What is there in our life which prevents us being as fruitful in the journey of Discipleship? We can apply the teaching of the Lord Jesus about the sower who went out to sow.
In ancient times a farmer would have a bag filled with seed slung across his shoulder and he would take handfuls of seed as he walked slowly up and down the field throwing it across the ploughed surface. In modern farming the seed is carefully planted in just the right place by a mechanical seed drill, but in the past a great deal of the seed was lost even before it had a chance to take root.
The parable describes an ancient farmer scattering his seed. And some seed falls on less than ideal soil, while some falls in the ploughed furrows and is able to take root and produce, in time, a rich harvest. The Christian life is one in which we should expect fruitfulness. There are a great many other passages in the Gospels and elsewhere in the Scriptures where we find that those who do not bear fruit are condemned, and where those who bear fruit are commended.
When we read this parable of the sower we would be wise to consider what it means to each one of us. We can see that there are a variety of situations in which the seed will fail to produce the harvest which the farmer expects. We do not need to use the imagery of the parable, and we can speak plainly. As our Lord explains, the seed is the word of God and the soil is the heart of each one of us. There are those in whom the word of God bears fruit and those in whom it fails to produce a harvest.
The Gospel provides us with three reasons why we might be fruitless. In the first place our hearts might be hard, like a well trodden path. In this case the seed lies on the surface and is easily carried away by the birds of the air. It is possible for us to be known as Christians, to attend Church regularly, even to be involved in ministries and service, but to have such a hard heart that the word of God is never able to take root. There are those who are Christians in name only.
Beneath the surface there is no spiritual life at all. The life of the Church makes no difference to such a person. They are unmoved by the words of the Scripture, by the preaching, and by the hymns and prayers of the Church. All of these simply lie on the surface of such a life. And Satan is easily able to snatch away the remembrance of them so that they have no real influence on a person.
In the second place our hearts might be stony. There is a thin layer of soil in which the nutrients are concentrated. But there is no depth. The stony soil is at the edge of the field, where the farmer has picked up the stones he has found in the field and put them at the margins. Some seed falls here. There is a little bit of soil perhaps but beneath the surface there is still a great hardness of stones and rocks. The little layer of soil contains many nutrients all concentrated together and so the seed takes root and quickly shoots upwards. But there is no depth, and as soon as the hot, sunny weather appears, it has nothing to sustain it and it withers. There are many people who think they might be interested in the Orthodox Christian life. They embrace it with an unhealthy obsession, throwing all their energies, not into a true spiritual experience, but into a shallow and self-centered counterfeit of the Christian life. And when there are problems and difficulties, when things don’t turn out as they want or expect, their commitment to life in the Church withers away.
Those of us gathered here know that the Christian life demands perseverance. It is not easy, the problems we face often seem to grow greater and not diminish. The life of Christ needs to be rooted deeply in the soil of our hearts if we are to be able to cope with the cold winters and the hot dry summers of the spiritual life which often seem more than we can bear.
And in the third place the parable describes a soil which is already covered in well established weeds and thorns. Some seed falls into such hearts. It takes root in the good soil, but before it can establish itself the weeds choke it and prevent any growth. This is often the greatest temptation for the committed Christian. These weeds are the cares of the world. And since all of us live in the world we are all of us likely to face, on even a daily basis, the cares and worries of the world. But not only that, we face the temptations of earthly pleasures as well. All of these seek to smother the spiritual life which is taking root within us. This thorny soil describes a heart which is so occupied with the problems and pleasures of the world that the spiritual life takes second place. And once it is allowed to take second place, then it will take third place, and fourth, and slowly be lost altogether.
How then should we live. It does not seem to me that we should ignore the situations which occupy us. We are members of families where there are needs and problems. We have to work for our living. We bear with illness, pain and sorrow. But we must deal with these situations from a spiritual point of view, and not as if we must deal with them on our own and fit God in later on. To be spiritual does not mean always being in Church, but it does mean always seeking to be in God’s presence wherever we are. We cut down the thorns in our life by bringing God into every situation. Are we worried, then we should pray, and pray, and pray while we are worried and until we have a sense of God’s presence with us. Are we at work, then we should pray regularly through the day, short prayers reminding us that God is with us and we are with God. Do we have illness or sorrow in our lives, or in the lives of those we love, then we should pray, and pray and keep praying. Bringing God to the centre of our lives tears down the weeds.
Are we tempted to live lives of pleasure and enjoyment as if God was only reserved for Sundays, then we must pray, we must open up times in our day in which God is first, otherwise the weeds will slowly overwhelm our spiritual life.
