Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
First, a cute story. As she prepares to begin a new lesson, a teacher realizes that she can’t take for granted that her students understand the necessary vocabulary. So she asks her class, “Can someone please define the words ‘ignorance’ and ‘apathy’?” The question is met with complete silence. She repeats, “Is anyone able to explain these two words?” Again, nothing. So she turns to her prize student and asks, “Bobby, can you tell your classmates the meaning of ‘ignorance’ and ‘apathy’?” Bobby shrugs his shoulders and says, “I don’t know…and I don’t care.”
Now, a true story. The father of a young priest was recently ordained a permanent deacon. Father and son, deacon and priest, were exchanging ideas about preaching. (I must interject that my own father frequently wants to give me advice about my homilies…but that’s a different subject altogether.) The priest shared with his dad the sobering insight, “When you get up to preach, don’t presume that they care.”
The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
This Sunday, Jesus tells us the parable of the sower. Jesus is the Sower; in fact, Jesus is also the Seed: the Word of God come in human flesh. He doesn’t exactly get a very good return on his investment: only one quarter of the seed he sows survives to produce any fruit. The difference isn’t in the seed that’s sown (all of it is of the very highest quality); it’s in the condition of the soil. Whether or not the ground is ready to receive it makes all the difference in the world for the seed. Many will see and hear, but not all will understand.
For nearly all of her history, the Church has carried on this work of sowing the seeds of the Word and has done so by combating ignorance. In the face of many false notions, she has taught her doctrine with clarity and depth—helping people to come to know the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. The Church could do this when she could suppose that people wanted to know the truth: when one could rightly suppose that men and women—regardless of their language, race, and culture—were seeking answers to spiritual questions.
But nowadays, things are quite a bit different. What we’re up against isn’t only ignorance, but apathy. What we’re up against is sluggishness. What we’re up against is boredom. The Church keeps asserting answers…when people are no longer asking the questions. The Church can teach about the true nature of God…but what does it matter when God is whoever you decide him to be, or has been basically rendered unnecessary? The Church can announce the Good News of salvation and forgiveness….but what does it matter when sin is only how you define it? The Church can point out sure steps on the way to heaven…but what does it matter if you figure that everybody gets to heaven, or you’re not even sure you want to go there yourself? It’s like trying to sell dental floss to someone with no teeth: no matter how fine its quality or reasonable the price, they’re still not buying.
This isn’t to say that doctrine is irrelevant. Far from it! The truth is always pertinent. We still have the answers—which have not and cannot change. But you can’t help people to know if you first can’t get them to care. The soil must be ready to receive the seed.
How can we meet this challenge? If we want others to see that faith matters, then we must make sure it matters to us. We must begin by turning over the soil in our own hearts: removing the stubborn rocks, tearing out the choking thorns. Few people are converted by arguments and lectures, but many are won over by a compelling real life example. You and I—day in and day out, not only when we’re here at Mass—must live and act in such a way that our lives wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever if we weren’t disciples of Jesus Christ and members of the Catholic Church. What difference does faith really make if we’re simply like everybody else? The best way to convince others to care is to be sure we passionately care ourselves.
Jesus is still sowing good seed in abundance. Let’s make ready the soil to receive it. Let’s help our friends and neighbors to rediscover the questions. Let’s show them how just much Jesus and his Word really matter.