One of the “Do Nots”: Friday of the 16th Week in Ordinary Time

Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 13:18-23

Even though I’ve gone through it countless times over the last 35 years, each time still amazes me. I look at one of my kids, say, “Do NOT do that,” then find myself standing there incredulous, less than 5 minutes later, saying, “Didn’t I just tell you not to do that? Will you ever grow out of this?” But it was just recently, as I was going through it yet again, that I heard a voice in my head say, “You do the same thing.”

Now, that could have been an echo of my mother or father, for I definitely did the same thing to them. It could also have been any of a number of nuns or priests, for I did it to them, too. Come to think of it, it could have been any of the adults who had to deal with me as a kid. It could have been, but I had the distinct feeling that it wasn’t. No, this was my conscience speaking, and not about past behavior, either. The voice didn’t say, “You did the same thing,” it said, “You do the same thing.”

It’s true. Day after day, year after year, God has taught me through his word. It couldn’t be clearer than on a day like this when we literally read the 10 Commandments. Yet time after time, year after year, sometimes not 5 minutes later, I do exactly what God just said not to do. Why? If I understood the gospel today, our Lord has wrapped the reason in a parable which teaches me that I have a hearing problem.

My ears work fine, that’s not the issue. The problem seems to be an inner, spiritual sort of deafness. When Jesus begins his explanation of the parable by saying, Hear the parable of the sower, he clearly wants his disciples to do more than use their ears; he wants their hearing accompanied by an attitude that says, ‘Lord, I am ready to be taught.’ Ask yourself how many times you’ve heard a gospel begin, thought, ‘Oh, I know this one,’ and then tuned out or paid little attention? This is the seed that falls on rocky ground; we hear but lack the docility, the teachable spirit, needed to help the word take root and endure. The gift of docility inclines us to remember that no matter how familiar a passage may seem, there is always something new to be learned.

Our Lord also relates our hearing problem to a lack of understanding. We hear the word, but like the seed that falls on the path, let it go because we don’t understand it. In and of itself, lack of understanding is nothing to be ashamed of. Scripture can be hard to understand; it refers to cultures, peoples, and times far removed from our own. The problem comes in when we make no effort to learn more; to ask for help; to set time aside for study and contemplation of God’s word. Those who do this will find their time and effort well rewarded.

Other times we can’t hear God because, as Jesus implies, his voice is drowned out by our own anxieties. We all know what it’s like to come to Mass or prayer with problems weighing us down. They distract us and before we know it the time has slipped by. It helps to begin preparing for our time with the Lord before leaving home, or if we’re praying at home to sit and recollect ourselves in silence before we begin. I find it helpful to repeat one of the old aspirations of the Church: “Let go and let God.” Not to forget or minimize what is on our mind but to make it part of our prayer, our offering to God, laying it on the altar and offering it as our sacrifice to the only One who can bring good out of it. I can’t think of a better way to quiet the inner voices so we can hear what God is saying.

In years past, I thought of this parable as referring to different kinds of people: Those who hear the word of God and those who do not. That’s fine as far as it goes, but when God reminded me that I am one of the “do nots,” I looked a little deeper and saw the parable referring not to different kinds of people but different states of the spiritual life. That is great news for all of us, for it reminds us that conversion is possible; we can do something about our hearing problem. It is true that in the deafness of our sloth and arrogance, we are in the path; in our ignorance and shame, the rocky ground; in our anxieties and temptations, the thorny ground. But we don’t have to stay there; these grounds aren’t meant to be passively endured but to be grown out of. Christ ends the parable in the place we all want to be, so let us all today resolve that we will show him the humility, docility, and perseverance it takes to be transplanted into the soil that, truly hearing his word, bears fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.

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