When we pray our lives may not outwardly seem very different, but inwardly everything will have begun to be changed. It is not too late for us to change. We can change today. Putting God first does not mean forgetting family or work. We serve God by serving others in these situations. But it does mean putting God before ourselves and our own selfish interests. It does mean trusting God when everything seems like it is falling to pieces. It does mean making the effort, many times each day to recollect that we are in God’s presence.
To be in the presence of God is to receive the grace of God which waters the soil of our hearts. To be in the presence of God is to have the stones taken from our hearts, the weeds uprooted, and the seed planted deeply and fruitfully. If we wish to bear fruit in our lives, then we must pray. If we wish to see lasting spiritual growth, then we must pray. We must stand every day in the presence of God, our Heavenly Father, and he will bless us and nourish us, and sustain us. Whatever the state of our heart, let us commit ourselves to seeking God more completely, trusting him more completely, and serving him more completely, to the glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 On that day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the seaside. 2 Great multitudes gathered to him, so that he entered into a boat and sat; and all the multitude stood on the beach. 3 He spoke to them many things in parables, saying, “Behold, a farmer went out to sow. 4 As he sowed, some seeds fell by the roadside, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Others fell on rocky ground, where they didn’t have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of earth. 6 When the sun had risen, they were scorched. Because they had no root, they withered away. 7 Others fell amongst thorns. The thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Others fell on good soil and yielded fruit: some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty. 9 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 10 The disciples came, and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered them, “To you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not given to them. 12 For whoever has, to him will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever doesn’t have, from him will be taken away even that which he has. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they don’t see, and hearing, they don’t hear, neither do they understand. 14 In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says, ‘By hearing you will hear, and will in no way understand; Seeing you will see, and will in no way perceive; 15 for this people’s heart has grown callous, their ears are dull of hearing, and they have closed their eyes; or else perhaps they might perceive with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and would turn again, and I would heal them.’ 16 “But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. 17 For most certainly I tell you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which you see, and didn’t see them; and to hear the things which you hear, and didn’t hear them. 18 “Hear, then, the parable of the farmer. 19 When anyone hears the word of the Kingdom and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away that which has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown by the roadside. 20 What was sown on the rocky places, this is he who hears the word and immediately with joy receives it; 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while. When oppression or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. 22 What was sown amongst the thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of this age and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. 23 What was sown on the good ground, this is he who hears the word and understands it, who most certainly bears fruit and produces, some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty.” 24 He set another parable before them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while people slept, his enemy came and sowed darnel weeds* also amongst the wheat, and went away. 26 But when the blade sprang up and produced grain, then the darnel weeds appeared also. 27 The servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where did these darnel weeds come from?’ 28 “He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them up?’ 29 “But he said, ‘No, lest perhaps while you gather up the darnel weeds, you root up the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and in the harvest time I will tell the reapers, “First, gather up the darnel weeds, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” 31 He set another parable before them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took, and sowed in his field, 32 which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.” 33 He spoke another parable to them. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until it was all leavened.” 34 Jesus spoke all these things in parables to the multitudes; and without a parable, he didn’t speak to them, 35 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet, saying, “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world.” 36 Then Jesus sent the multitudes away, and went into the house. His disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the darnel weeds of the field.” 37 He answered them, “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, 38 the field is the world, the good seeds are the children of the Kingdom, and the darnel weeds are the children of the evil one. 39 The enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 As therefore the darnel weeds are gathered up and burnt with fire; so will it be at the end of this age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will gather out of his Kingdom all things that cause stumbling and those who do iniquity, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. 44 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls, 46 who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some fish of every kind, 48 which, when it was filled, fishermen drew up on the beach. They sat down and gathered the good into containers, but the bad they threw away. 49 So it will be in the end of the world. The angels will come and separate the wicked from amongst the righteous, 50 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 51 Jesus said to them, “Have you understood all these things?” They answered him, “Yes, Lord.” 52 He said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been made a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a householder, who brings out of his treasure new and old things.” 53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he departed from there. 54 Coming into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55 Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother called Mary, and his brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? 56 Aren’t all of his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all of these things?” 57 They were offended by him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country and in his own house.” 58 He didn’t do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.
From the Fathers
John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.)
