When I meet a new person, my immediate impulse is to try to find something familiar in the other, something we share in common. It’s my way of connecting, of identifying a shared experience or interest. It breaks down the awkwardness of, “Who’s this person?” and, “What can we talk about besides the weather?” I do the same thing with a book, TV show, or movie. If I’m going to commit to reading or watching something, I want to enter into the experience as more than just a passive observer. If I’m not active in a relationship, in a book or program, I tend to get bored with it and let it go.
I’ve found the same to be true of my reading of Scripture and the prayers of the Church. If I read a passage of the Gospel or a prayer and I don’t seek to identify with the words, it remains just a passive experience. It’s like I’m watching it happen to someone behind a glass wall. But when I let myself wonder, “How do Christ’s words apply to me?” then I know Christ is speaking to me. And when I ask, “When have I felt like King David in this Psalm?” his words become mine.
This is especially helpful in reading and understanding the parables of Jesus. In the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, Jesus is speaking about the different ways we might receive His message (Matthew 13:1-9,18-23). You could say this is the whole message of the Gospel: of God’s love for us from the Old Testament, through the New Testament and into today through the life of the Church. Jesus calls his message a seed and those of us who hear His message are one of four types of soil.
All of us have or will experience being all four types of soil - the path, on the rocks, among thorns, and good soil. At some point in our life, we will struggle with focusing on our faith and balancing the expectations of the world. See how each type applies or has applied to you in your life.
The first type that Christ talks about in this parable is the seed that fell on the path but was eaten up by birds. Christ says that this represents those who hear the message but don’t understand it and the evil one snatches the message from their hearts (Matthew 13: 4, 19).
The first thing I notice here is that we need to – at least in part – understand the message of the Gospel that has been given to us. There will always be elements of mystery, but we cannot rest at knowing what we know today. If we stop learning, if we give up without understanding our faith, we will be like the seed that fell on the path.
Even after seminary, I find that there is so much about our faith that I don’t know or don’t understand. When I discover something I’m not sure of, I can either passively ignore the fact, or I can make the effort to learn more. I can ask my question to someone I trust, or I can seek out the answer by reading Scripture, learning about the saints, and in prayer.
So many of us struggle to pay attention when we go to church (especially when we’re younger). But if we don’t ask questions and if we don’t understand what we’re doing in the Liturgy, we aren’t going to feel connected or even get the point in going to church. Sometimes you might learn something about God or the Church, and you will be excited about it, but you don't learn more. Maybe you experienced this at camp, and you came back excited about your week of being spiritually plugged in. Or, maybe you have questions about the faith, but you’re not sure who to ask. In this parable, Christ speaks to us and calls us to learn and to get connected so that we can discover the richness of our faith.
Next, Jesus speaks about the seed that fell on the rocks. Because there was little soil, the plants grew but then withered in the sun. Jesus says these represent those who receive the message with joy, but when their faith is tested by hard times they fall away.
There are many things that can challenge our faith. Even those who have a strong faith in Jesus Christ can have a hard time handling the death of loved ones, serious sickness, or the experience of being bullied. It can be difficult to sense the presence of a loving God when one’s experience of life is full of so much injustice and pain.
All of us are going to face a moment when our faith is challenged by turmoil. Maybe we had a good connection to our Church community as kids, but we never grew very deep in our faith. We had fun at GOYA, but we never encountered Christ as a person we could rely on. Our challenge today is to make sure we aren’t like the rocky soil, with shallow faith, susceptible to falling away from Christ.
The life of Christ, the Panagia, and especially the martyrs shows us that being a Christian doesn’t guarantee an easy life. So how do we live with hope in Christ like the martyrs, instead of losing hope and being like rocky soil? I find courage by reading the lives of the saints; they inspire me not to lose hope in tough times. These readings show us how the martyrs and other saints kept their faith in God and His goodness despite the challenges they encountered. No matter what we may be worried about or what we are facing, God can and will help us get through it.
The third place that the seeds fell in Jesus’ parable was a place overtaken by thorns. He says that this represents those of us who are overtaken by the cares of this world. In other words, those who were committed to Christ but who let life get the better of us. Jesus describes this as being choked by the cares of the world.
There are so many things in our lives that compete for our time and many of them will try to draw our attention away from God. We worry about school, work, family, social events, social status, money. On Sundays, we have conflicts with work and sports, with studying and extracurricular activities. Sunday might even be the one day we get to sleep in during a busy week. “There’s just SO MUCH to do!”
“Let us lay aside all earthly cares…,” we hear during the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy. We hear it every Sunday because letting go of all of the noise around us doesn’t come naturally or easily. We have to be reminded to let go of things for an hour or two on Sunday, to just be in the presence of God and not be swallowed up by our to-do list.
So many of us today fall into this category of being sown among the thorns. “Life is just so busy,” is so true that it not only keeps us from Church on Sunday, but also keeps us from reading Scripture and from prayer. Eventually, it stops being true and starts to be our excuse from staying away (though we can’t quite remember the reason). We get so burnt out by life that we see Church as just another thing on our to-do list, and we can’t handle anything more. Instead, our faith is truly the one thing that helps keep us afloat, with a clear mind and proper perspective to handle the “cares of this world”.
The last and ideal situation Christ describes as being good soil where the plant bears a great harvest. The seed didn’t just grow and develop into a good plant, but produced even more seed. The Christian who becomes the good soil is the one who allows the message of Christ to take root in their heart and cultivates a love for and relationship with Christ.
Each person is different, and faith and even relationships don’t come as naturally to each person. So while one person might understand the Christian message from a young age, it might take others until they’re a young adult or a parent for it to sink in. The point isn’t when we become this good soil for the Gospel but that we allow God to work in our lives to become that good soil today.
To continue with Jesus’ gardening metaphor a moment, it takes a bit of work for some soil to become good soil. If an area is rocky or if there’s hard dirt, you’re going to have to till it up, remove the stones, add fresh soil, and then it will be ready for planting. The same is true for us; there may be things we need to let go of, we may need to have our hardness of heart challenged and our hearts softened as we let God work in our lives.
I need to pray each day to remember that I’m not in charge of my life. I need to read Scripture to remember the great depth of God’s love for me. I need to attend the Liturgy to see the rest of Christ’s Body in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ and to receive Him in the Eucharist. I’m not good soil on my own. I have to be worked on, and Jesus does that work on me in and through the Church. And the more this is a way of life for me, the more this will naturally bear fruit in all of my relationships.
The Parable of the Sower and the Seed is a message to all of us to be aware of how we are cultivating a relationship with Christ today. We aren’t perfect, and even as good soil, we are still going to make mistakes. Our goal today is to do our best to live a life that is pleasing to God.
When we bring our faith into our daily lives instead of just going to church on Sunday, we see how much God can do when we let Him. We start to ask questions, to be able to endure hard times, to not let life overwhelm us, and to have a peace of mind we cannot have on our own.
How have you experienced being these four types of soil? Which of these do you most identify with today? What is something simple you can do each day to make your faith more active?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.