Applying the Parable of the Sower Personally

All over the world preachers will be diligently preaching on the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13. 1–13). Some will be giving superb scriptural homilies; others will be making great theological leaps and connections that will leave their listeners spellbound; but I daresay the majority will be doing their best not to sound too hackneyed as they try to breathe fresh life into the old, old story. The preachers will be trusting to the Holy Spirit to make good their defects, but what of the listeners? How many of them will be praying to have their hearts and minds opened, and will they like what they hear if they do?

I think we often forget that while it is the preacher’s task to preach, it is the listener’s task to listen — and listening implies more than merely hearing the words the preacher speaks. We are required to engage with what is said, and with what is not said. In the case of the Parable of the Sower, I think there are at least two points that always cause me difficulty.

The first is, what causes me to be unfruitful ground? The evangelist suggests that the cares and worries of this life choke the growing seed so that it produces no harvest. I can easily relate to that because some of the other temptations are not so obvious in monastic life, but perhaps I’ve not quite understood. The times I’ve worried about the community’s finances, giving the right answer to someone, welcoming a newcomer, or even fretting about my own health, they are unproductive activities, certainly, but are they a cause of unfruitfulness or merely a sign of a barreness already there?

For instance, the way in which I and my fellow Catholics have reacted to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s tribute to Cardinal Meisner has set me thinking. We have all done so in ways that show our inner disposition. Those who choose to understand the tribute as a condemnation of Pope Francis are usually the people who seize on every word or act of the pontiff and either reject them as heretical or ridicule them as inadequate, blissfully unaware, for the most part, of the destructive nature of their activities. The Church will not be purified of all that needs to be purified by grumbling or lamenting, still less by gloating over what I suspect was intended as a tribute to a friend’s faithfulness and loyalty, not as a criticism of the present pope. Christ will not abandon his Church, come what may. That is how I read Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s words, and that is what make me shudder. They remind me that the Church belongs to Christ, and I have a duty towards her. How have I contributed to the building up of the Church? How often have my words and conduct been destructive? I am not thinking so much of the big failures (eg public dissent from the teaching of the Church, ill-founded speculation about intentions and the imputation of base motives to others) which most of us manage to avoid most of the time, but the little lapses, the private accommodations, the desire to hear this but not that, to interpret something my way rather than Christ’s way. Isn’t it the lack of whole-heartedness that makes us unfruitful, even if we manage to avoid the grosser temptations and sins?

My second point is like the first. What would make me bear abundant fruit? The evangelist simply says, ‘the one who hears the word and understands it’ is the one who produce a good harvest, and it will vary, some producing a hundredfold, others ‘only’ thirtyfold. So, all the reading and praying that are an essential part of monastic life must be faithfully performed. I cannot hope to hear the word, still less understand it, if I’m not willing to lavish time and effort on these two activities. That doesn’t mean I can abandon anything else, of course, but I must make sure I never allow anything else to take first place in my life: Christ must be all in all. But note that discrepancy in fruitfulness which Matthew mentions. I do not know whether I’m called to render thirtyfold, sixtyfold or a hundredfold. It is, frankly, not my business — nor yours, nor really anyone’s but God’s. That can be hard to take. We all have a tendency to measure ourselves against others, and most of us can’t resist the temptation to tell others what to do if we feel we can safely get away with it (eg by commenting on blog posts and the like) or assessing their fruitfulness by standards of our own. Our own life will be the one for which we must answer first, and there is quite enough matter there for us to ponder.

It would be sad if anyone hearing the Parable of the Sower this Sunday were to go away without questioning him or herself how it applies to them. It would be sadder still if such questioning were to lead to discouragement. For the great truth contained in the Parable is also contained in the first reading (Isaih 55. 10–11). The word of God will always accomplish its purpose provided we do not deliberately try to shut it out.


7 thoughts on “Applying the Parable of the Sower Personally”

  1. The parable is a big challenge to us. Thirty one years ago I represented fairly stony ground with prayer confined largely to Sundays. A notice appeared about a three day Cursillo – a short course in Christianity. I went and came back a very different person. My wife was amazed at the change. As you will appreciate, that was only the beginning of the process, but the ground had been broken, the seed sown and the self examination begun. The immediate effect was a great growth in personal prayer, lectio divina and action. The important thing to me was the acceptance of the challenge to listen to others, change myself and then do something with it. Always we begin again, daily if necessary.

  2. Although it’s not unusual to find myself feeling emotional during Mass, I did not expect the sudden tears elicited by today’s homily. In considering the rocky fields, a vision of our restless world presented itself: of harsh words posted on social media, of angry-faced opponents at rallies, of people suffering while others turn their backs. But in considering the fertile ground a truer picture emerged: ego that can know humility, fear that can be transformed, pain that can be healed. And the multitude of restless faces became a canvas of mercy and therefore beautiful in its seeming disarray. Like the recent popular song, I felt immense unconditional love for all the curves and all the edges – or in the words of the homily, love not only for the fruit of the fertile ground but for the hope still possible within the rocky field. And so the tears.

    Thank you for this beautiful piece, opening me even more to the truth.

  3. Our visiting priest looked at the idea of the sowing of seeds of faith…and that the sower may never know the impact of their words and deeds or what fruit they may bring. He remembered when he was a young child that his next-door neighbour regularly sat on her front door steps and read the bible with local children. He said that his love of the scriptures dates from that time, hearing that gentle woman read the bible with much delight.
    Perhaps an unusual take on that parable (and it must be a tricky one to come up with new ideas upon!) but it certainly made us talk about it after the service as we remembered people who had influenced us for good in our lives.

  4. It is interesting to reflect on our own fruitfulness as Christians and perhaps repent that we have not borne the fruit that we could have, if only>>>> But blaming ourselves won’t help us to be more fruitful in the future, only determination that we will change our ways and as the received of the good seed (the word of God) that we will allow it to develop and bloom within ourselves to enable us to sow such seed into the lives of others, by our living out our faith in pulic and truthfully, with no prevarication on our part, no excuses. A hard path to follow, but than Jesus never promised that it would be simple or easy.

  5. What a wonderful and encouraging blog regarding the sower and the seed. We are featuring your blog page on our website, which has been developed to help Christians of all denominations to discover the great spiritual resources available on the Internet!

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