There is a story of a famous evangelist who arrived in a small town and needed to post a letter. He asked a boy in the street to direct him to the post office and got clear directions. Thanking him the evangelist said he was giving a talk that evening about how to get into heaven, would the boy be coming? “I don’t think so” said the boy, “you can’t even find the post office, never mind heaven”.
We use humour to get through life. Sometimes it is a laugh of recognition, but usually we laugh because something is incongruous: it is out of place. Sometimes things are funny because they are not what we expect. Christ was really good at this kind of humour. He, Himself, confounded the expectations of many. The Messiah was supposed to be a great leader and political liberator, but instead Jesus proved to be a teacher and an example, not a conqueror who seized power. Our Lord went to a criminal’s death and in this there was the greatest reversal of expectation in history; He defeated death. This is not a joke, of course, but an outrageous demonstration of God’s life-giving love.
On a merely human level, Jesus was a wonderful person to spend time with. I am sure there was much smiling and laughter. Christ after all brings joy. Christ was very good at satire and sometimes overstated His case for comic effect. Thereby, He pointed out the absurdity of some ideas by taking them to extreme. The famous saying about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of Heaven is a good example. The same is true about lighting a lamp and putting it in a clay jar or under a bed. That is, of course, just plain silly. He is sending up the situation. Exaggeration can make something clearer.
Today’s Gospel reading is another excellent example of this kind of teaching.
It is about a farmer sowing seeds. Now everyone who has ever tried growing anything knows that you do not just chuck seed about and leave it. This is even more the case when you have valuable seed. If the seed is also good for food (as wheat is) then it may be a choice between saving part of the crop for next year’s planting and being hungry or eating the stored grain and then being unable to sow for next season. You do not just scatter it mindlessly.
This, then, was a foolish farmer. You can imagine the smiles and laughter as Jesus talked about the crazy scattering. The analogy is good. God calls each one of us into His Kingdom. All are invited. The invitation really is open to all, as if the whole land were scattered with seed, although we know that not every piece of land will give a good crop. God does not force His will on us, and He makes us welcome if we choose to come to Him. He is generous with His invitations. This parable is challenging yet easy to understand. As Mark Twain is quoted as saying- “‘It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand”. When we read with integrity we tend to be challenged and respond accordingly.
Consider the seeds. Some fall on the rocks. Shallow soil is all very well but when the hot weather comes the roots do not go down deep enough for the plant to survive. Lacking water the plant will wither and die. This is nicely explained by Christ Himself. These seeds are like people who have no staying power. The story reminds us that we need to be firmly established in the faith. We need strength from God to carry on through hard times. We must persevere. Sentimental versions of Christianity do not cope with challenging times at all. By this, I mean, the sort which sees God as a nice cuddly old man on a cloud who does not let bad things happen. This sort of belief likes the baby Jesus at Christmas and is all sweetness and light with little useful realism for life as it actually is. Sentimental faith likes the idea of holiness but in the abstract; seeing it as something that only special people get. It assumes that a few pithy sayings and some nice prayers will get you by somehow. A modern kind of this “spirituality” adds perhaps a few Buddhist sayings into the mix or a little Hindu mystical thought. However, any religious path demands that we take it seriously and Christian living is as demanding as anything I have ever come across. Since, life is messy and complicated, it needs vibrant living experiences of God who is near to us in suffering and in joy to live it well.
So, Christianity is not a soft option. In different ways it is as tough as any athletic training. Christ Himself warned that it would not be easy. We are aiming after all for perfection. When muscles ache all you really want to do is stop, yet a dedicated athlete will keep on going. From personal experience, I know that when walking in the hills and there is still a way to go to the top of a fell, I sometimes can only keep going by will power. However, we are never left to our own devices in the Christian life. God gives us grace, wisdom and love in the Holy Mysteries. Why then do some cut the time for prayer or arrive late for the Liturgy. What we should be doing is praying harder, giving more attention when it gets a bit difficult and striving to learn and understand more. We should take advantage of every chance to learn and be educated in the Faith. Why? Because being tough means just that, we need strong, deep roots in our knowledge of the Gospel and the experience of God’s forgiving love.
Then there is the seed Christ talks of which lands on the path. This is like the devil taking away the Word. People yield to the temptation not to listen. We cannot serve God and have our lives centred on anything else, so it is convenient sometimes for us not to listen, to avoid the implications of the idea of God calling us. Gradually, even perhaps without realising it, we begin not to entertain the idea of God seriously insofar as we resist the implications for our lives. This is always the challenge that lies before us, whether or not we are actually taking our faith seriously.
Then we have the seed which falls amongst the weeds. The plants are choked by them. The explanation Christ gives us is clear enough, “The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature”.
In part this a matter of trust. Do we trust God? It is also a matter of avoiding idolatry. What is really important for us? What do we really worship? If we truly want to follow God’s way for us then we should put our energies and money to that end. If we want mere pleasure, or glamour, then this is where we shall spend our time and energy. Someone once said, follow the money. Where and how do we spend our money? Realise that and we shall discover what we think to be important. Sadly, it may be about possessions or getting even more money, about some complicated tax planning, or travelling for the sake of travelling. A great deal of time and energy is wasted on unnecessary things. As my son reminds me sometimes when I think about a purchase, “Why? It is just stuff”. Instead we could be quietly supporting charity and Church work. It could be any number of things. The test for all this is really quite simple. What does God want me to do? Christ told us: “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,...For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6 v 20. Paradoxically, life with Christ is simpler in many ways. It sorts out our priorities.
And then there is anxiety. Worries are things that demand our attention. A worry can motivate us to action, or it can be crippling if it is too big. Yet again the test is simple. Why are we worried? Is it a case of we trust ourselves not God to guide us? Do we worship our own way of thinking, or do we worship God and respond to him? We may indeed have made an idol out of our own thinking. Worries, however, do lessen when we pray about the things that concern us. Sometimes we also need to talk to someone to get practical or spiritual help. That help is always available in the Church.
Let us now return to our theme: why would a farmer waste his seed? The reality is that he would not. He would care for the plants, give them both water and tender care. God wants to care for each one of us, and has made really good provision for that. We need not struggle on our own; the Church is a source of wisdom and guidance from God. She exists as a body, partly at least, to educate and to lead, to protect and nurture each and every person who wishes to respond to God’s call.
The Gospel parable for today was explained to the Disciples, to the Church and so to us. Christ was passing His teachings on to allow us to lead the lives we should live with His help. Let us strive to learn from God and do precisely this.
The parable, of course, has limits because the ground on which the seed falls is passive. We are alive and we can choose whether or not we want to be fruitful and productive. We have to choose whether to grow in Christ or not. He wants us to share His joy and His life; life in all its fullness. So let us constantly turn to Him.