AT THE start of our Gospel reading, Jesus moves to teach from a boat so that a larger group can hear his words. He teaches the crowd by means of parables, and his first casts light on the whole genre. Jesus’s words are “the seed”, which will grow only if his hearers are receptive and responsive. If the “soil” is shallow or filled with thorns, the Word will not bear fruit.
Benedict XVI observes that, in his parables, “Jesus is not trying to convey some sort of abstract knowledge that does not concern us profoundly.” He is not interested in his hearers’ simply accumulating a body of intellectual knowledge. In each story, the hearer “must enter into the movement of the parable and journey along with it”. These parables “are ultimately an expression of God’s hiddenness in the world and of the fact that knowledge of God always lays claim to the whole person” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration).
Intellectual knowledge is, of course, valuable. But it can be used to evade as well as to embrace God’s disturbing, challenging Word. That is one reason why — as we read last Sunday — God’s revelation is “hidden from the wise and learned” and revealed to “infants” (Matthew 11.25).
The parable of the sower invites us to ponder what kind of “soil” we are. In doing so, it focuses our attention on how to become more receptive and responsive to grace. Our part is not as the initiator, nor is it entirely passive. It is God who gives the increase, but he chooses to make us his co-workers.
By our life of prayer, and, in particular, through recognising and repenting of our sins, we can become deeper and more fruitful soil, allowing the Lord to uproot the “thorns” that choke off the growth of his life within us. Explaining this parable to his disciples, Jesus identifies these thorns as “the cares of the world” and “the lure of wealth”.
Our Old Testament reading also emphasises the creative, transforming quality of the divine Word. God declares that, after he has sent his Word out into the world, it “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose . . . and succeed in the thing for which I sent it”.
St Jerome explains that “there is a double meaning here.” The immediate reference of the passage is to the Word spoken by God in scripture, but in the light of Christ we recognise another “analogical” meaning; for Jesus himself is the Word of God. He is sent out into the world, and he will “succeed in the thing” for which the Father sent him.
This helps us to uncover another layer of meaning of the parable of the sower. The “seed” is not only the words of Jesus. He is both the sower and the seed; for he is the divine Word that must take root in the “soil” of our lives. We are not only to receive his commandments, but are to allow him to dwell within us.
For this reason, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis calls this a “Marian” parable. As he explains, the parable speaks of “the dynamic event whereby the Word of God becomes incarnate and bears fruit in the ‘good soil” of each human being. “Jesus is addressing here the sacred mystery of the Incarnation, not now historically but rather mystically viewed: the Word’s desire to become incarnate in the womb of our hearts” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).
It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Word became flesh in the Blessed Virgin’s womb. In our epistle, Paul teaches the Romans that this same Spirit must dwell within them. Christ is formed in us, if we — like Mary — are overshadowed by and, indeed, know the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Like the seed in our parable, the Spirit comes to us as a divine gift. But, like the soil, we must be receptive to his work. Both our Gospel and epistle require a decision. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster writes, “There is no neutrality. One either lives for God or not, and by not living for God, one displays loyalty to another dominion” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Romans). All who have ears must listen.