In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes the following:
Every moment and every event in everyone’s life on earth plants something in our soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptively in the minds and wills of men [and women]. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because [people] are not prepared to receive them.
Merton’s comments are a perfect contemporary version of the story in Matthew’s gospel about the sower who went out to sow. This well-known parable of Jesus is rich in symbolism, meaning, and insight for those who have the ears to hear.
One lesson we can surely learn from the parable of the sower is that our God is constantly lavishing his grace upon us. He does so without ceasing in good times and in bad, in times of gladness and in times of sadness and sorrow. Even in a world of confusion and imperfection and injustice, our God continues to pour out his own self upon us. God always says only “Yes” to us, and eagerly waits for us to say “Yes” back to him. This is very important for us to know, to remember, to recognize, to appreciate, to understand, to take into our hearts, and to believe. Our God is always for us and never against us.
Another revelation contained in the parable of the sower is that God is patient with us, infinitely patient. He gives us time to grow and to mature, to develop into the full stature of his beloved daughters and sons, to become adults, to become fully alive, holy, and deeply human. The idea of having time to grow and mature in the midst of an imperfect world is an integral part of the gospel’s teaching. In this regard, William F. Lynch, S.J., writes, “The truth is that we are all imperfect to a degree, though that is nothing to disturb us. For all this means is that we are never in complete and undistorted touch with things as they are. Time and life itself are meant to purify our vision. Time and life itself do a pretty good job of analyzing most of us.”
Jesus said at one point that “the rain falls upon the just and the unjust alike,” and on another occasion he warned his followers to wait until the grain in the field is fully ripe before it is harvested. Implied in these sayings is the need for all of us to be patient, not only with others but with ourselves as well, and even to be patient with God. Being patient can be very difficult for us, particularly in a world of increasing speed and travel and technology, a world that seems accompanied by a growing dehumanization in our relationships. One of the hardest things for human beings to do at times is simply to wait when we may have exhausted all our other options. Lynch again: “The decision to wait is one of the great human acts. It includes enlarging one’s perspective beyond a present moment without quite seeing the reason for doing so . . . it simply chooses to wait and in doing so it gives the future the only chance it has to emerge. It is therefore the most fundamental act, not the least act of the imagination.”
In contrast to this sentiment of learning how to wait in patience, psychotherapist Rollo May once observed, “It is an old and ironic habit of human beings to run faster when we have lost our way, and we grasp more fiercely at research, statistics and technical aids when we have lost the value and meaning of love.” These remarks can serve as a cautionary tale warning us that there can be a downside to the wonders of technology if we are not careful in our use of it.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus speaks of seeds that fall on dry ground and wither and those that fall among thorns and are choked before maturing. He speaks of seeds that are snatched away from our hearts even before they put down roots. These metaphors imply that something necessary for growth and development is missing in our lives, some lack of purpose or longing or commitment that prevents us from growing into the full stature of our humanity.
I would suggest that what prevents us from full growth in God’s presence is some form of what we will call “half-heartedness.” The challenges and promises of the gospel are inspiring; they are good, noble, and wonderful. The question is, are we willing to take them deeply into our hearts and to live them out in our daily lives? That is asking an awful lot from us—in fact, isn’t it asking too much? We have so many other commitments, responsibilities, things to do, goals to achieve, tasks to accomplish. We can end up living a kind of schizophrenic commitment to our Christian faith and to our spiritual lives. We split our world and ourselves into two separate categories, two separate districts, so to speak. There is the “God district” wherein we pay homage to our spiritual lives and concerns, and there is the district of our secular interests and responsibilities. What emerges from this split is that our religion and its practices become a sort of private affair cut off from our everyday lives.
This model of the Christian life is known as dualism, and it has plagued Western Christianity for most of its history. Nicholas Lash describes the phenomenon in his book Theology for Pilgrims: “When church leaders are exhorted, or exhort others to concentrate on spiritual affairs, the implication seems to be that these matters are loftier than and different from such down-to-earth concerns as preaching the Good News to the poor and liberating the oppressed.” As long as we labor under such a distortion of the nature of our faith and what it requires from us, it is difficult to be wholehearted in our commitments to both God and humankind. Our energy is pulled in opposite directions, and the seeds of grace struggle to take root in the rocky soil of our distracted and divided loyalties.
Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans gives us some insight into resolving this dilemma if we understand it correctly. In his letter Paul speaks about the struggle between the spirit and the flesh. Too often in our own minds we distinguish these terms as contradictory. We interpret the spirit as something good, and matter, or the flesh, as something evil. But this view of the world and of ourselves is a distortion of the original meaning of the words as Paul used them. To Paul, the word spirit referred to the whole person, body and soul, under the influence of the life-giving Spirit of Christ, whereas flesh referred to the whole person, body and soul, under the control of sin which is a state of alienation from God, a refusal to accept his gracious and constant “Yes.”
Such a refusal to be open to the life-giving presence of God in our lives makes no sense. That is why sin is a type of absurdity. What God wants from us is for us to love him back, with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, wholeheartedly and not halfheartedly. Our destiny as it hinges on our final acceptance or rejection of God’s “Yes” will not be determined by some singular, dramatic, decisive moment with which we may be confronted. It will instead be determined by the orientation of our lives over time.
We return again to God’s patience with us and with our mistakes and imperfections. We have the time and the grace we need to grow towards God, to say “Yes” back to him, to orient the slow and steady growth of our love wholeheartedly towards him. The good soil of the parable of the sower represents that person whose heart is open to the unexpected moments of grace that occur throughout our lives. As we continue to remain open to these seeds of spiritual vitality that are constantly being rained upon us, we will produce multiple harvests of goodness that will “bear fruit and yield, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.