The Angelus, Jean-Francois Millet, 1859
In my previous life (pre-2012 and pre-Catholic) I would occasionally crack a Bible and read a passage or two before losing interest and closing it up. This didn’t happen often, mostly when I was traveling, alone and bored in a hotel room somewhere and there was a Gideon Bible in the nightstand drawer. I remember reading from the Gospels and wondering why Jesus talked to the people in parables. As far as I could tell, it was all a riddle that nobody in their right mind could understand. It made no sense.
This recollection came back to me today as I read and meditated on today’s Gospel, Mark 4:1-20, the Parable of the Sower. A lot has changed over the last six years. I understand this parable today – that Jesus is the sower, the Word of God is the seed, and the different types of soil are the dispositions of the diversity in our faith. Or at least I think that’s what it’s about.
But, as I meditated on this today, my thoughts were more on why Jesus spoke in parables rather than the message in the parable.
I have learned that the Jewish rabbis and teachers in Jesus’ time, taught using stories with familiar images and experiences to which the learner could relate. The messages in these stories were not explicit but, instead, were designed to make one think. The answers were complex and seldom simple. If you thought you had it figured out, you probably didn’t. You needed to think about it more, and think more deeply.
Jesus’ parables were similar to what we call allegory today. He always had a hidden complex spiritual meaning or moral lesson embedded within his parable. And, depending on one’s level of faith, you either got it, partially got it, or you were totally lost.
Even Jesus’ disciples and His chosen Apostles didn’t always understand. In today’s Gospel, His disciples questioned Him about the parables. Jesus answered them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables so that they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.” Jesus continued, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand any of the parables?” (Mk 4:11-13)
We often think that the Apostles were all totally on board and on the same page as Jesus. But, the reality was that they never did quite figure it out until Jesus’ resurrection and eventual ascension into heaven. No, they were quite often lost regarding the mysteries of Christ’s life (e.g. Mk 8:32-33, Peter’s response to the first prediction of Jesus’ Passion; and, Mk 9:28-29, the healing of a boy with a demon).
Jesus wanted everyone, His disciples included, to think deeply about His message. He wanted them to look beyond the obvious, below the surface, and outside of the box. He challenged them to compare and relate His stories, His parables, with their own lives. The extent of their understanding and ability to relate often depended on their faith.
Nothing has changed. It still depends on faith. The reason I didn’t understand the Gospel as I read while lounging on a hotel room bed was because I had no faith. The difference between then and now for me is that I now believe the Word of God to be the truth. I have a deep desire to understand it so that I can apply it to my life.
Jesus still challenges us to understand God’s Word within the context of our own lives, our own experiences. He wants to sow the Seed on fertile soil so that it may grow and produce fruit. How do we prepare that garden plot in preparation for His sowing?
First, we need to create an atmosphere in which we can listen to God through His Word in the scripture, an atmosphere of silence and solitude that is conducive to deep thought without distractions. Author Henri J.M. Nouwen in his book, The Way of the Heart, describes silence as, “not not speaking, but listening to God”; and solitude as, “not being alone, but being alone with God.” Finding that time and place is critical.
Once you’re there, open up your heart in prayer. Give thanks to God for the opportunity to be with Him in that moment. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart and mind to receive the Word of God, and for the grace to understand His Word as you read and reflect upon it.
As you read the scripture, think deeply about what it is God is telling you at that moment. Maybe there is a verse or a phrase or just a couple words that jump out at you. Stop and reflect on that which catches your attention and let the Holy Spirit take you deeper to reveal God’s unique message for you. Say a prayer of thanksgiving once you’ve absorbed His revelation.
Next, ask yourself how that message relates to your life today. Is there something you can do to change? What can you do today to be more virtuous, to grow in holiness, and to become a better disciple, spouse, parent, and friend? How can you condition your soil to make it more fertile? The Holy Spirit will convict you and show you the way!
Finally, take that one thing, that one change for the better, and write a concrete resolution that will effect an improvement that day. Make it easy but make it concrete. Think baby steps instead of leaping tall buildings. Something that you can, at the end of the day, look back on and say with a sense of accomplishment, “Yes! I did it!”
And then go do it.
This is how you grow in faith. This is how you begin to understand the Word of God and not get confused in the complexity of the parables. And, this is how you gradually grow in holiness on your way to becoming a saint just like the Apostles.
“Heavenly Father, thank You for giving me the deep desire to understand Your Word, and for Your Son, Jesus, to sow that Seed in my heart. Thank You, Holy Spirit, for the gift of faith that has conditioned my heart to be fertile ground for producing fruit for Your kingdom. I pray that, through Your grace, the harvest is abundant. Amen.”
(Soil Conditioning for the Heart was first published on the blog Reflections of a Lay Catholic)
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