Sunday, October 18, 2015

Who is the Sower?

Today’s Parable of the sower is among those that Jesus explains. He tells us that the seed is the word of God. And that the ground is all us folks. We’re like the dirt, which makes sense, given that we’re made of earth. Just as there’s different kinds of people, there’s different kinds of soil, and Jesus tells us what each kind represents.

The tramped down path from which the birds eat the seeds is like those easily deceived and distracted by the devil. 

The rocky soil in which no roots can take hold is like the quick and easy converts who like the good news but are unwilling to endure hardship for it and so as quickly turn away. Some act as if the baptistery has a revolving door. I’ve seen it many times.  

Pope Gregorius I dictating the gregorian chants
from the Antiphonary of Hartker
of the monastery of Saint Gall (Cod. Sang. 390, p. 13)
circa 1000
The soil full of thorns is like those consumed by the cares of this world. Like the rich man who went away sad when Jesus called him to generosity to the poor, for he was attached to many possessions (Matt 19, Luke 18). They were his master. St. Gregory the Great says “thorns are piercing and riches pleasurable. [But] riches are thorns because thoughts of them pierce the mind and torture it. When finally they lure a person into sin, it is as though they were drawing blood from the wound they have inflicted.”

Finally, the good soil is like those who hear the word of God and keep it. Like those who are doers of the word and not hearers only.

But Jesus doesn’t tell us who the sower is. Who is the sower?

There are a few different ideas about this. Some say that the sower is those who preach the word of God, those who gossip the gospel, those who, like the apostles, are sent into the world to proclaim the good news that Jesus, who is the word, has by his incarnation united God with humanity and by his death and resurrection has conquered sin and death. 

Certainly, when we preach this word of truth to the world, with our words and by our way of life, we will witness some who receive it wholeheartedly, like good soil receives a seed, and we will witness some who reject it out of hand, like the hard ground of a path which leaves seeds exposed to be trampled and for birds to eat, and we will witness every response in between.

And certainly, we must imitate the sower. Just as the sower scatters seed in every kind of soil, we must preach the word in the whole world, not only among those primed to listen. We must preach not only to the choir, but also to the workplace, and to the barroom, and to every place we frequent. We must put our lamp on a stand, not under a bushel, but that’s another parable.

It is a bit striking, don’t you think, that the sower even bothers to throw seed on the path and in the rocky soil and among the thorns? Is that the way a farmer plants? Indiscriminately throwing his seed all about? This sower scatters the seed everywhere, not just where it is likely to take root. This is born of a hope so hopeful that to the world it looks like folly. But you know, a path can be tilled. Rocky soil can be cleared. Thorns can be weeded. So we may yet hope for those who seem as yet unable to receive the word. We must keep sowing the seeds of the word among them. Our hope for them must be indefatigable.

Just seeds, mind you, does the sower cast into all conditions of soil. Only the seed of the word is offered to all. The fruit of that seed is yielded only in those who receive and tend it. Cast your seeds on rocky soil, yes, but not your pearls before swine.  

A seed is a small thing, but it is potent. Its potential is vast, but while yet a seed, it seems insignificant. This is the nature of the things we must say and do among those we hope to evangelize. Small things. A brief statement of our hope and our joy in the Lord. A small act of kindness and love.

This is the kind of sowing we can do, but I think that, as we do it, we will always discover that there are seeds of the word already present in every human heart. Someone has already been there! We imitate the sower, but we are not the first sower.

Patiently listen to those who seem hell-bent on rejecting all the things of God. Search for, in what they say and do, a seed of the word and you will usually find it already there, begging to be tended and nurtured. That is, they will already know something of love.

Everyone is loved, you know, even those who do not know they are loved. But even those who do not know it cannot help but be influenced by the fact of being loved. Even if it goes no further than a deep, unconscious recognition that they ought to be loved. That is a seed of the word. And to know that we are not made for suffering and death is a seed of the word. On some level, everyone knows these things, because the seeds of the word have been sown in them.

Who has sown them? Who is the sower?

