The Parable of the Sower

Written by  St. Gregory the Great

 

The lesson of the holy Gospel which you have just read, my dear brethren, requires no explanation, but only exhortation. Since Christ himself explained it, human weakness cannot dare to question His illustration of it; rather, you must dispose yourselves to consider it carefully. If it were I who told you that the seed signifies the word, the field the world, the birds, the demons and the thorns, riches, perhaps you could doubt my words: but it is Our Lord Himself who interprets His own words so that you may learn to interpret the significance of those things which He did set forth fully. At the onset He tells us that He is speaking metaphorically, so that when our littleness grasps the figurative meaning of His words we may give our assent to His doctrine. Who would ever credit me if I wished to interpret thorns as riches, especially since thorns pain us, while riches delight us? And yet these are thorns, because they wound our souls with the pickings of the thoughts they inspire; by enticing us to sin, they besmear us with their pollution like the blood from a wound. So that, in the words of another evangelist, he does not call them riches merely, but deceitful riches. They are deceitful because they cannot satisfy the heart. The only true riches are those which make us rich in virtues. So, brethren, if you wish to be rich, love truth in virtues. So, brethren, if you wish to be rich, love true wealth; if you desire the highest honors, seek the kingdom of Heaven. If you love the glory of high rank, hasten to be numbered among that exalted court of the angels.

Engrave upon your memory those divine words you have heard just now. The word of God is food for the soul, but it is as if our stomachs were sick and rejected food if we hear the word but do not retain food in our stomach, our life is in peril. You have to fear then, the danger of an everlasting death, if you receive the food of this holy admonition, but do not retain the words of life, which are food of the just man. Reflect that everything you do is passing away and that, willingly or unwillingly, each day hastens you toward the last judgment, and none of the time passed will ever be re-granted you. Why should we love what we must leave? Why do we neglect the end we must certainly reach? Remember these words: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” All who were there listening to Christ had ears of the body. But He who said to those same people: “He who hath ears to hear, let him hear,” was referring, beyond, to the ears of the heart. See then that the discourse which you hear takes root in your heart. Take care that it does not fall by the wayside, lest the wicked spirit come and take it away. See that it does not fall on stony ground, and shoot up in good works without the roots of perseverance. Many are pleased by the things they hear, and they resolve to do good works, but as soon as difficulties arise they abandon what they had begun. The rocky ground had no moisture, for it did not bring fruit of perseverance, the seed which sprouted in it. Many, when they hear a sermon against avarice, detest that vice and extol contempt of earthly goods, but as soon as the soul sees something it desires, it forgets what it once extolled. There are those also who, when they are admonished against impurity, not only do not desire to commit sins of the flesh, but are very ashamed of those which they have committed; but as soon as physical beauty tempts them, their heart is so carried away by desires that it is as if they had never resolved to oppose those desires. They fall then into serious sin, which they themselves had condemned on remembering their former guilt. Often we feel compunction for our faults and nevertheless, once our lamentations are over, we return to those same faults. Thus Balaam wept over the tents of the Israelites, asking for a death similar to theirs when he said, “Let my soul die the death of the just; and my last end be like to them,” but as soon as the moment of compunction passed, he was burnt up by the vice of avarice. For the sake of the reward he was promised, he gave counsel for the destruction of this people upon whose death he wanted to model his own; he forgot all repentance and would not quench those covetous flames. We must note well what Our Lord tells us, namely that cares, pleasures and riches smother the divine word. They smother it because they strangle the soul by their endless attacks: they prevent the entrance of good desires, and our soul languishes without the vital breath it needs. Consider also that there are two things with riches: temporal cares and pleasures; because riches oppress our mind with worry and weaken it with abundance. By an apparent contradiction they make their possessors both anxious and pleasure seeking; but since pleasures cannot co-exist with anxiety, at times they afflict men with solicitude, and at other times, by their abundance, dissipate them in pleasures.

The good earth “brings forth fruit in patience,” for the good works which we do are of no value if we will not suffer with patience the wicked actions of our neighbor. The higher we ascend, the harder things we will have to suffer, for as our love for this world weakens, its trials still increase. So that we often see many who are good, and who suffer many tribulations. They flee from all earthly desires, and still they meet with more severe afflictions. But, as Our Lord says, they bring forth fruit in patience, for if they bear this scourging with humility, they will find heavenly rest. Thus the grape is trodden, and gives its wine. So, also, the olive renders up the scum when it is pressed, and its juice becomes pure oil; and in the threshing machine the grain is separated from the straw and, thus cleansed, is stored in the granary. Therefore if a man wishes to overcome his vices completely, then he must be careful to bear humbly the sufferings of his purification.  Then he can hope to present himself unstained before the Judge, his soul purified by the fire of tribulation.

In the porch of the church of St. Clement there was a certain man by the name of Servulus, known to many of you as well as to myself, poor in possessions and rich in merits, incapacitated by a long and painful illness, for from early years until the end of life he was a paralytic. I do not have to remind you that he could not even stand; he had never been able to sit up in bed, nor raise a hand to his mouth, nor turn from side to side. His mother and his brother attended him continually, and by their hands he distributed among the poor whatever alms he was given, he had never learned to read, but had bought the books of sacred scripture and used to have these read him by certain religious to whom he gave hospitality in his own house. In this way he had a complete knowledge of the scripture, as far as his capacity permitted, since, as I have said, he had never learned to read. He always sought, in the middle of his sufferings, to give God thanks and to bless and praise Him day and night. But as time drew near for so much patience to be rewarded, the pains of death attacked him. As he knew that death was near, he desired those pilgrims and others who had enjoyed his hospitality, to stand and sing some psalms with him as death approached. As they sang together with him the dying man suddenly silenced their voices, crying out with a terrible voice: “Be silent, do you hear these praises resound in Heaven?” and as his heart listened to those melodies which he heard within himself, his saintly soul left his body. As it did so, such a fragrant perfume filled the place that those present were filled with unspeakable sweetness, so that it was clear that those voices he had heard were welcoming his soul to heaven. A monk of our monastery who is still alive was present at that occurrence, and he attested frequently and with tears, that while the body remained unburied, the fragrance of that perfume remained. See how this man ended his life, who bore his sufferings with such patience. According to Christ’s words the good earth yields good fruit in patience: ploughed by hardship and severity it yields the harvest of reward. But I would have you ponder, brethren what excuses we are to offer in that strict account which will be demanded of us, we who have received many gifts and use of our members, and nonetheless are reluctant to perform good works, when one who was destitute of means and physical capacity carried out such faithfully the precept of Our Lord. Let us not run the risk of the Lord contrasting us with the apostles, who brought so many multitudes of faithful to Heaven with them, through their preaching; or with the martyrs, who won their heavenly reward by shedding their blood. What defense shall we make then, when we see this Servulus of whom we spoke, his arms rendered useless by his long disease, which yet could not prevent his good works? Dearly beloved, seek to do many good works and imitate the good, making them your model here on earth, so that you may be their companion in that kingdom which is to come.

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