The parable of the sower and the soils through the lens of the Rule of Benedict July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Lynne Smith, OSB
Because we celebrate the Solemnity of Benedict and Scholastica this weekend and because the parable of the sower and the soils is so familiar, I thought it would be interesting to consider the parable through the lens of the Rule of Benedict. So in full disclosure, I’m deviating from using the historical critical method of analyzing the text and instead considering the parable in the manner of lectio divina, holy reading.
For years when I read or heard this parable, I would immediately think about the many ways the soil of my heart was hard like the path or rocky or choked by worries. I knew I hadn’t yielded fruit 100% and I considered a 30% yield wasn’t good enough. With that mindset, I heard judgment in this parable on the many ways I fell short.
Two things have helped me move from that stance. The first is to realize that our hearts are made of all four soil types. The second is to hear this parable together with the first verse of the reading from Romans for today. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” That is a good verse to remember anytime we are judging ourselves harshly.
Benedict would support this. He writes in the prologue that God already counts us as God’s own (RB Prol. 5) and that we undertake the spiritual journey “with God’s good gifts which are in us (RB Prol.6).” This is where we start with our Gospel and our Benedictine life.
Jesus begins this parable by telling the people: “Listen.” That is also how Benedict begins his Rule. Benedict adds, “attend to these instructions” from one who loves you “with the ear of your heart” (RB Prol. 1). Benedictine life is not a matter just of the head but of the heart. So as I listen to this parable, I engage my heart, my spiritual ear.
When I listen with the ear of my heart, my attention is drawn to the sower and her liberal manner of sowing the seed. This is not a matter of drilling the seed into carefully prepared soil in precisely measured rows as farmers do today to ensure the best productivity. No, this seed is flung with abandon everywhere: on the path, on rocky ground, among the weeds as well as on soil that is prepared to receive it. This brings to mind another phrase from Benedict. He says, “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere. (RB 19:1)” It’s as if God has flung the divine self far and wide. Signs of God’s presence surround us everywhere: in the beauty of creation, in the kindness of a friend, in an angry neighbor, in the faces of strangers and enemies, in the rainbow and in the storm. The signs of God’s presence are hidden in plain sight all around us every day. Listen; look; hear and see, say Jesus and Benedict. Is my heart open to hearing, to seeing, to receiving God all around me? Not always. So many of these small signs fall on the path of my day, and I never notice them. Sometimes I notice, but don’t stop to take in the fact that this moment is from God, and God wants to speak to me through it. Sometimes, I notice and hear a word from God, but then my worries or preoccupation or my inner critic takes over and the word fades away. Sometimes, my heart is open, and the word finds a place there. I cherish and rejoice in what see and hear, or I lament and ask for mercy. I give thanks. I am touched, moved to action because obedience to what I hear involves a response. Sometimes that response may be simply to rest in God’s presence. Those times when I do hear and take the word to heart affect the way I am with the next person I meet, and the seed bears fruit.
So how do I cultivate the soil of my heart? That, of course, is what the practices of Benedictine life are for. Benedict tells us to “prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience” (RB Prol. 40.) Obedience for Benedict means listening with the ear of one’s heart and responding to one who loves us. A Benedictine community where we learn how to love and serve God and one another is “a school for the Lord’s service”. The Benedictine way we prepare our hearts and bodies is through holy reading (lectio divina), communal and personal prayer, participation in community life and sharing in common work, showing love and respect, restraint of speech, mutual obedience, bearing with one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior and more. Disobedience, murmuring and clinging to one’s own will are what hardens one’s heart according to Benedict.
When I consider the yield of the seed in good soil, I see that even 30% is miraculous. From one seed comes 30, or 60 or 100 more? In the Prologue, Benedict says that it is God’s power working is us that brings about the good (RB Prol 29). And he says: “What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of grace” (Prol 40). We cultivate the soil of our hearts, but it is God who gives the growth.
So we give thanks for our God who is such a generous sower of love and grace, a God who knows the mix of soils in our hearts and continues to cast the seeds of love, mercy, beauty and justice around us each day. Amen.