John Chrysostom
miniature from Liturgies of John Chrysostom
and Basil the Great
Dujcev Research Centre - Sofia, Gr. 64, fol. 1v
18th century
Jesus identifies himself – the Son of man – as a sower in a different parable (Matt 13:37).  Regarding today’s parable, St John Chrysostom says, "The seed is the doctrine of Christ, the ground is the souls of men, and the sower is Christ Himself" (On Matthew, Homily 44). And after Chrysostom says something, it tends to be adopted by all, because he knows what he’s talking about.

But I’d like to point something out. Jesus doesn’t say that the seed is his “doctrine” exactly. He doesn’t speak of his διδαχή. He says that it is “the word of God – ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ.” The meaning is similar, but the difference is important – because who is the Logos of God? Jesus himself! Jesus is the seed. But if Jesus is the seed, is he also the sower? Well, why not? Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he is also the Lamb of God. He is the high priest, and he is also the sacrifice. So I think that he can also be both the Sower and the seed. 

Nonetheless, I also believe that the scripture and the parables of Christ can hold many complementary meanings. I believe that Jesus is the sower, and that we are also sowers in imitation of him. And I’d like to propose a third understanding of this parable.

Perhaps we can also understand the sower as God the Father. The Father is the source (ἀρχή) of the word. It is of the Father that the Son is begotten and from whom the holy Spirit proceeds. God the Father sends the word into the world by the power of his holy Spirit.

 The consummation of this sending is the incarnation of the word. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But even before the incarnation and in every time and place, God plants the seeds of the word.

Justin Martyr
fresco by Theophanes the Cretan
and his son Symeon
in the Stavronikita Monastery
circa 1546
The holy martyr Justin the Philosopher says much about these seeds of the word. He believes that God has planted the seed of the word in every person and that the word that is within them is none other than the divine word who is incarnate in Christ. Even the pagan philosophers then, inasmuch as they are reasonable, and inasmuch as they know truth about anything, are dependent on Jesus Christ, even though they do not realize it. St. Justin writes, “Christ… is the Word of whom every race of men [are] partakers; and those who [live] reasonably [that is, according to the word] are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists” (First Apology, xlvi).  

Inasmuch as a person is on the side of truth and love, they are already Christ’s, for our God is truth and love. Our task, then, is not only to sow seeds but, perhaps more urgently, to tend the soil in which the Lord has already sown the seeds of his divinity.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

To be Sons of the Most High

According to Matthew, Jesus preaches to us from the mountain. He preaches above us, as God, and with all the authority of God. Just as God speaks to Moses on the mountain, so Jesus speaks to his disciples this Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1).

And, according to Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain and stands on a level place (Luke 6:17) to be among us, to be one of us, to be a man like us in all things but sin, to be our brother and to speak to us as our brother, this Sermon on the Plain.

And really these two sermons are substantially similar, though perhaps the one has a more divine perspective and the other a more human perspective. The fact that the divine and human messages agree completely reveals how completely Jesus is both God and man, how clear is the image of God in man, and how possible it has become for us to become one with God in Christ Jesus.

Today, speaking to us on the plain, Jesus admonishes us to behave in quite extraordinary and unworldly ways.

He tells us to do to others what we wish they would do to us (6:31). That’s as opposed to getting all you can get, doing what you can get away with, and looking out for number one, which seem to be guiding principles of life in the world. Pope Francis, I understand, recently repeated this golden rule to a joint session of Congress. Let us pray they hear and listen.

St. Maximos the Confessor
Jesus tells us to love, not only those who love us, but even those who hate us. St. Maximus the Confessor says that Jesus commands us this “to free [us] from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor, and to make [us] worthy of the supreme gift of perfect love. [We] cannot attain such love if [we] do not imitate God and love all men equally. For God loves all men equally and wishes them 'to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth'" (1 Tim 2:4).

A lot of people in the world and in the Church support family values. As well they should. But sometimes, our idea of strengthening the family goes no further than loving those who love us. And sometimes we even think it includes hating and seeking to destroy those who would tear our families apart.

