We must be good soil and let God's word help our spirit grow

by Thomas Gumbleton

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My guess is that many of us here in this church remember years ago, when we talked about our obligation to go to Mass on Sunday and we made the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin. If we got there before the priest began the offertory, you know we missed that whole part of the Mass, but it wasn't so bad because it was only a venial sin. If you came after that, of course, you were in big trouble. It's a mortal sin.

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalms 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23
Full text of the readings

But since the Second Vatican Council, we don't make that kind of distinction anymore. I don't think any of us probably think in terms of making sure we get to the three principal parts of the Mass. Now the Mass is the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We give much more importance now to the word of God, and that's the way it should be because God's word, as we heard in today's first lesson, is a powerful word. God's word not only tells us something, but it makes something happen.

It's a creative word, and that's what Isaiah was telling the people who had been in exile for so long: "God is going to bring about your return." Now, they saw no evidence of it, but Isaiah says it with firmness, and he said why: "As the rain, the snow come down from the heavens and do not return until they have watered the earth, making it yield seed for the sower and food for others to eat, so is my word that goes forth out of my mouth. It will not return to me empty."

See, God's word is powerful. It's a word that enlightens us, but also can change us, transform us. Look at what happened as we hear in the accounts of creation in Genesis -- God spoke and the worlds were created. Think about Jesus, the beginning of John's Gospel: "And the beginning was the word, the word was with God, and the word was God." Then that word comes into our human history -- Jesus speaking to us, enlightening us, transforming us, if only we listen.

And when Jesus began his public life, he spoke a word that was again very powerful to enlighten us, but also to make something happen. In Mark's Gospel, it's very clear. Jesus begins his public life and says, "The reign of God is at hand." The reign of God is ready to break forth into human history, to transform our world into as close an image of the fullness of God's reign as possible. The reign of God is at hand.

What do we mean by that? Sometimes it's called the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, but that term is not so good because it implies a place. The reign of God is something dynamic. It's God's love at work within each of us, within all of human history, within the world itself. The word of God, or the reign of God, is at hand.

Jesus, after he began his public life -- remember, he went off into the desert for six weeks of prayer and fasting, and then came back, and the first thing he does is go into the synagogue in Galilee, where he used to go when he was growing up. And since he had been away for a while, the leader of the synagogue hands him the scroll, asked him to read.

Remember what Jesus did? He unrolled the scroll until he found the 61st chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Then he read: "The spirit of God is upon me. The spirit sends me to go forth to proclaim good news to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to give the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free as we proclaim God's year of jubilee, the year of favor, when everything is turned around. The rich share what they have with the poor. Everyone has enough; all debts are forgiven. That's the jubilee."

But after Jesus proclaimed those words, the whole synagogue was in silence, and they were looking at him. What's he going to say? "This day, this Scripture passage is fulfilled as you listen." Jesus is telling them, and telling us, "The reign of God is breaking into our world to transform it so that it becomes the fullness of what God intends for all of creation, for all of human life. Every human person is to have a fullness of life, to become the full person they are called by God to be." That's the reign of God, and Jesus says, "The reign of God is at hand," and so it can happen.

In Mark's Gospel, when he tells how Jesus makes that proclamation, he adds the next sentence: "Change your lives. Change your lives." You see, we are being called into this work of God to transform our world, and we can do it if we change our lives, if we begin to live according to the values of Jesus. Seriously follow those values; fully follow them. And what would they be? Well, a year ago, when Pope Francis went to [Brazil], he spoke, as the Holy Father does at one of these World Youth Days, to hundreds of thousands of young people, but it's a message for all of us.

He said to them, "Here's your program for action. There are two places in the Scriptures that you need to look: The beatitudes, the fifth chapter of Matthew's Gospel. Here's how you live according to the reign of God: 'Blessed are the poor.' You reach out to them; you draw them in so they're not poor. 'Blessed are the gentle. Blessed are those who forgive. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the peacemakers.' "

That's the one place Francis says to look, and the other, of course, is the 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel, a parable that we all remember very well. Jesus tells, in a story form, about what would be the last judgment, and he says, "When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. And when I was naked, you clothed me. When I was in prison, you visited me. When I was a stranger, you took me in," and people wondered, "Well, when did we do that?" Jesus said, "When you did it to the least of my brothers or sisters, you did it to me."

