Joy of All Who Sorrow

21st Sunday after Pentecost / Martyr Longinus the Centurion

Gospel [Luke 8:5-15 (§35); Matt. 27:33-54 (§113)]

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters:

In today’s Gospel reading we move a little further into St Luke’s Gospel and are hearers of one of the Saviour’s most famous parables – the Parable of the Sower. The whole region around the Sea of Galilee, and particular the plains, were renowned for their agriculture and given that up to 80 to 90 percent of the people were involved in working the land, images of sowing and harvesting would have been eminently familiar and accessible to Jesus’ audience. The local people around the Holy City would have been familiar with the cycle of the seasons, the difference in soil as well as the Basaltic boulders which would sometimes come all the way up to the surface, making the ground stony and hard to cultivate. Yet, it is here that we also encounter a paradox. Our Lord makes use of simple and familiar images to aid understanding, yet at the same time, it is clear from our reading, and from other parables, that even Christ’s own disciples don’t immediately understand the meaning of the parable and have to have its meaning clearly explained to them. Our Lord also says quite starkly in verse 10 of our Gospel reading that He speaks in parables so as to ensure that all do not understand what He says:

Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.

To understand and unpick this paradox and the meaning of today’s reading let us turn to the God-inspired words of our holy father amongst the saints, St Cyril of Alexandria.

In his homily on this passage, St Cyril first places our Saviour’s tendency to speak in parables within the wider context of the Prophesies of the Old Testament. He first quotes from the Prophet Isaiah who speaks of the Israel’s Messianic Suffering Servant as One who ‘hideth His Words’ before turning to the Psalmist King David who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, talks in Psalm 77 directly as the future Messiah saying, ‘I will open my mouth in parables’. We also know already that right from the outset of His ministry, although Jesus was followed by crowds, amongst the throng there were many that were not there to learn, understand and follow Jesus, but rather to judge, criticize and find opportunity to accuse Him. This was one of the primary and practical reasons for Jesus adopting a more opaque form of discourse, so as to evade the hearing and understanding of the Scribes, Pharisees and Saducees who were trying continually to undermine Him and His Ministry. As St Cyril says –

For the Word of the Saviour is constantly, so to speak, hidden … inasmuch as they were not worthy to learn the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven, the word was wrapt for them in darkness: for they had killed the holy prophets …

In choosing to speak in parables are Lord does not preach as politicians of today in cheap and easily digestable sound bites. Rather, our Lord’s parables require of us patient and thoughtful engagement and involvement. Christ never shouts at us or make a series of demands or commandments, rather our meek and merciful Lord invites us to come with Him and enter with Him into a journey into our hearts. As, for us to really understand Christ’s parables, we must be willing to engage with the simple images at a deeper existential level and allow ourselves to be humbled by His Word and to see and recognize our sinfulness, our weakness and our failings.

Our Lord starts his most famous parable with these words-

A sower went out to sow his seed:

Who is the Sower? Our Lord Himself in His explanation to the disciples doesn’t tell us this. However, St Cyril clearly draws out that this is none other than our Lord – For He is the Sower of all that is good, and we are His husbandry: and by Him and from Him is the whole harvest of spiritual fruits. The Lord though does tell us that the seed which the sower sows is the word of God. But although Christ the Sower sows the Word evenly and fairly, the end result is not the same.

First we hear that –

as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.

St Cyril explains that,

‘the cause of the seed on the pathways being snatched away, we see in a moment that it is the hardness of the ground. A pathway always is hard and untilled, because it is exposed to every one’s feet …   

It is those who have hard hearts that will be the first to have God’s good word immediately taken from them. As St Cyril again interprets –

All those therefore, whose mind is hard and unyielding … do not receive the divine seed for the divine and sacred admonition finds no entrance into them …

As our Lord identifies the birds of the air stealing the grains with the devil stealing the word of God – ;lest they should believe and be saved’ , St Cyril adds that those whose hearts are hardened have in turn, ‘made themselves a beaten and trampled pathway for unclean demons’.

Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.

Then our Lord next mentions the seed which ‘fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. In His own interpretation of the Parable, our Lord explains that, They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.

This next group of people thus, are those who are spiritually superficial and enfeebled. Talking of Christians in his own Alexandrian diocese, St Cyril says,

For when they enter the churches, they feel pleasure often in seeing so many assembled, and joyfully receive instruction … and when they have gone out of the churches, they at once forget the sacred doctrines, and proceed in their customary course …’.

This feels painfully close to the bone. How easy it is for us to just imbibe our Orthodox Faith at a comforting superficial level. How “easy” it is to be a Christian in church, to be peaceful and full of love for our neighbour. How hard it is though to maintain this in the world, and to put into practice all the things we easily say and sing in church. If it is easy to forget about Christ though in times of peace and prosperity, how much easier is it to also to depart from Christ and to fail to witness to Him when there is any cause for struggle, or when we are being directly persecuted for our Orthodox Faith. However, again, in Christ we do not have a preacher who preaches but does not live out their preaching. As St Cyril asks rhetorically, ‘Did He therefore command us thus entirely to disregard these extreme dangers, while He Himself remained aloof from similar trials? But lo! He laid down His life for us, and with His blood purchased the world’.

Finally, we come to consider the last of the ultimately unfruitful seeds –

And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.

Our Saviour explains –

And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.

St Cyril exposits that ‘the Saviour scatters the seed, which having obtained a firm hold in the souls that have received it, and already, so to speak, shot up, and just begun to be visible, is choked by worldly cares, and is dried up, being overgrown by empty occupations’. In every liturgy we pray together: ‘Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and chant the thrice-holy hymn unto the Life-Creating Trinity, now lay aside all worldy cares’. We pray this and we say this, but, brothers and sisters, do we really do it? Or do we allow the cares of this world, the desires for worldly things to choke the spiritual seed within us and prevent us from cultivating rich and wholesome spiritual fruit?

Let us instead seek to cultivate good earth which as out Lord’s parable ends – sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. What is this good earth? It is, as our Saviour teaches us, ‘an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience’. Let us cultivate good, humble and receptive hearts, which are not hardened and selfish, nor stony and superficial, lacking depth, nor hearts which quickly become distracted and tempted by worldly cares, temptations and material riches. 

Dear ones: today’s parable underlines the importance of synergy within our spiritual life. Our deeply merciful Lord gives us everything we need for our salvation, through His Word and through the Providential ordering of our lives. He even gives unto us sinners His Life-giving Body and Blood. He will do EVERYTHING if we will only give Him our hearts.

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.