And that’s not enough. Jesus sets us a higher standard. What about loving our enemies? Or the enemies of our families? What about murderers and drug dealers and prostitutes and rapists, who make our neighborhoods unsafe? Do you want them dead? I have heard fellow Christians speak murderously of evil men. I myself know what it is like to hate and even to want dead someone who would hurt the innocent or the weak. May God forgive me, the sinner. Let me tell you something, God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he repent and live (Ezekiel 18:23). This is the word of the Lord that came to Ezekiel (18:1). So, when we desire the death of a sinner – even if he is an Islamic terrorist, even if he hurt our child – we are not like God.

Jesus tells us to do good to those who do no good to us. Giving on condition of getting is just bartering. It isn’t love. Just because someone isn’t in a position to do anything for us, doesn’t mean it’s alright for us to neglect their needs. The neighborhood in which we find ourselves right now offers many opportunities to do good for those who can’t or won’t do good for us. When we think about the poor and the drug addicts and the homeless and the alcoholics who are our neighbors here, alongside the other fine and virtuous people who live here with us as well, we shouldn’t be asking ourselves, “what good are they to us?” or  “What good can they do for us?” That isn’t the right question. Rather, if we think about our neighbors here with the mind of Christ, our question will be, “What good can we do for them?” “How can we make their lives better?” “How can we benefit them in both spirit and body?”
Russian icon of St. Nicholas of Velikoretsk,
17th century,
made for the Church of Velikoretsk

If we were Christians, the idea of a needy neighborhood would attract us, not repel us. We would seek people in need – people among whom we could do good without receiving anything in return.

Remember that Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) and they say that this was also the motto of St. Nicholas, the patron of the Byzantine Catholic Church,

Jesus tells us to lend our goods and our money expecting nothing in return. Now this is distinctly unworldly. Already, more than five hundred years before Christ, the Lord plainly says to Ezekiel that a righteous man does not lend at interest (Ezekiel 18:5,8). Nowadays, collecting interest is as common as opening a savings account or an IRA. And, given the economic reality that our money has no fixed value, I suppose these interest rates actually are usually not usurious in that they do not increase the value of our savings so much as maintain it. But we have lost all understanding of usury in the contemporary world and Church.

Even if interest rates are not always usurious in the contemporary context, they often are. Witness the predatory pay-day loan stores that pop up especially in poor neighborhoods to take advantage of those who already have little by offering them needed loans, but with outrageous and crippling interest. The Christian ethical principle to keep in mind with lending is that a loan is always to be made for the benefit of the borrower, not the lender. This is just exactly backwards of how the world thinks.

Meanwhile, Jesus goes beyond prohibiting the collection of interest and commands us to expect nothing in return for our loans. Not even the principal, let alone the interest. Now that’s radical. It’s downright ludicrous, in fact, by any worldly measure. That’s not even what we’d call lending, It’s more like just plain old giving. I think that’s his point.

Treat others as you want them to treat you. Love even those who do not love you. Do good even for those who do not do good for you. Lend without expecting any return. Why? What is the purpose of all this disproportionate behavior? Do you know who you'd be like if you did all these things? Well, I"ll tell you: you’d be like God.

God loves us, even when we do not love him. He loves even his enemies, those who hate him, and those who persecute his Church. He loved Paul before, during, and after his persecution of the Church. Jesus loved and forgave those who crucified Him even as they were driving the nails into his hands and feet.

God does good for those who do no good for him. What good can we – we, who are sinful – do for God? What gift can we creatures offer to our creator worthy of his greatness? And yet, he gives us every good thing. All blessing flows from our good God. He gives us our lives, our loved ones. Every simple pleasure and every blessing come from God.

“He is kind [even] to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35) As the life of Hosea prophesies, even if we are unfaithful like Gomer, God is faithful (cf. 2 Tim 2:13).

So this way of life Jesus commands us to today is nothing less than a prescription toward theosis. Do these things and you will be like God. Jesus says that if we do these things, we will be “sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35). These things, which are impossible without grace, help make us again like God.

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