Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Mission of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Wednesday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Apollinaris
July 20, 2016
Jer 1:1.4-10, Ps 71, Mt 13:1-9
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Every reading of Sacred Scripture can be interpreted within the context of our discipleship and our apostolate, between our following the Lord and helping others to follow him. Today’s readings and feast are particularly eloquent examples of this.
- In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the first of eight parables in the 13th Chapter of St. Matthew. Jesus is inspiring us, first, 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 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? Many Catholics likewise approach the word of God with a 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.
- The second quality of good soil: eager longing to bear fruit and let God’s purpose be accomplished. 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. 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 community 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 with the love with which Christ loved us.
- 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. Pope Francis said in an Angelus meditation a few years ago, “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 stony 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, stony or thorny soil.
- There’s also a very important application of today’s readings to our apostolate. 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. 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. As a priest, sometimes I can be discouraged when people don’t listen with attentiveness to the Word of God or bear much fruit from it. And I know in your vocation as Sisters of Life, many times people do not respond to the Gospel of Life you try to proclaim in Word or in Witness. 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.
- That leads us to the end of today’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, which illustrates our receptivity and then our mission to sow knowing we’ll encounter all four forms of receptivity. God describes the prophet’s mission as “to uproot and … to plant,” or said in more general turns “to tear down, to destroy, to demolish and to build.” There is Destruction and Construction. Over the course of the next two weeks, we will be listening to Jeremiah’s words as he sought to uproot and plant among the people of Judah from 627 BC through and beyond the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. We’ll hear his famous “jeremiads” castigating not merely the sins of his contemporaries in God’s name but denouncing their proudly persisting in those sins as if they were good deeds (the distinction between being “sinful” and “corrupt” that Pope Francis has been describing). But after that verbal demolition, we’ll also see the words of anabolic hope: building the people up in anticipation of God’s giving them a new heart. Similarly, God always needs to tear down the ruins of our pride, he needs to destroy our old wineskins if he’s ever going to build us up and fill us with new wine. Jesus’ words at the beginning of his public ministry show this two fold action: “repent,” which means that act of tearing down our idols and all the houses we’ve built on sand, and “believe in the Gospel,” which means building our life on Jesus the rock.
- We see how God started this two-fold process in Jeremiah at the beginning of today’s reading. Jeremiah was born into a priestly family and so he would have grown up living the faith and hearing the word of God. But God’s formation of him to be a prophet began far before birth. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God tells him. “Before you were born I consecrated you. A prophet to the nations I appointed you.” God was already tilling the soil of his heart from the beginning. He was consecrated to his mission by God himself in utero. But when God finally revealed himself to him as a boy we believe of 17 or 18, Jeremiah didn’t believe he was ready. He didn’t have the right receptivity of soul. He was full of thorns that led to excuses. “Ah, Lord God!,” he replied. “I know not how to speak. I am too young!” This was not the excuse of Moses, who when meeting God in the burning bush and learning from God his mission to Pharaoh tried to use the excuse that “I have never been eloquent, neither in the past, nor recently, … but I am slow of speech and tongue.” This was not the excuse of Isaiah who protested, “I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips.” For Jeremiah it wasn’t that he had a speech impediment or a problem with foul language; it was that he considered himself to naive, too young and inexperienced, even to know what to say and to be taken seriously by any grown men and women, not to mention savvy leaders. His anxiety was choking the seed of the growth of the fruit God had been waiting since Jeremiah’s time in the womb to see flourish. But God demolished his excuses. He said, “Say not, ‘I am too young.’” He was not too young because he would be God’s ambassador who would give him the everything he’d need. He wouldn’t have to choose to whom to speak. “To whomever I send you, you shall go.” He wouldn’t have to worry about what he’d say. “Whatever I command you, you shall speak.” He wouldn’t need to be anxious about being all alone. “Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then God did something great for him to show him that He meant business and would actually fulfill those promises. Jeremiah tells us, “Then the Lord extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying, ‘See, I place my words in your mouth!’” He gave him the mystical experience of having God’s own words on his lips, so that he would be able to be the instrument of God as God rooted up and planted, as he tore down in order to build up.