See again, as Pope Francis says, "That's the program," that's our program of action if we really want to live according to the reign of God. And, of course in our world, there are so many ways in which we could make very concrete. "When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink." You must be aware of what's going on in the city of Detroit -- poor people are having their water cut off. They don't have access to clean water in their homes anymore.

How could that be we would let that happen? Because people don't have enough resources, they don't have a right to clean water. That's a human, basic human right; every person. And yet in our metropolitan area, we're letting that happen. Or being peacemakers -- who of us can fail to see that what's going on in the Middle East is inevitable? Violence for violence; violence for violence. And when will it stop? When every person in Gaza is killed? Or people in Tel Aviv ... are killed?

When is it going to stop? Isn't it time that we began to reject violence like Jesus did? Say no to violence, and of course no to that violence, and we're involved in it. Where do you think all the weapons come from that are in Israel? We paid for them. We have to reject violence, and that means in that kind of way and war, but also in our everyday life in our communities. Why do we allow so many guns in our country? More than one gun for every household, so we have 85 people a day being killed by guns.

That's not the way of Jesus. If we really listen to his word, we will begin to realize that and let that word change us, and that's where our parable comes in today in the Gospel lesson. It's a very easy parable to understand, isn't it, although Jesus makes it astounding for the farmers who were listening to his words because the normal yield would be sevenfold. He says, "The power of God's word is such that it's going to be 100-fold, 60-fold, 30-fold." Just almost totally out of the realm of possibility, but because it's God's word.

But then again, as we apply the parable, where do we fit in? The rocky soil, where we listen and say, "Oh yes, that sounds good," then we don't let the word seep in, go deep into our whole spirit and change us. So the word is burned up. Or are we like the word, or the soil, where there were thistles? And, "Oh, yeah, we're interested," but then there are so many other things we have to do, and we get all involved in other things that we don't let that word of God thrive in our spirit.

It gets choked out by so many other things where we don't have time to be quiet, to listen. Or maybe we can be that good soil, open ourselves to hear God's word, and let that word begin to grow within our spirit and change us so that then we enter more deeply into the work of Jesus to transform our world into the reign of God.

Even though we might get discouraged and think, "Well, that's never going to happen," it will happen. But in the meantime, there's another passage in one of the letters of St. Paul that perhaps will give us more incentive to listen to God's word and to really try to let it transform us, because Paul speaks about what happens through the fruit of the spirit. He says, "This is what happens in the lives of those who follow the spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, understanding of others, kindness, fidelity, gentleness."

Those are the fruits of the spirit when we listen to God's word and let it come alive within us, and that can begin to happen right now. The whole transformation of the world, of course, is going to take time, but it will begin to be fulfilled more quickly if all of us begin to live according to the way of Jesus, but immediately, we can experience those fruits of the spirit.

I have just a quick example of how that happened to someone. I just read about this yesterday in America magazine, the Jesuit Catholic weekly. The writer was talking about watching a documentary ... about the Freedom Riders. Remember back in the '60s -- those of us who are old enough can remember, not everybody -- but people went on the buses and gathered together with black [people]. White people joined black people to try to break down the segregation on travel, and one person who did it was attacked.

He was, his name is Jim Zwerg. At the bus terminal in Montgomery, Ala., a racist mob knocked his teeth out, were about to kill him, when a black man stepped in and ultimately saved his life. In an interview in USA Today, Mr. Zwerg described what went through his head and heart as he was being beaten unconscious. He said, "In that instant, I had the most incredible religious experience of my life. I felt a presence with me -- a peace, calmness. It was just like I was surrounded by kindness and love. I knew in that instant, whether I lived or died, I would be OK."

He was benefitting from those gifts of the Holy Spirit. They come to us when we listen deeply to God's word and carry it out and begin to help make the reign of God come into its fullness.

[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church, Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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