Friday, October 20, 2006

The Seed, the Word

We’re all quite familiar with the parable of the sower, as well as with its interpretation, for Jesus Himself gives it to us in the Gospel (I’m using Luke’s version here, 8:5-15). So our part is not so much figuring out what it means as putting it into practice. For to his disciples—and I trust you fall into this category—it has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, as Jesus said. Now that we know, what then will be our response? We might ask why fruit springs up in only one of the four places in which the seed is sown, that is, in one of the four categories of people who hear the word of God. In the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, the servant, when seeing the weeds springing up along with the wheat, asks the master: “Did you not sow good seed?” Someone who really doesn’t know Jesus might ask Him the same question—putting the blame on God, a popular pastime these days (and perhaps for millennia). But He would give the answer that the master in the parable gave: “I see the hand of an enemy in this.” The word of God is always pure and fruitful, so if it happens that the seed does not mature and bear fruit, the fault lies not in the seed but in the soil, that is, not in the word of God, but in those who hear it, and who may have allowed themselves to be influenced by the enemy of our salvation.

The enemy is explicitly mentioned when Jesus says in his explanation of the parable: “the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts.” Those are the ones who are indifferent to the word, who hear it not with openness, reverence, or desire, but who hear it casually as if it were just one word among many words which fill the ears and minds of today’s information-oriented society—one which manifests a glaring lack of discernment of the relative value of all these words. But even in the next two categories of fruitless hearers of the word, the enemy is implicit. For the temptation to fall away when things get difficult, as well as the lure of riches or pleasures, all come from the enemy, who sows his evil seed or who tries to render the seed of the word of God fruitless.

In a culture in which the written word played a very minor role, and the spoken word the major role, Jesus emphasized hearing the word—though hearing can be extended to mean any form of receiving the word. I quoted John Tauler a few days ago on hearing the word or becoming deaf to it. We can’t think that we can listen to the word of the Lord sometimes, listen to the words of the enemy at others, and then simply come back and pick up where we left off listening to the word of God. That is because listening to the temptations of the enemy reduces our capacity for the word of God, reduces our ability to hear it. As Tauler implies, we become a little more deaf to the Word of God each time we listen to another voice, a voice that leads us away from the source of life and truth and love. So we have to work hard and pray hard, to be healed of our deafness to the word of the Lord. It is hard to recover what has been lost, but with the grace of God all things are possible. But on the other hand, if we fancy ourselves pious or virtuous, we may think we are hearing the word of the Lord, not realizing that we have already become deaf through following other voices. If what you think is God’s word brings you only a confirmation of your own opinions or doesn’t disturb your complacency, then it is not the word of the Lord. But if you hear a call to repentance, to grow out of your comfort zone; if you hear a word that challenges and stretches you beyond what you find easily manageable, and calls you to think and pray and live more genuinely and sacrificially, then this truly is the word of God. If it is the word of the Lord, it will surely come in peace, even if it is a hard saying. It will resonate in our hearts as true, even if it goes against our usual way of looking at things.

Let us not be, as St James says, forgetful listeners, who hear the word but don’t put it into practice. The Lord describes the fertile soil of the soul in this way: the fertile receptors of the seed, the word, are those “who hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with perseverance.” So there are three stages, and hearing the word is only the first. It has also to be held fast in an honest and good heart—the word of God cannot be held in a heart corrupted by selfishness, unforgiveness, deceitfulness, bitterness or hatred. Such a heart is neither honest nor good.

Finally, the fruit is brought forth through perseverance, perhaps one of the most important virtues needed for maintaining all the others. We can be sure that the enemy will practice perseverance in trying to ruin us, making us deaf to the word of God, so we must always be vigilant and perseverant in doing what we know is right. Then we will truly hear and hold fast the word, and bear the fruit of holiness—without which, says the Letter to the Hebrews, no one will see the Lord. So let’s get busy preparing the good soil to receive the word of God!