- Jeremiah’s vocation story and his mission, while unique in some details, have applications for all of us. Like him, our existence has been willed by God from before the foundation of the world. None of us is a number, a random product of conception. God intended us from eternity and each of us is a part of his plan for the salvation of the world. He may not want us to be a prophet to the nations on earth and to all peoples, but he certainly wants us to spread the faith. We all said five times today to God in the Responsorial Psalm, “I will sing of your salvation,” and we’ve got the task to go through the world singing that saving love of God, that salvation we received at the day of our consecration in the womb of the Church, the baptismal font, and have had reinforced over and again. But many of us have excuses, like Jeremiah and the other prophets, to that mission. I doubt anyone here at daily Mass will try to offer as an excuse, “I’m too young!” But many of us might say, “I’m too old!” Or we might say, “I don’t like to sing at all,” whether of God’s salvation or anything else. Others will proffer all of our supposed disqualifications, because we are more concerned with our thorns than with God’s kingdom and see our own defects more clearly than we do God’s power. But God says to us, “Don’t say you’re too [blank].” He’ll take care of the details. We need to go to whomever he sends us — and who, we may ask, is that? It’s to everyone we meet today, but especially our fellow parishioners, our neighbors, our friends and family, our colleagues at work. We don’t have to worry about what we are to say. We’re just to let our existence sing of God’s salvation and proclaim that Christ is truly alive in us. God in fact did something similar to what he did for Jeremiah on the day he made his vocation clear to us, on the day of our baptismal consecration. The bishop, priest or deacon touched our ears and then put his thumb into our mouth to touch our tongue, saying, “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word and your lips to proclaim his faith to the praise and glory of God the Father” (the Ephphatha Prayer). He placed his word on our lips. But he went further than that. He has sought to place his word in our hearts, since it is out of the heart that the words we speak flow, whether good or bad (Mt 15:15-20). But he wants to place it in good soil that bears abundant fruit in words and witness, as he found in Jeremiah.
- If we’re tempted to think that there’s too much water under the bridge for the Lord to be asking of us in our circumstances something similar to what he asked of Jeremiah, today’s feast day is a poignant reminder to us of how the Lord works. St. Apollonaris was one who received God’s word on good soil and spent his life bearing fruit, even though he suffered so much to spread the faith as the first bishop of Ravenna. Ordained by St. Peter and sent to the northeast of what is now Italy, he sowed the seeds of the Gospel, where eventually a thriving Church developed and one of the great cultural centers in early Christianity as seen in the tremendous mosaics that remain. In preaching, however, he suffered a great deal for proclaiming the Gospel, being exiled multiple times, tortured and eventually martyred. But he sowed even in death. As Tertullian would say about a century after his martyrdom, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.
- At every Mass God wishes to accomplish in us the work we see him do in Jeremiah and Apollinaris. During the penitential rite, he wants to help us tear down whatever ruins and idols we bear within so that he can then build us up through the liturgy of the Word, in which he seeks to implant the words of eternal life on our lips and in a cardiac soil so fruitful after the hard work of tilling that that word will change us — and the world in which we interact — abundantly. He wants to place within us the desire to sing of his salvation in our own voice, in our own circumstances, in our own history. He wants us to help us to reflect on the meaning of our life from before we were even born and even after we die and how we are part of his plans. And, having nourished us within by his very life, he wants to send us forth at the end to go out with him to uproot and to plant, to tear down and build up, knowing that he is always with us to deliver us!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
JER 1:1, 4-10
of a priestly family in Anathoth, in the land of Benjamin.The word of the LORD came to me thus:Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
“Ah, Lord GOD!” I said,
“I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
Say not, “I am too young.”
To whomever I send you, you shall go;
whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them,
because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
PS 71:1-2, 3-4A, 5-6AB, 15 AND 17
In you, O LORD, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your justice rescue me, and deliver me;
incline your ear to me, and save me.
R. I will sing of your salvation.
Be my rock of refuge,
a stronghold to give me safety,
for you are my rock and my fortress.
O my God, rescue me from the hand of the wicked.
R. I will sing of your salvation.
For you are my hope, O Lord;
my trust, O God, from my youth.
On you I depend from birth;
from my mother’s womb you are my strength.
R. I will sing of your salvation.
My mouth shall declare your justice,
day by day your salvation.
O God, you have taught me from my youth,
and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds.
R. I will sing of your salvation.
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.”