them to come back to the practice of the faith, respond with enthusiasm and have every intention of following through on it and living a good Lent. But then something comes up. Their initial enthusiasm dissipates and they revert to bad habits. We also see this soil in those who respond positively to a great spiritual book, or a good homily, but who, because they never really make and follow through on firm resolutions, never see their lives change much or for long. In both categories, the downward pull gets them. They begin to realize that putting God first in life means placing everything and everyone else second, and they start to make little compromises until finally the seeds of real conversion have all but died. We also see this type of soil commonly in those who come to Mass each week with good will and some attentiveness to learn but who leave Mass pretty much unchanged because they’re not really focused on putting what God says into practice. We all need to be aware that lying beneath the surface of our hearts is often a thick layer of spiritual limestone that prevents the word of God from making deep roots for long-term growth. We need to ask God to chisel — or even to jackhammer — through that rocky receptivity so that what he seeks to plant within us can make a profound difference.
The last type of fruitless terrain Jesus describes is the hardened soil along the path. Jesus is referring to people who have shut themselves off to his message, to his voice. Jesus is referring to all those who are “hardened,” who are already set in their ways, who think they know everything they need to know, who have no receptivity at all to the word of God. The readings at Mass, the words of the homily, the presence of a Bible at home, really don’t change a thing about them. These people are quite common. They’re not necessarily bad people — in fact, they can be very upright people — but they’re those whose habits, set ideas, or in some cases pre-judgments prevent the deep penetration of God’s voice. God just can’t get through to them. You certainly see this type of soil in those who are proud, who won’t allow God to change them because they either don’t think they need to change or because they think they can’t change. You see it in hardened sinners, for example like those who are addicted to drugs or booze or sex who stubbornly refuse to listen to the appeals of those who love them to get help and reform their lives. You see it in those who come to Mass without really caring what the readings are, or who want the short form read all the time, or who think the best Mass is one with no homily. But you also find this type of soil commonly with seniors — even good, morally-upright elders — who because of the passage of years have become so set in their ways that God can no longer change them. They consider themselves “old dogs” whom not even God can teach “new tricks.” For us to bear fruit, we can’t be fixed on a type of spiritual “auto-pilot” such that God can never push us on a course higher. So we need to be alert to our stubborness, our blindess, our hardness of heart, our set ways and give Jesus permission, if wants to, to change our course for the better — and not by striking us with lightning but in the normal whisper of attentive prayer. We also need to be alert to the work of the devil who always seeks to make us hardened so that he can snatch away the seed God wants to plant. The evil one is at work right now seeking to get us to receive the life-changing word Jesus is giving us today on hardened, stoney or thorny soil.
Recognizing the soil sample of others as we try to implant in others the seeds of the Gospel
If we’re really going to bear fruit then there’s one last consideration. Just like a plant that grows from a seed eventually bears fruit with new seeds that can be implanted elsewhere, so if we have good soil, then the grown and developed seeds that Jesus has planted will mature within us so that we can then implant them in the soil of others’ hearts. This point leads us to the other very important application of today’s Gospel — regarding our sharing the faith — that we can only cover briefly. Over the course of my priesthood, many people have come to me discouraged that as hard as they’ve worked to pass the faith on to their children and grandchildren — through sacrificing to send them to Catholic schools, praying with and for them, setting the best example they could, policing what they watched and the friends they hung out with — they seemed to have failed because their loved ones have wandered from the practice of the faith and have often gotten involved in immoral lifestyles. They’re in enormous pain and feel like failures in the most important thing of life, their fidelity to the command God gave them on the day they brought their loved ones to be baptized, to be the first and best teachers of their children in the ways of faith. Sometimes parents and grandparents even want to come to confess it, because they think they’re sinfully responsible or that failure. Today’s Gospel, however, is very consoling for all of us who try to share our faith only to meet with a lack of response or outright rejection. It helps us to keep these objective failures in the transmission of the faith in their proper context. The seed — the Word of God — is perfect and we, the sowers in these cases, may have done our job as well as anyone possibly could. The reason why our work may not have borne fruit is because of the type of soil of those to whom we try to pass on the word. They might be too hardened, or too superficial, or too concerned with pleasure, riches or worldly anxieties to have let the word penetrate. There are a lot of things we can control, but we can’t control others’ soil. Just as Pope Francis tells us that “it’s up to us to become good soil without thorns or stones, but tilled and cultivated with care,” so it is also up to our children, grandchildren, godchildren, spouses, friends, fellow parishioners and other loved ones. As Blessed Mother Teresa once said, the Lord calls us to be faithful, not necessarily successful. He calls us to sow the seed. He calls us to try to help our loved ones loosen up their hardened hearts, drill through superficiality, and take out the various thorns that can choke the growth of union with God. But today’s parable teaches us that some will respond well and others poorly. Some people will use their ears to hear and some won’t. The only thing we can do is to keep planting the seed with eager longing, entrusting our loved ones to the Lord and asking his help to prepare the soil of their hearts to receive him fruitfully.
Hearing with good soil what God is saying today
Today at this Mass, not only has God tried to plant us the seed of Jesus’ word — so that we might have good soil and act on today’s beautiful Gospel! — but he also wants to inseminate us with Jesus the Word-made-flesh in the Eucharist. Jesus is the word that has come forth from the mouth of the Father, who did not return to Him empty but accomplished the purpose for which he was sent. He is the grain of wheat who fell to the earth and died, but rose again to rebirth so that we might share his divine life (cf. Jn 12:24). As we prepare to receive that Word bodily in Holy Communion, we ask him to till the soil of our souls so that his life might sink so deeply in ours that we might bear abundant fruit, fruit that will last into eternal life, fruit that will be the seeds of the word of God in the lives of those we love and meet.
The biggest factor in which in the final analysis we will end up a saint or end up wasting the gift of life through a mediocre existence is the type of soil with which we respond to the seed of all God’s action in our life. Today at this Mass, Jesus out of love, wants to till, cultivate and fertilize our soul. Let’s give him full cooperation! Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
PS 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14
You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
R/ The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows,
breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
R/ The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
R/ The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.
R/ The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing
compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
For creation awaits with eager expectation
the revelation of the children of God;
for creation was made subject to futility,
not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,
in hope that creation itself
would be set free from slavery to corruption
and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea.
Such large crowds gathered around him
that he got into a boat and sat down,
and the whole crowd stood along the shore.
And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying:
“A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,
and birds came and ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.
It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep,
and when the sun rose it was scorched,
and it withered for lack of roots.
Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,
a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
The disciples approached him and said,
“Why do you speak to them in parables?”
He said to them in reply,
“Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven
has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.
To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich;
from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
This is why I speak to them in parables, because
they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts and be converted,
and I heal them.
“But blessed are your eyes, because they see,
and your ears, because they hear.
Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people
longed to see what you see but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
“Hear then the parable of the sower.
The seed sown on the path is the one
who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it,
and the evil one comes and steals away
what was sown in his heart.
The seed sown on rocky ground
is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time.
When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word,
he immediately falls away.
The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
and it bears no fruit.
But the seed sown on rich soil
is the one who hears the word and understands it,
who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”