My father tells me about his mother, my yiayia, who was a very pious woman and who loved her Lord Jesus, the Virgin Mary and His saints above all else. My father remembers how he would wake up every morning to the smell of incense throughout the house, knowing that his mother had just finished saying her morning prayers. She loved telling her children stories from the Bible or from the lives of the saints. She loved taking her children to Church. She deeply loved Christ, and always prayed that her six children would walk in the ways of the Lord.
Well, like many families, her six children grew up with a variety of experiences, opportunities and choices which led them down quite diverse paths throughout their lives. One ended up a Yale professor; another an investment banker; a third a vice president for CBS; one daughter became a librarian, another ran her own small business; my father, meanwhile, became a priest. Each of these six children followed different paths in their lives, as well as extremely diverse journeys of faith. While my father and aunts stayed quite active in the Church, nourishing their Christian faith as the years passed by, my uncles on the other hand, each of whom the world would see as quite successful and outstanding in their particular careers, found little interest in matters of faith. In fact, years ago I remember one of my uncles responded to a fundraising mission letter I sent him by noting, “Although I’m not a praying man and don’t believe in God, still I see you are doing good work and will support your ministry.”
How is it that in the same family, with the same upbringing, and with the same pious mother, siblings could end up on very different ends of the faith spectrum? What makes some people open to the Gospel message, hearts with fertile soil ready to embrace and passionately follow the Lord our God, while others with the same upbringing remain indifferent or sometimes even hostile to Christ and His Good News?
Obviously, these different journeys of faith are not unique to one family; we all see it in countless families around us. Basically, it comes down to the freedom God has given each. One of God’s greatest gifts to humanity is his unconditional love, which includes the blessing of freedom. The same freedom that allows us to accept God’s grace and receive His love, opening our hearts to the limitless treasure of His Holy Spirit, is the same liberty that we can use to turn away and reject God, to remain indifferent to Him, or to walk down our own egocentric path, arrogantly believing that we are the gods of this earth not accountable to anyone.
Freedom – the greatest and the most feared gift, depending on how we use it. God grants us such freedom precisely because He loves us so passionately. He loves us and understands that a true child and heir of God must be free to choose his/her own path in life. He gives us freedom to consciously accept the divine love of God, or to consciously ignore or reject His love. This is the gift that makes humanity different than the rest of the animal kingdom and reveals the divine image in which we were created.
No one would deny our gift of freedom, but the big question for each of us today is: “What are we doing with our gift of freedom? How do we use our God-given freedom each and every day to draw closer to God and unite with Him in a more intimate manner, and to use our freedom to unite with one another, our brothers and sisters who are created in His image?” St. Paul puts it this way, “You were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” How do we use the freedom God gave us to serve one another in love?
Today’s Gospel story vividly describes the diverse hearts of people and how we allow our hearts to receive the seed of faith from our Lord. Jesus tells the story of a farmer who plants seeds, but the seeds fall on different types of ground. Some seed falls on hard soil and cannot penetrate the ground. Some seed falls on rocky soil, which did not allow roots to grow deep. Some seeds fall on thorny soil, which eventually chokes the growing plants. Finally, some seed falls on soft, cultivated soil. Only in this last soil will the seed fully develop, growing roots deep in the ground. Only this last soil produces fruit.
Now note how the central focus of this story is not on the farmer, who represents God. He casts his seeds of faith on all hearts. Nor is the focus on the seed itself, which reflect our Lord’s teachings and the message of Good News He preached. The story concentrates on the soil, and how each heart receives Christ’s teachings. As we reflect on this story, each of us should be asking ourselves, “What type of soil does my heart represent? Is my heart and mind soft and open to receive the seeds of faith? Is it hard and unresponsive? Is it filled with weeds that strangle it? How am I using my freedom and the choices I make in my life to receive God’s word?
Jesus’ story begins by saying that the farmer throws some seed onto the hard ground, and this hard surface obviously represents a tough heart – the heart of a person who has freely chosen not to nourish and soften their soul in spiritual matters, but who has allowed life’s experiences to create a callous, closed heart. This heart represents someone not interested in growing spiritually, maybe a preoccupied with many temporal pursuits, or possibly a heart full of pride and self-centered desires, or a heart that simply ignores the Gospel and its teachings as irrelevant or unimportant for their lives. How many people, in and outside the church, have such closed, hard hearts? We who come to church regularly must ask ourselves, “Do we come sincerely seeking out God and carefully listening how to apply our Lord’s teachings in our daily lives, or do we come solely to ease our conscience and fulfill some religious obligation, or maybe to simply see friends?”
After the hard surface, some seed fell on rocky soil. Now when Jesus tells this story, he is thinking about a particular soil in Palestine which has a thin layer of dirt covering a foundation of rock. A seed’s roots may begin to grow in the dirt, but very quickly any growth stops when the roots run into the rock foundation. This soil has no depth, much like a person who freely chooses to accept the Gospel but doesn’t allow its roots to grow deeply in our heart. Maybe this heart won’t allow the teachings of Christ to fundamentally change our behaviors and worldview.
Once again we must ask ourselves how we use our freedom to receive and process the Gospel message? Do we accept the Gospel in a shallow manner, only to initially live our faith with joy and enthusiasm but to then allow our heart to quickly grow cold and indifferent to Christ’s Good News? Maybe we are afraid that Christ wants to “interfere” too much in our lives, in our work and family life, in our pastimes and hobbies. We may view the Christian life as a 100 meter dash instead of as a marathon. God is not interested in who begins the race and then gives up; He will give the crown to those who persevere and finish the race.
Some seed falls on the third soil that is filled with thorns. This soil may be good and rich, with much potential. This person may use his/her freedom to cultivate an open and receptive heart in which the Gospel message takes root and grows. The problem, however, lies in the weeds and thorns that we allow to grow alongside the good seed. Every day in our Christian walk, we make many decisions between good and evil, between right and wrong, between what will nourish our soul and what will starve and endanger it. We are free to choose, yet we must realize there are consequences to each choice we make.
The Church Fathers mention three common and threatening weeds to which many people succumb: 1) the cares or anxieties of the world, 2) the deceit of riches, and 3) our desire for pleasure. Society tempts us with countless things, even many which appear harmless, yet these weeds quickly crowd out our Lord and His teachings within our heart. If anything in life makes us too busy to find time with God, if anything takes away our primary focus and loyalty to Christ, then such things have become weeds and thorns endangering our spiritual wellbeing. We must dig out such weeds and cast them aside. Nothing should interfere with our growth in Christ.
Finally, the Gospel story tells us of the good, rich, fertile soil. This represents a heart that is open and engaged in the spiritual struggle. With one’s freedom, this person chooses the good over the evil, cultivates seeds of faith, and nourishes a living relationship with God. The result of using one’s freedom for such godly pursuits will end in abundant fruit.
Remember, each of us has many choices to make every day, choices that will affect the type of soil our heart becomes. Will our hearts stay hard, rocky, or full of weeds and thorns? Or possibly, will our choices produce rich and fertile soil that allows the teachings of our Lord to penetrate our heart and embrace these teachings in a way that will bear abundant fruit? Different members of the same family have the same upbringing but they also have the freedom to choose how they will cultivate their hearts. Our choices lead to very different results. We have the freedom to choose, yet the consequences will be abundantly clear by the fruit we bear in our lives.