the sower and the word of the kingdom: the importance of prayer (sermon for the fourth sunday after pentecost at the church of the holy cross)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.


So speaks Jesus in today’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew. And then, handily for the preacher, Jesus himself tells us what it means. But before we look at how Jesus expounds his own parable, we should note that in the symbolism of the parable, Jesus is himself the sower. A number of ancient commentators notice that in the parable Jesus says, “A sower WENT OUT to sow.” And as we have seen many, many times, Jesus is the one who “goes out” from his Father, into the world of men. The incarnation is, as Meister Eckhart said, a “boiling-over” of God’s love. We know God’s love because Jesus, the Sower, has gone out to sow.


And what does he sow? He sows seed, which is, as he himself puts it, “the word of the kingdom” (Mat. 13.19). Jesus comes into the world proclaiming the victory of God over violence and suffering and malice and death. With the coming of Jesus, our death-bound humanity is set free.


Jesus says, “When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path.” What can we deduce from what Jesus says here? Firstly, it should be noted that the proclamation of the Kingdom is for ALL PEOPLE, regardless of their station in life, their faith background, their skin color, their life-choices, or anything else. St. Paul says, “in Christ God was reconciling THE WORLD to himself,” (2 Cor. 5.19). The Sower sows his seed indiscriminately. St. Jerome commented on today’s Gospel reading, where it says that Jesus “went out of the house and sat beside the sea.” Jerome said that this verse refers to the incarnation of Christ, that it means that the Lord, “in mercy to [us] departed out of the house and sat near the sea of this world, so that great numbers might be gathered to Him…”


But Jesus says that it is necessary for us to receive the word of the Kingdom WITH UNDERSTANDING. “When any one hears the word of the kingdom AND DOES NOT UNDERSTAND IT, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path…” We must receive the word of the Kingdom with understanding. We must have eyes to see and ears to hear. Notice that Jesus says nothing about the Sower ploughing the soil. Perhaps that is because ploughing the soil is OUR JOB. It is the work of prayer. We have to crack open our hearts by means of prayer, so that the word of the Kingdom can enter into it, and take root, grow, and bear fruit. Otherwise, as Jesus says, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown.


Amazingly, it is possible to come to church, to come to mass, Sunday by Sunday, or even day by day, year in and year out, and to draw absolutely no benefit from it. Why? Because if we do not CULTIVATE our hearts, as though our hearts were hard soil that needs ploughing, then all of the graces that come from the sacraments of the church just lie on the surface of our heart and, in the words of Jesus, get snatched away by the evil one – like seeds scattered along the hard, packed earth of a pathway.


Receiving the word of the Kingdom with understanding means receiving it deep down into our hearts, and we can only do this if we have cultivated soft, supple hearts – hearts that have been broken open so that God’s grace – the “word of the Kingdom” – may sink deep down, take root, grow, and bear fruit.


As I have said, this cultivation, this PREPARATION, of the heart is the work of PRAYER. There’s a widespread interest in “spirituality” and so forth in our time. But prayer is not really something that is meant to be talked about – let alone is it something about which we are meant to drone on endlessly and irrationally. Prayer is, rather, primarily something to be DONE. I am absolutely convinced (and I am not alone in this), that it is less important HOW you pray than THAT you pray. Every Christian should have a disciplined, DAILY habit of prayer. If we want to have a relationship with God, then we have to TALK TO HIM, and (even more importantly) we have to LISTEN to what God is saying to us. That’s prayer.


Fr. Sean Finnegan wrote:


…prayer is not the acquisition of a technique. Prayer is above all an exercise of the will: one intends to pray; one is praying already. The justly famous Dom John Chapman of Downside Abbey had a tag: ‘pray as you can, and not as you can’t’. It seems an obvious comment to make, and yet how many devout people feel that they aren’t really praying until they have reached some form of transforming union or ecstasy?


Or how many of us have given up the work of prayer because it doesn’t make us FEEL any differently. We have grown too accustomed to quick fixes and instant gratification. But the truth is, the word of the Kingdom operates like water in the course of a river, slowly, but unimaginably powerfully, pulverizing whatever stands in between its source and the wide sea. I am absolutely convinced that prayer transforms us. Or more accurately, when we pray, the word of the Kingdom enters into our hearts and transforms us. But we have to pray in a disciplined way, every day, and the watchwords of our prayer must be SIMPLICITY and HONESTY. “Pray as you can, and not as you can’t.” And it may well be best to toss out our books about the “techniques” of “spirituality”.


What other dangers does Jesus warn us about in this parable? There are primarily two: shallowness or superficiality, and the cares of the world. We can avoid superficiality by shunning emotionalism. Emotions are a part of the soul, and they can be helpful. God can console us or convict us of sin by touching our emotions. But emotional-ISM is a threat. And by emotionalism I mean allowing our emotions to guide our decisions and our actions. Again, Fr. Finnegan writes:


The spirit… has three powers: will, memory, and understanding, or intelligence – the ability to organize and analyse information which is in the memory. It is with these faculties that we relate to God, because it is the soul which bears the closest resemblance to God. If this is true, it is clear that questions of enjoyment  of prayer, as such, are largely irrelevant. Enjoyment may help prayer along, and encourage one to do it more often, but [it] must not be confused with the thing itself. We pray simply because God is God, and to relate to God is the highest function, glory and ultimate destiny of the human being….


If we pray to God every day, in a disciplined, simple, and honest way, we will avoid superficiality. We will cultivate a heart that is able to receive the word of the Kingdom in such a way that it may put down roots deep inside of us.


Lastly, Jesus warns us about the cares of the world. These are the thorns that choke out the seed when it begins to sprout. These are things like money, sex, and power. The solution here is that the soil must be cleared before it can be ploughed. We have to separate ourselves from the DESIRE for the things of the world – because the things of the world are not bad in themselves – just as soil must first be cleared, even before it can be ploughed up. So too, we have to purify our desires, so that we can devote ourselves to what truly matters. And what is it that truly matters? Jesus said: “seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness…” It is God that matters. And the quest for God is the most important undertaking of any human life. It is, in fact, what it means to be human.


So, if we would fulfill our destiny, find true joy, attain salvation, and at last become real, authentic human beings – we have to get our attention off of money, sex, power, and every other worldly thing. We must then focus our attention fixedly on the Kingdom of God, crack open our hearts by means of disciplined, simple, honest prayer; and allow the word of the Kingdom to enter in, where it “bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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