The Gospel for July 16th, 2017: “The Parable of the Sower”
Reflection: Salvation is Gradual
The wonderful thing about today’s gospel, “The Parable of the Sower,” is Jesus tells us its meaning. However, it is interesting to note Jesus only tells the apostles and not the crowds of disciples who have been drawn to His presence and teaching. It is worth considering the reason, which the apostles ask about, and I will return to it. But first, let’s review Jesus’s explanation of the parable.
“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold” (18-23).
I like this parable because it creates an analogy for salvation that emphasizes its organic nature, thus avoiding a very legalistic view of faith. We are not simply following rules, but instead cultivating the “word of the kingdom” in our hearts. With this reading, “word” should be taken in its fullest sense as the logos. It is not just the words of the gospel and Jesus’s teaching, but Jesus himself, as is reasoned out in chapter one of John’s gospel. Recall, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John: 1, 14). So Jesus is the Word who like seeds into soil enters our hearts to yield a bountiful harvest.
Yet, as Jesus enumerates case by case, the soil of our hearts does not always bear fruit. He extends the analogy by citing the causes for this infertility. On the path, misunderstanding allows evil to steal away the seed. On the rocky ground, the seed sprouts but lacks the substrate to grow dense roots and persist. In amongst thorns of anxiety and temptation, the seeds are choked in the competition with the thorns. No, the soil must be fertile for the seed to bear fruit. It cannot be all mucked up with sin, from which the listed causes of infertility come.
Okay. So I have come around to sin. Regular readers know I am infatuated by the sinfulness of our natures because I am painfully aware of my own propensity to sin. I am not writing to scare anyone to Heaven like the classic Jonathan Edwards’ Puritan sermon, “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God.” Given how often Jesus says “fear not” in the gospels, I don’t think the path to salvation is some sort of “scared straight” lecture. What I am trying to understand with this gospel is how do we sinners fertilize the soil?
This question brings us back to Jesus’s decision to not explain the parable to the crowd. The apostles ask Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” instead of teaching the path to salvation directly (Matthew 13: 10). If I may paraphrase Jesus’s answer, He says the disciples are not ready to understand. The divine genius of the Lord’s teaching in this gospel is salvation is a process of slow growth through stages and seasons. It is a good starting point intellectually to simply accept understanding the “word of the kingdom” will take patience and time like every good harvest.
Part of what takes time is learning to accept who Jesus is and the implication of His mission. Jesus’s plan to save humanity is through love that is selfless—that wills the good of others. This is who He is as our creator and Father, and this is how he lived his time on Earth as the Son of God. When we love Jesus and His creation, we are united with Him in love. Because of our free will, however, we can choose to hold back something for just ourselves, an act of division and selfishness. This is a powerful force. We cannot contend with it individually on our own. But the love of Jesus comes to us through the love of others frequently and reclaims the soil of our hearts for love. We are never lost from His reach.
What takes so long to accept—what the crowds were not ready to accept that day because His resurrection was yet to come—is our hearts need to belong completely to Jesus in love. We can hold nothing back to join in His goodness for eternity. Even though we won’t die a death on a cross, His model indicates the level of sacrifice and surrender to love of God and others salvation takes. This calls to mind the Old Testament story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, which I read recently. Abraham’s was a trust in God’s plan I am not ready to fathom. I think it takes a lifetime to reach the point where we can give ourselves completely to Him for the sake of not just our own happiness, but for that of humanity. That life might be long or short in human years, but in every case we must keep saying yes to Jesus right up until our last day, regardless of the ledger of our past successes and failures. The fertilizer to prepare the soil of our hearts for this surrender is the small acts of humble obedience to Jesus’s love. We pray; we worship; we love others. Over and over, one day at a time, through the grace of our Lord’s love and the Holy Spirit. I am not there yet. But I have faith and hope in Jesus. He has a plan of salvation for me, for all of us. It is gradual, like the sowing of seeds in the ground, which over time grow into mature plants and bear fruit.