From the Gospel for Sexagesima Sunday: “The sower went out to sow his seed.”
Once again in this season of Septuagesima we prepare for Lent by hearing one of Jesus’ familiar parables, the parable of the sower. And once again we have to remind ourselves that these parables are not meant to be understood or heard like Aesop’s Fables, homely stories with a moral message. These are all parables of the Kingdom of God and the one who speaks the parable is the Word of God himself, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. How wonderful it is that in the Traditional Roman Mass that the Gospel is sung and in Latin, for this helps us to understand that the readings at Mass are not meant to be didactic, they are not meant to teach per se as if they were read at a Bible study session, but they are rather part of the worship offering, they are sung to God in the context of the Holy Sacrifice, and sung in a language that is not our own but rather in a language that formed the Roman Rite and that now allows it to soar beyond what any vernacular language could do.
This parable is one of the few that our Lord explains to the disciples, so he must have thought it especially important. It begins with one of those wonderful Hebrew constructions: a sower went out to sow, reminding us of Joseph’s declaration: I dreamed a dream. The sower is Christ who sows the seeds of the Kingdom of God, the seeds of which are impregnated with the life giving power of the Holy Spirit. It was the custom to sow the seed before the soil was plowed and furrowed. It was assumed that some of the seed would be wasted, but better to have too much seed than too little. So the sower goes out and he flings the seed everywhere possible, huge arcs of seed flung out from his basket, his hands reaching as far as they can go, all the while smiling at the prospect of the great crop that the seed will bring forth--no caution here, no worrying about the cost of the seed by the One who knew its terrible cost.
Some of the seed, probably not much, was too far from where the soil would be plowed and fertilized so the birds ate it and that was that. Perhaps these are those on the peripheries who either choose to be outside of the plow and fertilization or those who hear the word of God and allow the Devil to snatch away the seed and let the birds eat it. These may be the self professed intellectuals who are self satisfied and who have blocked out the shout of the word of God to repentance and the need for salvation. These may be those who believe the nonsense that secularism guarantees religious freedom, and who have no problem with the fact that forcing the privatization of religious faith guarantees the reduction of the public sphere to imitations of the 18th century with Voltaire as one of those Disneyworld mechanical figures that spout forth speech that are meant to inspire.
Then there are those whose seed has fallen on hard soil, hard as rock, where there is no hope of germination, a surface that is hard and cold, impervious. Who are these? These are those who have been totally occupied with building their lives in their own image, sleek, contoured, more interested in the gym and what it can do for their image than paying attention to the word of God. They are not entirely closed. Some are even religious in the sense that they have not shut it out, but the surface of their life is sleekly hard, like an Armani ad for men’s fragrance, they come from families who used to go to Mass, families that had some sense of the Catholic faith and its importance, but they have covered themselves with the sheen and slickness of sophistication and bella figura so that even when they hear the word of God it cannot penetrate, it cannot find a place for the seed to sprout. These are those for whom the Church and Mass is something for Christmas and maybe Easter. They remember something vaguely important and even joyful from their childhood as Catholics, but they now have little time for this.
Then there is the seed that fell among thorns and is strangled by the thorns and the noxious weeds. These are not irreligious, they remember the importance of their Catholic faith, they even have some guilt that it is not as important to them or to their family any longer. But they have allowed the thorns of life to make them forget the beauty and the truth and the urgency of the Catholic faith. Their children have not a clue. Some are confirmed as a sort of Christian bar mitzvah, a coming of age. But these families are more interested, or rather consumed, by the pressures to succeed financially and socially, by the pleasures that financial success brings. This is the world of getting your kids onto the ice rink at age 3 in the hope that they will get into a top college because of their hockey skills. This is the world where intellectual pursuits, especially philosophy and the humanities and even theology, have no value, for they do not guarantee those results that add up to material and personal success. And this is not confined to the wealthy in this county, Fairfield County, that is one of the most wealthy counties in this country. This succumbing to the thorns of the cares and pleasures of this world can be found even in the Hispanic communities in those who have bought into that worshipping of material and personal success that are the thorns that choke faith.
But this category of those who have heard the word of God and who allow their faith to be choked by the noxious thorns is not limited to the worshippers of material and person success. I was listening to the morning TV news this past week and there was the announcement that Bruce Jenner, the Olympian mega athlete whose face graced Wheaties boxes for so many years, in the words of the TV anchorwoman, was “transitioning to become a woman”. Just the phrase caught me off guard. Transitioning to become a woman. And this was said quite solemnly and seriously. Quite apart from the choices Bruce Jenner is making, the fact that one of the news team who is a professed practicing Catholic nodded her head in agreement as one of the talking heads said solemnly: this takes great courage on Bruce Jenner’s part. Courage. One of the cardinal virtues. Used in this astounding way. And it was seconded by the other talking head who said that this will give us more understanding of what transgender means. And the Catholic nodded in grave and solemn assent and with her most Catholics who were watching at home.
The thorns now have free reign to grow and choke faith, for so many Catholics would not know the difference between the Word of God and secularized religion. It is true that the thorns of lusting after material and personal success have choked off the seed of the Kingdom for as long as Christianity has existed. But the new thorns of a solemn sentimental secularity that is in direct conflict with reality at its deepest level are newly noxious. These are new weeds, new thorns, that threaten the faith of Catholics in the way that Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were not tempted by material success or by personal vanity. No, their desire was ever so much deeper. They wanted to be like God, free from any strictures that defined their humanity. They wanted to be free as God is free, to define themselves apart from being created in the image and likeness of God, deliberately forgetting who they were and wanting to be who they wanted to be. Sin is the ultimate offense against the ultimate reality who is God.
But what of those at the end of the parable who are those upon whom the seed of the kingdom of God has sprouted and flourished because of the fertile ground of their faith, those who have heard the word of God, held it fast, and have borne fruit in patience? Are there any here? I hope so. But one must be realistic about this, as all Jesus’ parables are realistic and say this: that for most of us we fit into all four categories within the parable. Parts of our lives are far from where the plow is and where the fertilizer is. Parts of our lives consist of sleek and hard and rocky soil that despite good intentions and burst of enthusiasm the seed has not sprouted and we easily fall away from living our faith. And parts of our lives are lived among thorns that we allow to choke and deform our faith and prevent us from being witnesses to the truth of Christ in this world and from allowing other people to see what it means to be transformed by the grace of Christ. But it is also true that parts of our lives, by the grace of God, are indeed lived on the basis of having heard the word of God and having accepted that word and what it means in our lives and having held it fast and having borne fruit in patience. And that is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
From T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from The Rock”:
Remember the faith that took men from home.
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O GOD, help us