We say that words are ten a penny. But that depends on who’s saying them. It also depends on what the words are about. Sad to say, we live in a time when the words of politicians and other public figures cannot always be trusted. In recent times, people have even begun to talk about “fake news”, as if the bias of the media for this or that group were not already bad enough. Yet, people want the truth like they want fresh air and water. People prefer to know how bad things are rather than be fed sweet lies. For sweetness only turns to bitterness when the lies are exposed. People also want a balanced diet of good news and bad news. Not everything in the world is awful. Not everything is wonderful.
In our own personal relationships, too, words are hugely important. If we are not honest with each other, a later correction of our lies, especially if they have been constantly repeated, may not be enough to stop the relationship from breaking up. And yet, telling the truth bluntly can sometimes be just as bad. Because speaking is not just about words. It’s also about sensitivity to who and how the other person is. You may need to speak a hard truth to someone you love, but to do it when their mother has just died or when they are feeling low for whatever reason is probably not the time to say it. Or, indeed, it might just be precisely the right time to say it. It depends on what the hard truth is, on how you would say it and on whether the vulnerability of the other will actually help them take it in.
All these caveats about what to say and how or when to say it are part of our fragile human condition. And they can be exhausting! “Words are under your control until you speak them, but you come under their control once you speak them” (Ali Ibn Abu Talib). “Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall” (Jodi Picoult). The influence of sin in our lives and world can easily rob our words of the refreshing simplicity of the truth.
The more you love someone, of course, the more you will trust their words and the more easily you will take correction from them. When words are spoken out of true love, they give life. They set in motion a beautiful process of growth: growth in the truth as you come to know yourself, the other and the world more clearly and fully; growth in love as you come to choose and rejoice in the truth, your own truth, the truth of the other and the truth of the world.
The words of Christ are in this sense like the words of no other. They are not ten a penny. They don’t proceed from a desire for power or gain of any kind. His words can never hurt us because His word created us in the first place. You and I, we are literally each a living word of His love. Just as light itself exists because He said, “let there be light”, so you and I exist because He said, “let there be you.” For that same reason, when we truly listen to His Word we come to know the truth of who we are, of who others are, of what the world really is, of what life really is. His Word literally “e-ducates” us, in the literal meaning of education as “drawing us out” of ourselves, in the way the sun and rain draw plants out from their original seeds.
In the word of Christ, especially the Gospels, He speaks afresh on every page the truth that created us, the truth that cleanses and heals us, the truth that sets us free. When you open the Gospel, what St. Paul calls the aroma of Christ, the Spirit of Christ, wafts out, ready to enchant your mind and imagination and to operate on your heart and through your heart to give life and joy to your very bones.
And here lies the great challenge for us, which Jesus lays out in the parable of the sower. He is basically saying that unless we listen to His Word with that open heart we will never be healed of our sin and fragility. We will never be the glorious beauty He created each of us to be. And if we are not healed, we will produce no harvest of love or holiness. And the parable teaches, too, that Christ never forces His Word on us. That’s the image of the sower going out to sow which, at the time of Christ, meant that the sower threw the seed all around him, letting it fall where it might. It is not the sower’s fault if the seed does not take deep root and grow. It depends on where it falls, on what quality of terrain it encounters. Remember that, as He told this parable, Jesus was sitting in a boat with a huge crowd before Him. He Himself was the Sower throwing His Word out among the crowd to encounter different terrains in the hearts of His hearers. It would be up to them to take in His word and let it grow, or not.
It’s always difficult to accept the hard parts of Christ’s teaching, but unless we do we our relationship with Him cannot be sincere. And so, we need to accept that the things He says were lacking in many of His hearers will be among the hearers of today. He speaks of those who hear and hear again but won’t actually listen. Those who see or look again and again, but never actually perceive. And most tragic of all, those whose hearts have become so coarsened or hardened that they neither understand His Words nor want to understand them because, for some inexplicable reason, they do not want to turn to Him and be healed.
And I suppose before any of us, myself included, might be tempted to point the finger at others as being among the deaf, the blind and the unrepentant, we each need to ask ourselves where the thorns might be in our own hearts which choke a deeper receptivity and obedience to the word of Christ. Indeed, might there be a zone in my heart which is coarse, on which the word of Jesus falls but can never take any root and is carried off by the birds of the air? Perhaps even more dramatically, we can ask ourselves: do I even let the seed of Christ’s word fall on my heart at all? There can be an arrogance in our age of plenty and scientific sophistication which dismisses the Gospel as pious mumbo jumbo or as alright for the uneducated …. There can be a presumptuousness of mind and heart which refuses even to question whether there is anything in my life that needs healed or opened up to the truth and power of Jesus Christ.
For good or for ill, the Sower will continue to throw out the seed of His omnipotent Word of creative love until its purpose will be achieved. May the Lord grant all of us an open heart to absorb his Word, no matter what it costs us, and to exult one day with joy as, to our own amazement, He shows us that we have yielded an abundant harvest, now thirty, now sixty, now a hundredfold. Lord, keep that seed coming!