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.