A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold. When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’ Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.
So often when I preach my attention is captured by the last line of the Gospel. In part I must admit this reflects simply laziness and lack of attention on my part; I don’t put in the effort that actually listening to the Gospel and allowing it to penetrate into my heart
One the other hand, and thank God for that other hand, I think that the way the Gospel readings are chosen, I think that the last line of the text is often the point. Especially when chanted, the last line of the text is offered as the crescendo, the point, to which the text is building.
For the fourth Sunday of St Luke, that final line is this: Having referred to all those who have heard the Word of God and fallen away, Jesus commends those who hear the Word “with a noble and good heart,” who not only “keep” the Word, but also allow the Word to “bear fruit with patience” in their lives.
In the Gospel Christ calls us to
- Hear Him with a noble and good heart
- Keep His Word
- Be fruitful and patient in our commitment to Him
In our popular religious culture it is easy to overlook the first of Christ’s three calls to us, that we must have a heart “noble and good.” The ground of the human heart must be prepared in order to receive the Word of God.
For the early Church this preparation for the Gospel was found in two sources: The Law of Moses and Greek Philosophy. There is some patristic speculation that Plato’s philosophy was so sublime that he must have at some point read Moses. But in any event, there was no sense that we simply preach the Gospel apart from any preparation of the hearts of those who would hear.
This is different from the contemporary view of preaching the Gospel that assumes we need only speak Christian words and people come to faith in Jesus Christ. For example, how many of us have at one time or another been approached by some well meaning (or not so well meaning) individual who wanted to share with us from the Bible? This person might offer us any number of examples from the Scriptures in defense of his position never once bothering to wonder if we actually we accepted the Bible as an authority in our lives and in the manner that he did.
And so if we responded at all, an argument ensued (in my case anyway).
It is easy to overlook the fact that the human heart must be continually cultivated in order to first receive the Word of God and then to bear fruit. St Cyril of Jerusalem writes that “we must be like skillful farmers who patiently cleared away the thorns and uprooted whatever is hurtful” and only then, once the ground is cleared of “whatever is hurtful . . . scatter the seed in clean furrows.” Failing this, the saint reminds us, if we scatter “seed in ground that is fertile in thorns, fruitful in briars and densely covered with useless stubble” we, like the farmer, suffer “a double loss.”
First, he loses his seed, and second his work. In order that the divine seed may blossom well in us, let us first cast out of the mind worldly cares and the unprofitable anxiety which make us seek to be rich.
And here I think is the rub: If we who are already in Christ must always seek to “cast worldly cares” how much more must those who have not yet come to believe also be willing to surrender “the unprofitable anxiety” of this world that makes them “seek to be rich”?
This casting aside of worldly cares and anxieties is precisely the goal of much Greek philosophy. In a word, Greek philosophy had as its goal the cultivation of true human happiness through a life of virtue and the contemplation of eternal truths. It sounds almost quaint to say this today, but this is the cultural and person context within which the Church first proclaimed the Gospel to the Gentiles.
And it is precisely this preparation that is lacking not only in the larger culture, but also for that reason, in most of the men and women who come to the Church, not simply later in life, but also those who were baptized as infants. What undoes us is not the absence of the Gospel’s proclamation–thought that is certainly a problem in many parishes–but the preparation of the human heart in a manner analogous to the anthropological work of the Law and Greek philosophy.
It is less that we are infertile soil. If anything the American cultural soil seems to be a most hospitable place for all sorts of religious and spiritual adventures (and having lived in northern California I am intimately familiar with more than my share of this). No, we struggle with, to return to St Cyril, not only a culture, but also human hearts, that are “fertile in thorns, fruitful in briars and densely covered in stubble.”
And even this would not necessarily undermine the evangelical work of the Church if we only took the time to do the preparatory work that fertile, but uncultivated, hearts and cultures required before the Seeds of the Logos could be planted and bear fruit.
Having failed to do this work (and I know I’ve not outlined this work for you), is it any wonder that so often, and with best of if not intentions then theological justifications, the proclamation of the Gospel even to those who are already Christian, is lacking in joy and seems so fruitless? Is it any wonder that we are often more concerned with fund raising and finance then evangelism and sanctification? Again, St Cyril has summarized well the contemporary situation:
There are men whose faith has not been proved. They depend simply on words and do not apply their minds to examining the mystery. Their piety is sapless and without root. When they enter churches, they feel pleasure often in seeing so many assembled. They joyfully receive instruction in the mysteries from him whose business it is to teach and laud him with praises. They do this without discretion or judgment, but with unpurified wills. When they go out of the churches, at once they forget the sacred doctrines and go about their customary course. not having stored up within themselves any thing for their future benefit.
The saint’s words then take a darker turn as he warns his listeners:
If the affairs of Christians go on peacefully and no trail disturbs them, even then they scarcely maintain the faith, and that, so to speak, in a confused and tottering state. When persecution troubles them and the enemies of the truth attack the churches of the Savior, their heart does not love the battle, and their minds throws away the shield and flees.
When hear these words, I cannot help but think not simply of our rather tepid evangelical witness, or rather minimal commitment of many our faithful (ordained or lay). No my mind goes to the various scandals that have plagued the Church–East and West–these past few years. When the enemy of souls has attacked us, we have fled from battle. Or maybe, at the risk of correcting a saint, it is that we have fled the battle, we never really joined the battle in the first place.
Where is that battle ground? It is each human heart. Each heart must be cultivated to receive the Gospel. If we fail to do this with the men and women who come later in life to join us, how can we help but realize that we fail them because we have failed ourselves. Rather then clear my own heart of thorns and thistles, I simply have re-named them a “hundred fold” crop.