Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 10, 2005
Is 55:10-11; Rom 8: 18-23; Mt 13:1-23
1) By the parable of the sower and the seed in today’s Gospel, Jesus describes four types of receptivity to the seed of the word of God he is trying to sow in each of us. Our whole life on earth and eternity can be summarized by this parable, because the whole point of human life — the ultimate reason why we’re here — is to respond to this gift of God’s action in our lives. In the first three types of soil, Jesus suggests that all of God’s work was wasted, because the seed never bore fruit. The implication is that the determination of whether our life will be successful in the final analysis or a waste depends on how much fruit we bear in response to the gift of God in our lives. As Jesus says so directly, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear!” — the ancient way to say “pay attention!”
2) In farming, there are really two crucial elements, good seed and good soil. In terms of the seed at question in our own spiritual life, the seed Jesus talks about is the Word of God, which is perfect; it doesn’t have the least defect. The prophet Isaiah describes this perfection in the first reading, when God says through the prophet “the word that goes forth from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.” The Word of God does its job. The question about what fruit any of us bears, therefore, depends solely on the soil. It depends on how receptive and responsive our heart is to God’s action.
3) Jesus gives us the parable of the four types of soil so that we might take an accurate “soil sample” of our soul, to determine how open and responsive our heart is to God. He wants us honestly to examine whether we are bearing the type of fruit he wants us or whether his action in our lives has been going to waste. The elements of the parable will help us to determine, if that is the case, WHY God’s seed has been getting wasted, and show us the path so that his word in us might become more fruitful. Jesus wants to help us today to till the soil of our hearts so that we might bear fruit that will last until eternity. Let’s let him get to work by examining more deeply the four categories of response.
4) The first is soil “at the edge of the path”. Alongside ancient farms were dirt paths that over the course of decades would become packed down and tremendously hard. There was no chance for seed to penetrate this type of soil. Jesus says that this refers to one who “hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, [and] the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.” In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus once asked, “Why do you not understand what I say?” and answered his own question: “Because you cannot accept my word” (Jn 8:43). He’s 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. These people are very common. They’re not necessarily bad people, but they’re the type of people whose habits, or set ideas, or in some cases prejudices prevent the deep penetration of God’s voice. God cannot 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 as well 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 change their lives. But you also find this type of soil commonly with seniors — even good, morally-upright seniors — who because of the passage of years have become so set in their ways that God can no longer change them. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” they’ll say. Well, God does want to teach all “dogs,” young and old, the new tricks of a greater love of him. He never wants us to be fixed on an “auto-pilot” such that he can never push us on a course higher and deeper into his own inner life. What can people with this type of soil do to get better? More on this later.
5) The second type of soil, of receptivity, is rocky ground. Jesus was not referring to soil with some pebbles in it. In Palestine, there are parts of the country in which there is a layer of dirt a few inches thick over a solid layer of limestone. When the seed is sown here, it immediately takes root and begins to germinate because the sun warms that soil very quickly, but as soon as the roots try to go deeper into the soil, they hit the rock and die for lack of nutrients. 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 person falls away. We see people with this type of soil very often during Lent. They’ll 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. They start to realize that putting God first in life means putting everything and everyone else second, and they start to make little compromises until finally the seeds of real conversion have all but died. But we also see this type of soil in many who come to Mass each week but who leave Mass pretty much unchanged. The great litmus test to see whether we might have this type of soil is whether we can remember the readings at Mass. It’s in the readings that God tries to plant his seed. Can you remember last week’s Gospel reading? Did the seed of God’s word get deeply planted in the soil of your heart and take root, or did it just pass through the other ear? (In that Gospel, Jesus called all of us who labor and find life burdensome to come to him for refreshment). We can take another test. Less than 10 minutes ago, each of us prayed the responsorial psalm refrain five times. Can anyone recall it now? (“The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.”) What can who discover they have this type of soil do? More on this later.
