Sunday, July 13, 2008

God's Word Achieves Its End

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
12-13 July 2008
Holy Cross Parish, Hutchinson, Kansas

Isaiah 55:10-11
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23

In a book of early commentaries on the Sunday Gospels including Sermons from the Fathers of the Church, I was looking up this Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew, the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. I learned that in ancient times this Gospel was read on a Sunday during Lent and the Church Fathers used it to preach on temperance or moderation in the use of material goods: a great Lenten theme really. For some reason I hadn’t expected that. It kind of surprised me as I’d never focused in on one particular virtue worth striving for as tied to this parable. For the same reason, I was also caught off guard by the observation from one of the early Church Fathers who makes the point that only a fourth of the seed sown bore fruit, namely that which fell on good soil. The other three fourths were wasted.

As a Midwesterner, I’m convinced that the farmer must have had more good ground than he had paths or rock piles or slews or weedy patches to deal with on his farm. Then again not everywhere in the world is like Kansas. Palestine is certainly different. It’s very rocky and no doubt the amount of good soil was less than it would be around here. Just the same we’ll stay with the figure of the three fourths lost and the one fourth saved. It may not correspond to what makes for good farming but it probably better describes the sorts of human beings the Sower is seeking to touch with his word both back then and now.

We read in the Gospel:
“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”.

Presuming that I’m good ground, what’s my yield: a hundred, sixty or thirtyfold? It depends on how receptive I am to God’s Word, to the teaching and preaching of the Church. If I’m as hard as a footpath, nothing will sink in and have a chance. Even if I’m shallow ground, rocky soil, there’s not much chance that God’s Word will survive the first real trials in my life. The more thorns and weeds, the distractions of this world, the more material goods I have - all those things which tend to pile up at home and that double locks, security systems and insurance policies are supposed to keep others from walking off with, not to mention worldly anxiety, those useless worries about things we cannot change or which may never happen, the more thorns and weeds that choke the word the less chance it will bear any fruit at all.

There’s a lot to think about in today’s Gospel; it bears a message for each and every one of us.

Isaiah too in the first reading assures us that God’s Word is not what fails; God’s Word always succeeds, he says: “… my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it”. The fact that some people seem to be lost to the faith is not God’s problem or His choice, no, we are the problem because more often than not we opt for things rather than God and His love. Whether or not it may come as a surprise that the early Church Fathers preached on temperance with this Gospel, one cannot deny that three fourths of the problem, three fourths of the reason that people fail to come (as they ought) to know, love and serve God in this life, so as to be happy with Him in the next, often (three fourths of the time even) it does indeed have to do (whether we consider ourselves rich or poor) with having too many things which seem to command most if not all of our attention.

Both my summer reading and my summer conversations this year have been marked by older people’s concern for the younger generation and their lack of knowledge of the faith. For example, here in Hutchinson in Holy Cross parish, despite the census, the telephone directory, local news items about sports and other achievements and the public school honor rolls which tell us there are a certain number of children out there in the parish who haven’t moved away, who were baptized Catholic and made their First Holy Communion and should still be coming to Public School Religion, the actual numbers, the class sizes are getting smaller. From the looks of it, only a few of those who were baptized in those years (ten to eighteen years ago) are coming to learn about their faith and even fewer are receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. Lots of younger children are torn in their conscience at least for a while after their First Holy Communion because no responsible adult sees to it that they are able to assist at Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. A child may ask Mom and Dad once why they aren’t going to Mass of a Sunday and then no more. Failure of parents to come regularly themselves to the Sacrament of Penance and neglect of their children’s need to be encouraged to return time and again to confession are sadly all too common. That tilling and enriching of the soil, which makes it good ground and receptive to the Seed of the Sower, which is the Word of God, isn’t always and everywhere getting done at home it would seem. Often nobody at home seems to bother as they should with lovingly folding a baby’s hands for a prayer before supper or with helping that child make the Sign of the Cross or with kneeling down by the bed to hear a night time prayer of an older brother or sister. With loud music and TV filling households and closing out thought and quiet time, more and more of the seed ground is being turned into hardened footpaths or into those rocky strips ever wider along the fence line. Buy ‘em this and buy ‘em that, never denying yourself a pleasure or a convenience either and suddenly we have thorns and weeds aplenty to choke off all the rest at home which might have shown some promise. Just as when Jesus told the parable or as when the great Fathers of the Church were preaching so it would seem to be in our day as well: only a fourth of the seed comes to fruition... only a fourth.

“… my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it”.

In today’s Gospel Jesus quotes at length from the prophet Isaiah to explain why most folks don’t get the message, don’t receive the Word of God into their hearts, why trying to reach them is for all practical purposes a waste of time; parables are sufficient Jesus said, because they have closed their eyes to seeing and their ears to hearing.

What to do? Each of us should begin at home. We ourselves must take up the challenge and face up to our bad habits and habitual sins. Why won’t they go away? Why do the same wrongs crop up in my life over and over again? Maybe I don’t want them to go away or maybe it’s my dullness, my hardness of heart: eyes shut, ears stopped up such that God’s Word can’t reach my heart. In such a life there’s none of that eager expectation St. Paul describes in today’s second reading addressed to the Romans. Three fourths live without hope it would seem. They give no thought to the real promise that “the world itself will be freed from its slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God”.

The disciples were obviously different. They drew close to Jesus and asked really to be enlightened and Jesus blessed them. Where do we stand and how do we live and approach Jesus?

“(Blest) are your eyes because they see and blest are your ears because they hear. I assure you, many a prophet and many a saint longed to see what you see but did not see it, to hear what you hear but did not hear it”.

What to do? Could a garage sale be the answer? In a material sense just to empty out the closets, attic and basement, I think not. Maybe letting go of all those things without unloading them on others by a deliberate act of our will, by taking a spiritual trip to the “Goodwill store” so to speak might help. Yes and No: the bottom line is that we need to let go of what distracts and dulls our senses. We need to take time, ultimately time for God and what He has to say to us.
But working hard is good; bettering ourselves and giving those whom we love good things and material security is right. What am I trying to say? Can’t we rightly enjoy the fruits of our labor? Most certainly we can and should! That is not the point. The goods of the earth are to be enjoyed, but everything in perspective and everything in its right place! Thus the early Church Fathers and their sermons on temperance, on moderation in the use of material things!

I’ve said something about parents’ duty to cultivate in their children an openness to receive the Word of God, an attentiveness to God Who has something to say to each and every one of us and can make all the difference in our lives. This is something we can and must do for ourselves as well. One of the weekday Masses this week had a great quote from the prophet Hosea about repentance and conversion. The image he used was to invite God’s people to plow up a new field and be ready for God to do the rest. May I suggest that you return rest and reflection to your Sundays and use the Lord’s Day to help you see what’s needed to break up your hardened heart, maybe, or to clear those rocks which leave you with no depth, or to uproot those thorns and weeds which compete for your attention and leave little time or space for encountering the God Who loves you and wishes you well for all eternity.

And if you are a prayerful, thoughtful, even profound person: increase your yield from thirty, to sixty, to a hundred fold! In this last year I received copies of a new instruction to be made available to bishops on how to go about preparing the cases for people in their dioceses from the recent or more distant past who are being proposed for sainthood. What is sainthood? How do you measure it? In two words, an adjective and a noun: a saintly life, a holy life is a life of “heroic virtue”. What does that mean? Find out for yourself! Try doing what the disciples did after Jesus recounted the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. Draw near to Jesus and ask Him to explain Himself. He will.

“… my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it”.