When I moved into my home eleven years ago, I inherited a backyard that once had been landscaped and beautiful. Yet everything had become completely overgrown with weeds, all because it has hardly been touched for nearly twenty years. As the man from whom I bought the house said, “If you don’t stay on top of it, nature quickly takes over.” Ever since then I’ve spent many hours my yard- weeding, tilling, mulching, seeding, planting, fertilizing, and weeding again. And as soon as I think I can take a break, “nature quickly takes over,” and the crab grass and weeds make their appearance once again.
I thought of my yard as I reflected on today’s gospel. Jesus told us that he wants us to be good soil that is receptive to the seed of his word and brings forth abundant fruits of the Spirit. Yet in order for us to become this type of soil, we need to invest effort, discipline, and time- just like with my backyard. Because the moment we don’t stay on top of it, our fallen human nature quickly takes over.
This is because when we aren’t attentive to God’s word, other voices will quickly fill the void. And then it’s these voices- and not God’s word- that will shape our thoughts, actions, and our character. Specifically, I’m referring to the voices of our culture, common sense, and our feelings.
The voice of our culture was loud and clear the other day as I sat next to two young women on an airplane who were deeply engrossed in a copy of “Cosmopolitan” magazine. From what I could see and hear, the articles were all about explicit love-making techniques, horoscopes, shopping, and beauty products: a spirit-killing diet of materialism, self-gratification, superstition, and soft porn. This reminded me that as Christians we need to be very, very careful about our media intake if we don’t want the voice of culture to drown out the voice of God.
The voice of “common sense” of can also be ungodly, although in a less obvious way. Yet if you think about it, so much of what Jesus taught us, and so many of his commandments to us, simply defy common sense. For instance, Jesus teaches us to love our enemies…to carry a cross…to humble ourselves as a servant…to give without counting the cost…that marriage is forever…that all life is sacred…that we should trust only in God. Yet common sense would have us hate our enemies, avoid suffering, promote ourselves, maximize our returns, divorce without fault, judge life by it’s so-called “quality”, and trust in our own abilities. Truly, common sense and godly wisdom can be very different things indeed!
Then there’s the voice of emotion. I imagine that we’ve all done things that felt right at the time but that we came to regret later on. Or maybe we’ve tried to convince ourselves that what we were doing was right because we were feeling afraid or angry or lonely or were caught up in the excitement of the moment. Feelings like this are given to us by God. They serve a purpose and we need to pay attention to them. Yet they can lead us down the wrong path if we’re not grounded in the Word of God.
That’s why Jesus says it’s so important for us to listen to God’s word. In today’s gospel, Jesus quoted a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It said that when we listen to God’s word, God can change us, and God can heal us. And deep down, that’s what we all want! But if we truly wish to receive these gifts, we truly need to listen. Lots of people came out to see Jesus in today’s gospel, but not all of them really listened. I imagine that’s probably true of our gathering today as well. I confess that I can be just as guilty as anyone else about letting my mind wander during the Biblical readings or a homily. Yet the truth is, as I heard it put recently, that we should listen at Mass as if we were listening to the instructions on how to open our own parachute!
Of course we need to do far more than be attentive at Mass in order to truly hear all that God wishes to say to us. As Catholics, we believe that God’s word comes to us in two ways: through the pages of Holy Scripture, and in the authentic teachings of the Church. We need to make it a priority to be receptive to both.
Bishop Robert Morneau of Green Bay says that whenever he confirms young people, he always tells them to remember two numbers: 144 and 168. 144 is the number of ten-minute periods in a day, and 168 is the number of hours in the week. He then asks them from that point on to give ten minutes a day to the study of God’s word and one hour every week to attend Sunday Mass.
And surely that isn’t too much to ask when it comes to the word of God. In reality, it should be just the beginning, or a bare minimum. We’re all busy people. Yet at the same time a typical American today spends dozens of hours each week in front of a television set, not to mention a computer screen. But if we stopped watching one thirty-minute television program a day and read Scripture instead, we could read through the entire Bible twice a year.
I’ve heard it said that one can’t become an effective preacher if all you read is Sports Illustrated. It’s just as true to say that we won’t become strong Christians if we fail to take in the Word of God. Our soil will become shallow, rocky, and weed-infested: precisely what Jesus warns against! We’ll become worldly people, instead of the people of God. That’s why what Jesus told the crowds, he also says to us: “Whoever has ears,” he said, “ought to hear.”