6) The third type of soil, or receptivity, is the seed sown among thorns. 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.” Unlike those along the path, the seed gets planted. Unlike the rocky soil, there’s every possibility for these people to bear good fruit, because their soil is deep. But Jesus says these people don’t bear the fruit that God wants either. Why? Because there are weeds and thorns in the soil, which compete against the good seed and choke it. 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, Jesus says “they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Lk 8:14). In others words, the growth of our spiritual life is choked out by competing factors that suck away our energy. Jesus names three.
a. One is riches. There’s nothing wrong with them, when we use them for building up God’s kingdom, but very often people start to serve “mammon.” We see it with many who, when faced with the choice between coming to Mass or working choose work, because they say they need the money. Well, they need God more than they need money!
b. Another is pleasure. There’s certainly nothing wrong with pleasure, for God has made many things quite pleasing. But it’s when pleasure is sought as a value in-and-of-itself that our spiritual life begins to get choked. The desire for pleasure can be 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 “entertaining.” Young people are particularly vulnerable to this thorn, because our entertainment culture sometimes makes it hard for them to appreciate prayer and the Mass. Many teenagers during my years as a high school chaplain would tell me, “Mass is boring!,” but that often came because the thorn of the desire to be “entertained” at mass would strangle their ability to hear God’s word in the readings and homily and enter with the angels into the drama of the Last Supper, Calvary and the empty tomb which we enter into live at every Mass.
c. The third is the “cares of the world.” Again, 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. When we try to pray, we can’t stop thinking about what is weighing us down. There’s no room for spiritual growth because these preoccupations are taking up all of the nutrients.
Again, what can people with this type of soil do? Stay tuned.
7) The four and last type of soil, the one good type of soil to which the Lord refers, and which he wants everyone of us to have, refers to those who hear the word of God and understand it, bearing fruit a 100, or 60 or 30 fold. There are three components to this good soil.
a. The first is hearing the word of God. We have to listen to it. Especially when we come to Mass, we need to pay attention, but we also need to pay attention to the word by reading Sacred Scripture on our own, in silent prayer, and in the actions of the day. The first group of people, the soil along the path, don’t even really hear because they aren’t paying sufficient attention. This is the first step to bearing good fruit.
b. Secondly, we need to understand it, to let it take root, to let it sink deep. That means certainly we have to pray about it, we have to go to those places where we can comprehend it better, like Bible Studies or to decent books explaining what Jesus means. This is something that the second group, those on rocky soil, generally do not persevere in doing. They respond initially with joy, but they don’t act on their good resolutions to follow through, to find out more, to hunger more.
c. The third thing we have to do is bear fruit. It’s not just hearing and understanding what we hear. It’s allowing what Jesus’ words to change our lives, leading to our bearing fruit in acts of love for God and for others. This is something that many in the third group, those among thorns, do not do. They hear the word of God, understand it, and know what they should do, but they just don’t do it. Sometimes they even want to do the right thing, but they just don’t pull the trigger. We’ve got to choose to order our whole life, everything, around the Word of God we hear and understand. God will help us to do this, but the choice is ours.
No matter where we find ourselves now, the Lord makes clear the path to good soil, soil that bears fruit. It begins with hearing the word of God, tuning God in. Then it’s making sure we understand it, what God is saying and what he is not saying, because he has the words of eternal life. Then it’s choosing according to what we know.
8 ) There’s one last thing I always mention when I preach on this Gospel. It’s a very consoling Gospel for those of us who act on the Lord’s mandate to spread the faith. Sometimes we can become discouraged when we try to bring the word of God to others and they reject it. We can think we’ve failed. But this parable helps us to keep everything in context. The Word of God is perfect and we, the sowers in these cases, might have done our job as well as possible. The reason why our work may not bear 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. We cannot control their soil. The Lord does call upon us, however, to try to plant the seed. Some people will respond well and be part of the Lord’s harvest of the just. The Lord promises us that in the Gospel. Some people will have the ears to hear, some won’t. But let’s just keep planting that seed.
9) 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 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 seed of the grain of wheat who fell to the earth and died, but rose again to rebirth in which he wants us to share (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. Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear!