15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Picture: cc Blake Facey
Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced an electrical malfunction? Say you switch on the TV set in your home. And find that nothing happens. No picture on the screen. No sound. What do you do? If you’re like me, you’ll probably wonder if there’s something wrong with the power supply. Is there a blackout? A short-circuit? Is the TV plugged in? Is the main switch on? If everything looks fine, then there must be something wrong with the TV itself. Maybe a fuse has blown.
Sisters and brothers, as you know, we call this troubleshooting. The steps we take, the questions we ask, to uncover the cause of a malfunction. But have you noticed that there is one thing we never check? One question we don’t ask? Something that we always take for granted? We never question the power of electricity itself. We always assume that electricity will make the TV work. And if it doesn’t work, then the problem must lie with the TV. Or with its connections. Never do we think to put electricity into question. Much less do we ever decide to give up using electricity altogether.
When troubleshooting electrical malfunctions, we never question the effectiveness of electricity. But what about when we have to troubleshoot malfunctions in the spiritual life? As you know, all our religious practices are meant to have a positive effect on us. When we gather for Mass every Sunday, for example. To be nourished by the Word of God and the Bread of Life. We expect to be changed for the better. And the same can be said of our other spiritual activities. When we maintain a habit of personal prayer and scripture reading. When we frequent the sacrament of reconciliation. We expect all these activities to make us more joyful and more loving. More peaceful and more caring.
But what if this doesn’t happen? What if, when we come to Mass, we consistently feel bored out of minds? What if, just two seconds into the homily, we feel like reaching for our cellphones to check our messages? Or to send a tweet? What if we leave this worship space, after lifting our hearts in fervent prayer to God, only to find ourselves raising our voices in angry protest against the poor traffic assistants in the carpark? Or a fellow motorist on the road? What if our reading of the scriptures leaves us cold and uninspired? What if, even after saying many prayers, we remain wrapped up only in our own petty concerns? Instead of reaching out to care for those in need? In other words, sisters and brothers, what if we experience a spiritual malfunction? How do we troubleshoot the problem? What questions do we ask?
Our Mass readings help us by first indicating to us the one question we need not ask. Something that we can simply take for granted. And that something is the power of the Word of God. As God reminds us in the first reading, the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do. Much like electricity, the power of God’s Word is such that it is always capable of producing a good effect. So, if there is a malfunction, the problem must lie somewhere else. And it is this somewhere else that Jesus helps us to pinpoint in the gospel.
Here, Jesus compares God’s Word to the seed that always carries within it the power to effect growth. If growth doesn’t occur, the problem lies not with the seed, but with the soil into which it is sown. With the people to whom the Word is proclaimed. And the parable highlights what some of these problems might be: Hearing without understanding. Or understanding too superficially. Or being too distracted by other concerns. By the pleasures and the worries of daily life.
But that’s not all. If we are honest with ourselves, we must also admit that problems may lie not only with the soil. But also with the sower. Not only with the ones who receive the Word. But also with those who, like me, bear the responsibility for proclaiming it. Isn’t this why Pope Francis devotes such a large part of his recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, to the preparation of the homily? For just as a perfectly functioning TV set would not work very well if the connections to the power supply were loose. So too will poorly prepared proclamations of the Word be less fruitful. Even when received by well-disposed listeners like yourselves.
And this insight is important not just for priests like me. It is significant also for lay people like you. For we mustn’t forget that, like me, you too are called not just to receive, but also to proclaim the Word of God. In your own particular state of life. How fruitful are your proclamations of the Word? How well prepared are the homilies that you preach through the lives that you lead? At home... At work... In school...
Which is why, my dear friends, you and I–called as we are to be both listeners and proclaimers of the Word–need to pay careful attention to our scriptures today. In particular, we need to ponder what we find in the second reading. Where St. Paul reminds us that, along with the whole of creation, each of us is groaning inwardly. Yearning to be set free from our slavery to decadence. Hungry for the nourishment provided by the Word of God. Especially as we celebrate this Eucharist.
We need to allow ourselves continually to remain in touch with this inner yearning. Constantly to stay connected to this interior groaning. For this is the only location at which the Word of God is truly received. And from which it can be passionately proclaimed. It is only here, in this sacred interior space, that the power of God’s Word always finds a fertile resting place. Bearing fruit. Now thirty, now sixty, now a hundredfold...
My dear sisters and brothers, how are we, you and I, being challenged to do some spiritual troubleshooting of our own today?