A few days ago I wrote on the Verbum blog about St. Francis de Sales and his teachings drawing me closer to Christ throughout 2013. While ongoing sanctification is a major underpinning to what I wrote and how I analyzed myself, I didn’t feel it necessary to explain or defend ongoing sanctification. The same is true for this blog post. Whether you’re Catholic and you adhere to the doctrine of ongoing sanctification or you’re a Protestant interested in a practical biblical theology for the practice of holiness, I want to offer my thoughts on today’s Gospel reading. Check it out before reading further—Mark 4:1-20—it’s a long passage, but this analysis assumes you’ve read it through.
In the middle of this passage, before Jesus offers an explanation for those whom the parable has mystified, Jesus has this to say:
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ”
This passage is a little mystifying. Jesus speaks in parables and concludes by saying that he does it on purpose to obfuscate the understanding of those outside of the Kingdom of God. But there’s a lot more here than just mystery and revelation. Jesus explains the parables to his twelve apostles, enlightening them of the meaning of the parable while leaving the crowds in the dark. Does God create intentional outcasts of his kingdom?
I don’t believe this is the case. Interestingly, the parable is self-referential. This is where the analysis of the passage gets weird—I’m getting the feeling of déja vù as I write this, and am tempted to drop an Inception joke. You see, not only is the understanding of the parable itself withheld from the masses of Jesus followers, but the parable itself is an explanation of why the followers don’t understand it in the first place.
Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all of the parables?
We often think of the parable of the sower as being a parable of conversion. Jesus explains that the seed that is sown is, essentially, the Gospel, or the Word. The various states of soil represent the circumstances surrounding the people who receive the Gospel message, and for whatever reason, be it thorns, rocks, or weeds, the Gospel message doesn’t last long in that person’s heart. It is a parable of conversion; but much more than that, it is a parable of understanding. You see, when Jesus asks the question, “How will you understand all of the parables?” the scope of this parable’s importance becomes paramount.
Now, suppose we make a parable out of this parable. (Have patience with me—I was an English major.) Imagine this parable is the full Gospel—it is the Word of God, the Good News, and the light to the nations. How can you fully understand it? Do you understand God, his methods, ways, purposes, and plans? This parable is a very apt microcosm for the entire Gospel of Mark, and even for the whole New Testament. Numerous commentators before me (Protestant and Catholic) are in agreement that understanding of God comes first from God—for how can we understand any aspect of him unless he allows us to? Therefore, and these same commentators agree, the understanding of this parable is given to us by God—just as we here see Jesus imparting understanding of the parable to his Twelve. But do the Twelve fully understand it? I suspect not. I suspect that our knowledge-based understanding of God and our practice-based holiness go hand-in-hand.
Remember what I said earlier about the parable being a parable of conversion? The seed is sown into different types of soil, where it either takes root or doesn’t. Now, apply this to the principle of ongoing sanctification. We are constantly re-converting ourselves to God—repenting, returning, and redirecting our actions, words, and thoughts to God. The seed—God’s Word, or, more appropriately here, the Gospel and God’s Truth—is being sown into us each day. If you’re Catholic, then this applies even more literally—we have daily readings from the Gospels every day of the year! Whether you’re aware of it or not, God’s truth—his love—is constantly bombarding your heart, looking to take root.
Now that you understand the parable, this brings the most pertinent question before us:
What type of soil are you giving to God’s word? This Great Sower is endlessly reaching out to you. Is your mind open to him? Are you willing to let his love take root? Are you even aware of the state of your soil?
I’ve been thinking lately about the state of the soil where God’s Gospel message is planted upon me, and it shames me to admit that this soil is pretty dry. Filled with entertainment, food, friends, internet, beer, general laziness, and the freedom to do whatever the hell I want, I’m not reacting with conversion or repentance when God’s Word is sown upon me. And trust me, it’s sown through my Christian friends, through the Catholic Church’s daily readings, through prayer, the Mass, and through theology books, but the evidence of a shallow root is quite clear. I’m not able to focus or give my attention for lengthy periods of time. I’m unable to adhere to any kind of discipline or routine. I’ve become weak, lazy, and selfish.
But I know the causes of poor soil. In my case, it’s not for lack of engagement with my Church, community, prayer, or Scripture reading. These things are various forms of the seed, and tossing more seed upon the soil isn’t going to improve the soil. Rather, I need to prepare my mind and body for the reception of God’s Word. My attention span and ability to study have been shot by quick and easy entertainment, fast food, and my ability to control many aspects of my life—who I spend time with, where I go, what I do. I need to prepare myself to convert back to him.
I need to get rid of the distractions. Eliminate the laziness. It is in circumstances like these that various Catholic and secular disciplines can really make the difference. I’m talking about routine exercise, avoidance of YouTube and Facebook, regular reading (and I mean real reading—books, poems, novels, essays, theology, anything longer than a blog post), and controlled diets (not a “diet” as in, eating less food, but controlling how much goes in to you, when it goes in, and what is the contents of your sustenance). What kind of music do you listen to? What kind of games do you play and how do they affect your attitude and heart? How do the people you spend time with affect the ways you think and process reality and affect your behavior and attempt at holiness?
It is for this reason why we Catholics fast from meat on Fridays. Why we sacrifice something significant from our lives during Lent. Why penance is not in any measure a form of atonement, but preventative care. Penance prepares us to receive Christ again in the future, when he calls us again, and we decide whether we’re converting back to him.
Are you prepared to convert to Christ’s call? God is sowing his Word to you even now.
What kind of soil have you prepared for him?