In today’s culture of instant communication and instant gratification, we expect immediate results. We expect immediate resolution. This is why the parable of the sower seems counter-intuitive in today’s post-modern culture. It is a gospel parable in which Christ promises His Kingdom to those who receive it and nurture it over it time. This requires preparation, patience and perseverance.
From chapter 13 of St Luke’s Gospel:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat there; and the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
Now a bit of theological context; there is the heavenly context, in which Christ is speaking of those who desire union with God in the afterlife. Yet we must not lose touch with the fact that unity with God in Heaven begins with unity with God here on earth. Therefore, I would like to speak to the earthly context, in which Byzantine Catholics like myself understand the Kingdom of God as closely related to our life of prayer and intimate communication with God.
This is in part why we open the Divine Liturgy of St Chrystom each Sunday by announcing the Kingdom of God: “+Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and forever. Amen.” We recognize that the Kingdom of God is experienced through our life of prayer, which begins here on earth and draws us towards God’s eternal presence in Heaven.
In addition to the theological context, the Navarre Bible Commentary provides an interesting insight into the passage’s geographical context—given that Jesus is preaching this parable while standing next to the Sea of Galilee:
Anyone who has visited the fertile plain to the west of the [Sea of Galilee] will appreciate Jesus’ touching description in the parable of the sower. The plain is crisscrossed by paths; it is streaked with rocky ground, often dry for most of the year but still retaining some moisture. Here and there are clumps of large thorn bushes. When the agricultural worker sows seed in this mixed kind of land, he knows that some seed will fare better than others. (Navarre Bible Commentary, 128.)
This brings me to my first point: Preparation. If we are to nurture the gospel in our life through prayer, if we are to become fertile ground for an intimate relationship with Christ, we must prepare to receive the spiritual seed of the Divine sower.
In verses 18-23 of St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 13, Jesus provides an explanation for the parable of the sower. Here is how Our Lord explains the seed eaten by birds in verse 19: “When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path.”
The seed that fell upon the path and was devoured by birds—who represent the evil one, according to Our Lord. These people who were not prepared to receive the gospel into their life, or to nurture it through prayer.
Now all of us faithful Christians, right? After all, unlike many who are nominal Christians and cultural Catholics only, we attend mass each Sunday, pray our rosary throughout the week, and even take time to read Catholic articles on the internet! This while many of our neighbours and co-religionists sleep in Sunday morning. Some of us even study Catholic apologetics and evangelism so that we can spread the gospel to others!
Yet ask yourself, do I always prepare as best as I can to receive Christ’s gospel?
In my own personal case, I can admit to you quite candidly that I do not. For example, in our Byzantine Christian tradition one is suppose to sing vespers on Saturday evening in preparation for hearing the Gospel and receiving the Eucharist on Sunday morning. Some weeks I remember. Some weeks I forget. Depending upon whether Green Bay is playing, I might remember but lack the will to follow through. So I often arrive at Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning without having prepared myself fully to worship God.
And thus it is much easier for the evil one to eat away at the seeds of the gospel being spread throughout the service, as I find myself distracted by last night’s score or the morning rush between my wife and I to herd all six of our children.
On the other hand, when I prepare properly to receive the gospel, by reviewing the text beforehand and taking time to pray and prepare to worship God, my heart is more open to God’s Kingdom. Preparing the earth of one’s soul is important to nurturing the seeds of the gospel in one’s life. Preparation helps us nurture the gospel through prayer.
Patience is the second lesson we learn from this parable with regards to nurturing the God’s Kingdom through a life of prayer. How many of us find ourselves running ahead of the Holy Spirit when carrying out ministry or apostolate? I know that I do. And how many of us become discouraged when God delivers in His time, rather than in our time?
We are like the seed that falls among the thorny bushes: “22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
I will never forget the year I made a New Years Resolution to visit the gym and start working out again. A friend of mine, a body-builder, said: “Wait until February. Usually the gym is over-crowded in January by everyone making New Years resolutions. By February they have all given up and moved on; they lack the patience it takes to get in shape.”
Sometimes, this describes the temptation we Christians face in our prayer life. We come to church regularly, but our prayer seems dry for some reason—a reason that many not always be known to us. We do not feel Christ’s presence with the same enthusiasm we did as newly-awakened Christians. We’ve lost the thrill of yearning for God.
Our distractions may include parish committee meetings, gossip, church politics and background activities associated with church life. We forget what first drew us to church: an encounter with Jesus Christ, an intimate encounter through the gospel and prayer. Our receptivity to the gospel falls victim to our lack of spiritual patience.
Remember that the seed did not immediately bear fruit. It required time to nurture and grow. Thus patience helps us nurture the gospel through prayer.
This leads me to my third point…
Nurturing God’s Kingdom through a life of prayer requires perseverance.
Jesus states in verses 20-21: ”As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”
Now in listening to this parable, we might think that such trials and tribulations are external—in that we are being persecuted from the outside. Yet here in North America, I find these trials and tribulations are more often internal. We lack spiritual perseverance because we allow ourselves to become spiritually slothful.
Some of you might be familiar with the desert fathers. These were early Christians of the second and third centuries who went out into the Middle-Eastern deserts to devote themselves completely to prayer and asceticism. They lived on mountains, in caves and on pillars. They mostly fasted on bread and water.
One such desert father was Abba Agathon. On his deathbed he was asked to identify the greatest challenge facing Christians.
To which Abba Agathon replied: “There is no labor greater than prayer to God. For every time someone wants to pray, his enemies the demons want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer tha they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, is he perseveres in it he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”
Think back to a time in your life when you underwent a studies or training to prepare for a better life ahead. Perhaps it was an undergraduate degree or an apprenticeship in the skilled trades. Perhaps it was military boot camp. How many started the course with you, but never finished? How many gave up and quit? Where are they today? Are they still fighting the good battle?
Thus nurturing the gospel in our life through prayer requires perseverance.