But why would it be reasonable to sow among thorns or on rocks or on the pathway? With regard to the seeds and the earth it cannot sound very reasonable. But in the case of human souls and their instructions, it is praiseworthy and greatly to be honored. For the farmer might be laughed at for doing this, since it is impossible for a rock to bear fruit. It is not likely that the path will become anything but a path or the thorns anything but thorns. But with respect to the rational soul, this is not so predictable. For here there is such a thing as the rock changing and becoming rich land. Here it is possible that the wayside might no longer be trampled upon or lie open to all who pass by but that it may become a fertile field. In the case of the soul, the thorns may be destroyed and the seed enjoy full security. For had it been impossible, this sower would not have sown. And if the reversal did not take place in all, this is no fault of the sower but of the souls who are unwilling to be changed. He has done his part. If they betrayed what they received of him, he is blameless, the exhibitor of such love to humanity.
[There are lots of things that can be learned from the Parable of Sower which is in the Gospel we are reading today. But the great preacher, St John Chrysostom finds this wonderful reflection, that God is so generous in sowing the seed and does not restrict it to any particular category of persons. More than this, even if we start off as being rather hard-hearted, or lacking depth, or being concerned with all the cares and pleasure of the world, it is possible to change. It is possible to bear fruit, if only we hear the Word and are willing to change.]
The next phrase in the Lord’s Prayer is, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This is an important phrase. It says a great deal about our own internal life if we want to grow into union with God. God waits to forgive us and restore us in our relationship with him, but he will forgive us only when we forgive others.
Elsewhere he taught his disciples and said to them that we should not forgive our brother when he sins against us seven times, and St Peter thought that he was being very spiritual when he suggested this, but seventy times seven. And more than this, at the same time our Lord Jesus gave a parable about the servant who was happy to be forgiven by his own master, but refused to forgive those who owed him even a little. The outcome of that parable was that our Heavenly Father would judge against us if we sought forgiveness for ourselves but denied it to others.
And of course, and supremely, our Lord Jesus himself manifests for us what it is to forgive those who sin against us. He is God himself, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Yet he allowed his own creatures to beat him, wound him, abuse him and nail him to a cross for a painful death. Becoming man for the sake of our salvation he utters words which he would wish were on our own lips as we seek to live with that life which he gives us. He says to those he could destroy utterly with a single word, Father, forgive them.
Let me urge you then. Begin by repenting yourself of all that is sinful in your life, and especially any hateful feelings towards others. You are a sinner. These sins separate you from God and make you entirely worthy of judgement and punishment. When you have repented for yourself as God for grace to make a beginning of forgiveness, even though you have no feelings or emotions or manifest desire to do so. Then begin to forgive. Do not wait. But pray for this person and ask that God will give them grace for salvation, for repentance and understanding, even if you feel you want the opposite.
1. Be sure to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, with warmth and attention.
2. Prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning. This is part of the traditional Coptic Orthodox prayers of the morning.
3. Continue to pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. But increase the number of times you prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening.
4. Read the Gospel again carefully, and listen for the words that come alive by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Write this in your notebook and reflect on them through the day.
5. Do not forget to pray for those on your intercession list in the morning and evening, with warmth of heart and attention.
6. Now add as psalm in the evening when you pray. It is usual to pray Psalm 134 in the Coptic Orthodox tradition, with other psalms. Here are the words,
Behold, bless the Lord,
All you servants of the Lord,
Who by night stand in the house of the Lord!
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary,
And bless the Lord.
The Lord who made heaven and earth
Bless you from Zion!
Continuing to think about baptism, the means by which we receive new life in Christ. St Cyril of Jerusalem continues in his instruction to those preparing to become members of the Apostolic and Orthodox Church and says,
For you go down into the water, bearing your sins, but the invocation of grace, having sealed your soul, does not allow you afterwards to be swallowed up by the terrible dragon. Having gone down dead in sins, you come up made alive in righteousness. For if you have been united with the likeness of the Saviour’s death, you shall also be considered worthy of His Resurrection. For as Jesus took upon Him the sins of the world, and died, so that by putting sin to death He might rise again in righteousness; so you also by going down into the water, and being in a manner buried in the waters, as He was in the tomb, are raised again to walk in newness of life.
Some Christian groups certainly teach that baptism is symbolically like the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the Orthodox Church, from the beginning, insists that it is not only a symbol, but this is actually what happens. When we go into the water our corruptible and corrupted human nature dies, and when we come out of the water it is with a new life, the resurrected life of Christ which he has renewed for us and restored to us. We cannot receive this new life without baptism, just as the New Testament teaches when St Peter taught the crowds saying,
Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This is what Orthodoxy teaches. That we must repent and turn to God, and then be baptised, so that we can receive new life with the Holy Spirit.