15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Live-Streamed and Televised Mass (Coronavirus Crisis)
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
July 12, 2020
A Parable on a Parable
Throughout much of his life, my Dad was an avid gardener. Wherever we lived, my Father always reserved part of the backyard for his tomatoes, squashes, green beans, and, sometimes, a little fig tree. As a rule, Dad’s gardens were neither large nor artful in design, but they did produce enough beans and tomatoes that Mom could put them up in Mason jars. That way, we enjoyed the fruits of Dad’s labor throughout the winter.
As I got a little older, I wanted to assist Dad in his garden. Dad welcomed my help and he was a good teacher, but I soon found that cultivating a garden was drudgery. While my friends were out riding their bicycles, I wasn’t having much fun weeding Dad’s garden or watering it. Before long, I cast aside the garden hose and the hoe, and was off with my friends to see the wide wonderful world on a Schwinn bicycle.
Well, reflecting on today’s Gospel, I thought of my brief and ill-starred career in gardening. In fact, today’s Gospel served as an examination of conscience, calling me to remember the effectiveness of God’s Word, and calling me to evaluate the quality of the “soil” in my soul. I found myself comparing the soil in Dad’s garden (which I soon tired of cultivating) with the soil in my own soul (which, to this day, needs constant cultivating). I hope you will find today’s Gospel useful in evaluating your own spiritual life …
God’s Word Is Effective
Now, at the risk of making Jesus’ masterful parable seem pedantic, let me explain why Jesus uses the image of “soil” to describe the life of our souls. As we saw in our first reading, the Prophet Isaiah depicts God as a farmer who sows the seed of his Word in human hearts. In no way is the seed of God’s holy word defective. On the contrary, Isaiah assures us that God’s Word is indeed effective. So, whether or not we understand it or receive it, the Word that comes forth from the mouth of God does not return empty; it does not return without accomplishing the purpose for which God sent it (cf. Is. 55:10).
Accordingly, the word that the OT prophets spoke was powerful, almost like a personal intervention of God, even if the people did not always heed the prophetic message. In the NT, Jesus is the Word of God “in person” … “the Word made flesh” (Jn. 1:14) … the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity who assumed our humanity. Therefore, the words Jesus spoke were pre-eminently the Word of God. Echoing the Letter to the Hebrews, we can say that the Word Jesus spoke was “living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). And the truth is, Jesus still speaks his Word, the Word of the Father, to us…in our days, for when the Scriptures are proclaimed in the Liturgy, it is Christ himself who speaks (GIRM, 29); and when the Sacramental Word is uttered, it is Christ himself who acts on our behalf . . . whether they be words of consecration, absolution, or blessing. Yes, God is still sowing the seeds of his life, his truth, and his love in our hearts. Whether or not we know it or accept it, God’s Word is alive; it is real; it is effective.
Examining the Soil of the Soul
The point of Jesus’ parable is that God’s Word is always effective, but the degree to which we human beings accept his Word varies. And here is where we might make that good examination of conscience, asking about the quality of the soil in our souls, that is to say, the capacity of our souls to receive the seed of God’s Word. After all, who of us cannot recognize ourselves in Jesus’ parable?
So, the hardened ground of the footpath represents those who reject God’s Word without understanding it or giving it a second thought. Just as people trod over a footpath, making its soil impervious, so too we can allow the culture all around us to trample our souls, thereby rendering our inmost-self to be hard and unreceptive to God’s Word. Here I think of the many people, including young people who walk away from the Faith without the faintest idea of what they are leaving behind so cavalierly— and this, after having received religious education and the sacraments.
The rocky ground at first seems more promising than the soil on the footpath. Amid the rocks, after all, there might be a bit of top soil onto which the seed falls. The seed springs up quickly but soon withers for lack of roots. Something similar can happen to us. For example, we might have a “conversion experience” and be on fire for our faith. But when our faith becomes a contested issue among family members and friends, our initial enthusiasm may wane and we may walk away. Enthusiasm is good but it will not last without deep spiritual roots.
Then, there is the seed that fell among the thorns. This seems to promise more growth than rocky soil, but as the seed takes root and begins to grow, it is choked by thorns, that is to say, by “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches” (Mt. 13:22-23). How often the spiritual life fails to deepen and produce the fruit of holiness, because we think we’re too busy to pray or to go to Mass, or to take part in religious formation, or because we’re wrapped up in our problems, or because we’d rather pursue our pastimes or enjoy life on our own terms, not God’s.
But when the good seed of God’s Word is planted in hearts that are open and receptive, that is, in hearts that are “meek and humble”, then it takes root and produces an abundant harvest of holiness … and by that I mean a harvest of faith, heartfelt worship, virtuous living, service to those in need, a harvest of attracting others to the Faith by word and example. This is why we need to cultivate the soil in our souls: to produce a harvest of holiness and good works pleasing in God’s eyes.
Cultivating the Soil of the Soul
So, how do we cultivate our souls in order to make them receptive to God’s Word? Well, before I answer that question, allow me to offer two pieces of advice. First, I would say that you might not necessarily have fun cultivating your soul, any more than I had fun cultivating my Dad’s garden … but it’s worth the effort! As my Dad used to say, “Nothing good will grow unless you keep at it!” Second, let me advise you that there is no spiritual equivalent to “Miracle Gro”! … In other words, there are few if any shortcuts in the spiritual life. To be sure, God grants us extraordinary favors, gifts, charisms, and graces but the cultivation of the soul mostly takes place by using spiritual tools that may seem to us as ordinary as a rake, a hoe, or a garden hose. When you come down to it, we cultivate our spiritual lives by reading Scripture, daily prayer, a daily examination of conscience, taking part in Sunday Mass or on weekdays when possible, Eucharistic Adoration, and regular and worthy use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, coupled with a spirit of service and loving generosity to those who are in need. This is how we weed out vices; grow in virtue; and reap a harvest of charity.
As we go about cultivating our souls, let us remember two additional things: First, that we are supported every step of the way by God’s grace. When cultivating our soul seems “futile” and we find ourselves “groaning” – (Cf. Rom. 8:20; 23) when we feel bored at prayer or discouraged by our lack of progress – God will give us the endurance we need to persevere. Second, God it is who always plants the seed and gives the growth. The Father is the Sower; the Son is the Seed that is sown; and in the power of the Holy Spirit that Seed germinates in us. In the process, the Triune God comes to dwell within us … God will reveal himself to us, and come alive in us and work through us! In God’s grace, may we produce a hundred, or sixty, or thirtyfold, and may God bless us and keep us always in his love!