17th Sunday After Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on Parable of the Sower
“A sower went out to sow his seed…” Christ’s parable today challenges us to consider how we receive and act upon His Gospel of life. He compares us to the seeds sown here in this parable—some fell on the wayside, some on the rock, some among the thorns, and some on the good soil.
Like many priests, I like to garden—cultivating a garden is not so dissimilar to cultivating souls, so when I hear this parable it brings to mind the many joys and struggles of gardening. What you may not expect, however, is that there are many parallels to our own lives found in the garden as well. In fact, there’s something instinctual in us that draws many of us to garden: it was, after all, mankind’s first vocation, as we read in Gen. 2:15, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.”
The best part of gardening is getting to see the garden thriving and growing on its own, the plants growing into their fullness, the colors and shapes creating a beautiful patchwork, the fruiting plants producing their bounty, each in their own way. And then, you find yourself responding to the life, the growth, the beauty around you, expressing interior gratitude to the Author of all life: “Thank you, Lord, it is so beautiful how these plants have grown and matured together in their different shapes and colors, the birds and butterflies enjoying and finding refuge in this garden that I’ve stewarded and helped shape. It’s an exhilarating feeling when you see the fruit of your labors and have the opportunity to glorify God for the beauty of His creation, as you participate in this work so reminiscent of that of our first parents who saw the beauty of the creation as an ‘icon’ of God’s goodness and expressed their gratitude toward God in their worship of Him.
But every gardener knows, that the garden won’t produce good results unless it is properly and patiently tended. I can have the best seeds or the best starter plants, but if they fall on hard clay or the roots of a tree because I haven’t prepared the ground or if I don’t tend the plants they’ll fail to thrive. If the garden goes too many days without rain, I have to water it; if I haven’t enough time to weed enough, my usual problem, then the good plants are smothered.
So it is with the ‘garden of our souls:’ If we want to become mature and God glorifying children of God, then we have to work diligently to tend to the needs of our souls. They need to be nourished. God is always doing His part; we have to do ours in response. Just as in the garden, there is a synergy at work in us. We all start out as these little ‘seeds’ of faith. If we wish to grow and thrive, then we cannot be passive when it comes to the health and growth of our souls.
The same temptations that Christ laid bare in His parable of the Sower are true today: How easy it is to be the seed that fell among the rocks, that is, those who receive the Gospel and Orthodox Faith, but who in times of temptation fall away. How easy it is to be as those seeds that fall among the thorns and whose souls are smothered by the temporal cares and concerns and priorities of this present life, by our secular society, and who don’t bring forth fruit to maturity.
When we keep ourselves at a distance from Christ and His Church, as only a tangential priority, we are, in a sense, choosing to be the seed by the wayside; we’re easily trampled down and devoured by the culture—maybe not in such dramatic ways, maybe just in ‘safe,’ mundane ways: working all the time, not going to church to worship God the Holy Trinity, not making time for our daily prayers, neglecting the Sacraments or opportunities to learn and grow, not making Holy Confession a priority—and, the result of these mixed priorities is that our souls slowly wither.
St. Cyril of Alexandria says of those who are on the wayside that they are just like it, “hard and unyielding” (Sermon on the Parable of the Sower). Where stubbornness and pride are, there is a ‘wayside’ in the soul that prevents growth in the knowledge and love of God. If a ‘teachable spirit’ is lacking and one isn’t open to learning or doing the hard spade work necessary to be purified of the passions that cause us to sin, then we cannot grow and find salvation.
When we make sacramental Confession, for instance, we have the opportunity to remove from ourselves all those rocks—hardness of heart—all the weeds, those temporal preoccupations that take the place of prioritizing our life in Christ. In this way, we prepare the ‘soil’ of our souls for growth to bring forth a bountiful harvest. But Confession is something we need to make use of regularly. In the garden, you can’t weed or prepare the soil or remove the rocks just once; you have to be ever vigilant and patient in tending it on an ongoing basis.
Tito Coliander in his book, Way of the Ascetics, asks: “Can it be considered a virtuous act when a man who out of his own carelessness has been trapped deep down in a mine shaft, takes up pick and shovel and tries to work his way out? Is it not… quite natural for him to make use of the tools given him by a higher authority to make his way up out of the choking air and darkness? Would not the opposite be stupidity?” The tools, what he calls the “implements of salvation,” are the commands of the Gospel and the Sacraments of the Church.
He goes on to conclude, “We must, like the imprisoned victim, give up many opportunities for rest… enjoyment…” We don’t let the pick and shovel out of our hands: they are prayer, fasting, watching, and vigilance to observe all things that Christ has commanded us (paraphrased).
It’s all here for us—all the tools of the ‘garden of our souls’ that we need are found in the Church. Those who wish to be as the seed cast among the good soil, are vigilant to fight to not let themselves be redirected to other preoccupations apart from their life in Christ. If you and I wish to have Christ for eternal life, you and I have Christ as our main focus in this life. We bring Him into our daily lives—into all our stresses, anxieties, temptations, and our joys.
So that you and I may be like the seed that fell on the fertile soil, St. Cyril urges us to “drive away from our minds all worldly cares” (ibid). In this way, through repentance, taking each thought ‘captive’ to obey Christ (II Cor. 10:5), availing ourselves of the Sacraments Christ has entrusted to us and our daily prayers, we can become the seed that brings forth fruit from our lives, our families, in our church, and in our community where we witness to the truth of Christ that is within us and which liberates every man and woman who puts their trust in Him.
To become that fruit-bearing seed on the good soil, St. John Chrysostom admonishes we practice obedience. We submit ourselves to Christ and His Church, knowing that through the Church, God has given us all the tools we need to be deified, to be accountable, and to grow in our participation in the life of the Holy Trinity, the only Life there is. That life, as Christ teaches us here, always involves us producing spiritual fruit. Salvation is never just something between me and God alone; instead, it always involves you and I bringing forth fruit, coming out of our self-focus to love and to serve and give of the ‘fruit’ of our labors that is the bounty of our cooperation with the work of God in our lives. In other words, it always involves the Church. The degree to which we diligently and patiently tend our ‘garden’ will determine how much fruit we bear—some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
May we be open, obedient, and trusting as we patiently and diligently work to prepare the ‘garden of our souls,’ taking up “pick and shovel,” making use of all the tools Christ has entrusted to us. In this way, we will be filled to overflowing with the presence of Christ, giving a ‘first fruits’ back to Him from the blessings, of all that He’s entrusted to us in praise and thanksgiving. In doing so, we can be confident, “that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). We will be as those seed that have fallen on the good ground, who have heard the word of the Gospel and bear good fruit with patience.
Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church
Sunday, 16 October 2016
Parable of the Seeds 4