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Understanding the Word (Sermon for the XV Sunday through the Year, July 16, 2023)

Last Sunday, we explored one of Christ’s teachings that seemed to be comforting, but was in fact challenging – “My yolk is easy, and my burden light.” Today, we encounter a teaching that seems challenging – that seems even to threaten our understanding of the goodness of God – but is in fact comforting.

“To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” This seems not to be fair, or at least to be at odds with the call to love in the Gospel. How is it loving my neighbor to take away the possessions of those who have little to give to those who have much? Is Christ a reverse Robin Hood? Similarly, there is another parable in which the Lord tells of a master taking a coin from an unproductive servant with only one coin and giving it to one with ten coins. In either case, though, He is not talking about material possessions. He is teaching us about the life of grace.

In this case, in which the Lord explains why the Pharisees cannot understand His teaching in parables, He is explaining the grace of understanding given to His disciples. Without grace, without the action of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we cannot understand God’s teachings or His actions in our lives. If we do not have God’s grace (principally, because of living in a state of mortal sin), even the limited understanding we possess eventually fades into total incomprehension, and faith withers away. But if we have and rely upon God’s grace, our faith in Him can blossom into a fuller comprehension of His mysterious workings.

Today’s parable about the sower and the seed is quite familiar. We are used to hearing about the different kinds of soil, and how we can be the good soil that enables us to grow spiritually. But in focusing on the soil, we can lose track of what is actually doing the growing – the seed.

If the different kinds of soil are different kinds of people, what is the seed? St. Matthew’s Gospel actually does not tell us. The Alleluia verse before the Gospel today, though, quoted St. Luke’s Gospel’s version of this parable: “The seed is the word of God, Christ is the sower.”

“The seed is the word of God.” There is a problem, though, with the word, “word,” especially in English. “Word” makes us think of something static – a word that has been spoken, or a word written down. When the Scriptures refer to “the Word,” though, they are usually using a word that could better be translated as “Verb.” It is a word with a very active sense, that also means reason, rationality, or structure – the logos.

This is the Word of the prologue of St. John’s Gospel: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” The Word that Christ speaks is actually Himself. This is why we can encounter Christ present in the Word – not physically in a Bible, in the way that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, but dynamically present in the proclamation and living of the Gospel.

So, then, if the seed is the Word, that means that the seed is Christ Himself, the Word spoken by the Father. That is not a contradiction to the fact that He is also the sower. He gives Himself to us – He plants Himself in our hearts.

How, then, does Christ grow in our hearts? How does He send out deeper roots inside our souls, not choking out our own identity or personality, but transforming us slowly into His own image? There are many ways that this happens. Some of them are active, when you strive to grow in virtue by following the Lord’s teachings, putting the Gospel into action in your life. But the most important growth of all happens through prayer.

The rocky soil, then, is those who have good experiences at first in prayer, and grow very quickly. Maybe it happens through a healing service, or a retreat, or even through a beautiful Sunday Mass. And then, the dryness sets in. Such extraordinary things no longer happen in prayer, and you can be tempted to give up. Returning to everyday life without an established habit and discipline of prayer, everyday worries choke out the plant that initially grew so rapidly.

The soil infested by thorns could be the person who attempts to pray, but whose prayer is overcome by distractions, by thoughts of all the worldly tasks that need to be accomplished, or by the weight of concerns and anxieties. By not cultivating a spirit of silence and recollection outside of prayer, living and maybe even praying and worshiping according to the frenetic rhythms of the world, the weeds take hold of the soul and deep prayer becomes impossible.

The hard soil of the path could be the person who is not necessarily choked out by distractions and worries, but simply despairs at the impression that nothing is happening when you pray. You recognize that prayer is important, you try to persevere in it, but nothing seems to happen.

An important type of the “nothing seems to happen” challenge is when God does not seem to answer your prayers. You bring Him your worries and cares, big or small, but nothing seems to happen in your heart with respect to those cares, and nothing seems to happen outside of prayer to make them any better either.

When nothing seems to happen – either because of an unanswered prayer, or just a simple lack of response to your attempt to draw nearer to the Lord – you might have lost sight of the most important part of prayer. Christ is giving you Himself, and you are giving yourself to Him.

We recalled last Sunday the experience of something being said and heard differently. Often times we do not hear because we were not listening. Even for our physical hearing, you have to train your ears to listen for the right thing. When you listen to a piece of music, it all blends together. But then, when someone more knowledgeable tells you what to listen for, something exiting and beautiful stands out from the general blur of what you have been hearing.

The same thing happens in prayer. God seems not to be doing anything, because you are listening for the wrong thing. For example, when we bring those problems, cares, and worries to the Lord in prayer, “rather than simply solving our problems, He helps us to grasp the meaning of the problem and what is at stake in the situation that we face. He also takes us beyond that situation so that we can receive from His Providence. … In His self-giving love for us, God is always opening us out, never closing us in.” You listen for a solution, and so when none is forthcoming, you think that God is silent. But if you listen for something deeper, you might hear far more than you expect.

Silence can also be interpreted in multiple ways. When you open up about something really difficult to another person, his or her silence could mean condemnation, if it is paired with a scowl; or indifference, with a shrug of the shoulders or a roll of the eyes; or it could mean love and understanding, if it comes with an embrace, or a knowing pat on the shoulder and a nod of the head.

The problem with God’s silence – the silence of the seed growing inside you – is that you do not get the body language that tells you how to interpret the silence. With God, growth in silence depends on trust. “There is no way to differentiate the silence of condemnation and the silence of love without trust.” You can only allow Christ to plant that seed of Himself inside of you and nourish its growth by trusting that the Word is also divine Love, which is always more than you can grasp.

But why would you trust that such is the case? Just like last Sunday, St. Paul provides the key here. He tells us that, “creation was made subject to futility because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery.” Our ability to perceive God at work in our prayer and in the events of our lives was made subject to futility by God Himself – “the one who subjected it,” as just punishment for our sinfulness – so that we might live not for this life, but for “the glory to be revealed for us.” We “groan in labor pains” against this futility for our own good, so that you might experience in every moment that this life is not the end. Your hope is not fulfilled, the seed is not fully grown here and now precisely so that you might not be confused about where that plant is ultimately supposed to grow – not here on earth, but in the place where God’s glory will be revealed.

Even better, though, is that when you persist in fidelity to the Lord, that “place” is not just in the future, but is here and now. “The seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it.” The seed is the Word, Christ, but it is also the one who hears. This is not just a double-meaning. The seed can be both the Christian who hears, understands, receives, and allows for that silent growth and Christ Himself because the grace of God to be given in abundance makes it possible for the Christian to be transformed in the image of the Son.

That is the great thing about the Christian virtue of hope. Christian hope makes present here and now that which we await. Our hope, as St. Paul says, is that “creation itself

would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” That hope has been accomplished in the Resurrection of Christ, and while it is not fully realized while we wait for His second coming, it has already begun to dawn for us in the power of the Resurrection already present in the life of grace. Because the seed of the Word which is Christ Himself has already been planted in you in Baptism, you can rely on the Lord’s promise that, “To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich.”

For that promise to be fulfilled, though, you will have to learn to listen and wait in silence and in hope, while the seed continues to grow.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

XV Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXIII

Citations from:

Thomas Acklin, O.S.B. and Boniface Hicks, O.S.B. Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father's Love, pp. 75-76

Image: Vincent van Gogh. The Sower, 1889.


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