THE SUNDAY CALLED SEXAGESIMA
We rejoice this morning as those who have been called by God to labor in his vineyard, to do good works befitting of heavenly citizens. The church in her wisdom has provided these three pre-lenten ‘gesima’ Sundays to prepare us for the rigor of Lent. Our fight is spiritual, fought against the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is a battle to defeat sin and vice, to take the high ground of holiness and virtue.
Last Sunday, St. Paul explained this battle in athletic terms, likening the Christian struggle for holiness to a marathon. The prize: an incorruptible crown which is eternal life, that great salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ, the prodigious prize awarded to all who cross the finish line. The Apostle tells us that self-mastery and self-discipline along with the virtue of temperance must be the steady diet and routine for any serious and qualified competitor, “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (2 Cor 9:27).
But Jesus himself provides the prevailing metaphor of laboring in his vineyard, where in we understand the Christian as the one who has heard the Gospel call to labor unto holiness, “Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”. The free grace of salvation is not without its enjoined call into the Master’s vineyard to do the good works which he has prepared for us to walk in.
On this Quinquagesima Sunday we laborers are being called to bear fruit in this world amidst its temptations and challenges. With patient fortitude we are to bring forth a bountiful yield. And what fruit does the master of the field desire? Is it not ultimately charity? Is not love the fruit of the kingdom? Love of God and love of neighbor… is this not the final goal of all spiritual striving and self-mastery? “For the fruit of the spirit is love…” Says St. Paul. There is no greater calling, no surpassing vocation, then to love as Christ loves; the fruit of perfection is love; it is the goal of all Christian piety.
It is the good soil which brings forth fruit. This Jesus teaches once again, through a parable, perhaps one of the most well known of his parables: the Parable of the Sower. One might be tempted to rename it ‘the parable of the soils’. For his great concern is that the good seed of the gospel finds the good ground, fertile soil where it can take root and bring fruit to perfection, yielding some thirty, some sixty, and some hundred-fold!
Jesus is, as we sang, “the Sower who has come from afar”, who generously casts seed throughout the field of the world. The One who has called us into his vineyard is also the Sower of the seed which is the good news of the Gospel, the salvific word spoken in these last days. The seed represents the revelation of God in Christ, the incarnate logos who was manifested to Jew and Gentile alike, the promised Messiah who came to save all men: those called in the morning and at the eleventh hour. He was no stranger, but came as the true light and life, he of whom the Apostles heard, and saw, whom they looked upon and handled with their hands (1 John 1.1). This blessed sower generously casts the seed of the Gospel upon every type of soil without regard or scrutiny, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
Now, the various soils in which the seed lands illustrate the effect the seed has on the various hearts and minds of those who receive it. The parable is frighteningly explicit in that the seed often has little or no lasting effect. For of the four soils in the parable, three are bad, and only one is good. Non will inherit the Kingdom of God, unless they be the good ground. But the Sower is generous. Our Lord and Savior still sows His seed, and still gives the opportunity to a man to accept Him and to follow His commandments.
First, there is the soil on the Wayside. These are bystanders who overhear the word but are not directly engaged in its reception. This seed, Jesus says, “is trampled down, and the birds of the air devour it.” Next is the Rocky Soil. This is shallow soil in which no lasting roots can be established. Without moisture the germinating seed withers and dies. Jesus speaks of the third one as the Thorny Soil. This seed takes root but is finally overcome by the thorns and thistles, it is choked out and dies.
“But some fell on Good Ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” The good ground, Jesus explains, “are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.” The good soil is that which having received the seed, nurtures it to do what it is meant to do: to abundantly yield fruit. The Sower desires success, he wants the seed of the Gospel to bring forth the fruit of righteousness, or put another way, his laborers are not to work in vain: they shall produce.
Productive soil is of an honest and good heart. It is of a moral quality and integrity that consciously chooses the way of Christ. And here we come face to face with the importance of self-mastery, of temperance, of putting sin and the vice of concupiscence to death: to walk according to the calling we have received, in righteousness and holiness all the days of our lives. No longer under the enslavement of sin but as slaves of righteousness,
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
This is why we strive to bring the body under subjection and every thought captive, actively and willingly being conformed to Christ that we might one day be with him, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” The Good ground is tilled and carefully cultivated, clods of dirt have been broken up, and it has been finely sifted, watered, and hedged roundabout to keep the pests out. It is guarded so nothing can steal the fruits it will produce. There is effort involved in preparing good ground. It doesn’t just "happen" on its own. Fruitful seed growing takes attention, care, and concern.
Next, Jesus says that the good ground is that which holds fast to the word. The seed remains in the good soil, it is neither trampled, nor does it wither, or choked out by thorns and thistles, but it remains, it abides, its roots run deep, “like a tree planted by the water-side, that will bring forth its fruit in due season.” The good soil ‘clings to the word’ forever wedded to the power and promise of the Gospel. Good and beautiful are the souls that take deeply into themselves the seeds of the Word, and keep them, and tend them with care. They are rich and fruitful soil who yield fruit an hundredfold.
Friends, the word must live in us and us in it. We must abide in Christ who is the very true word, the word of life to all who believe, the very water which brings forth the fruit of the kingdom, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.” Christ alone is good and in him we participate in divine goodness, bear perfect fruit, and inherit the kingdom heaven. So says the Lord, “every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Lastly, in describing the good soil, Jesus says that it “brings forth fruit with patience.” Note the obvious: good soil actually produces fruit; it is productive. But more importantly, it does so “with patience.” Within the good soil is the grace of fortitude, with patience it bears fruit. Here St. Luke uses the greek word, ὑπομονή, patience, which is more fully understood as, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance, or patient endurance. The Lord calls his laborers to embrace the virtue of fortitude, which is the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty. Not only are we to ‘cling’ and ‘hold fast’ to the seed but we are to bear up under the allure and enticements of the devil, the world, and the flesh. And our Lord Jesus, in explaining this very parable, forewarns us as he explains why the others soils fail to produce.
Those on the wayside are they that hear; but then comes the devil (the birds of the air come and pluck the seed), He takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. The Devil snatches the seed of the good news of Jesus Christ from the heart. Craftily he does he work, often disguising himself as an angel of light, through attractive and shiny things, but always with lies, “for he is the father of lies” and in him resides not life, but death. His sole purpose “to kill, steal, and destroy.” Listen to one who was very aware of the Devil’s schemes,
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith…”
Let us pray for the grace of fortitude, that by humility, sobriety, and vigilance, we may resist the malicious schemes of the enemy.
Not only the Devil but the temptations and trials of the world can wither and kill our fruit bearing. They on the rock are they which, when they hear, receive the word with joy, says Jesus, and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. Shallow soil is so very susceptible to times of trial and hardship, whether from within or from without. When persecution of all kinds come upon the Rocky soil, it is incapable of enduring and holding fast because the roots of faith are not deep, like the house built on sand it crumbles in the face of the storm. St. Paul was a man familiar with persecution which he suffered at the hand of his fellow countrymen, bore the pain of the Roman cane, was robbed as he traveled, and stoned by mobs.
He suffered at the cruel hand of nature, shipwrecked, spending days lost at sea, overcome by floods and all sorts of natural calamities. He was not only tormented by men and nature but within his very soul, suffering daily for the church, writing “besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” Just imagine the incredible burden of concerns and worries he carried for every single church, for every single believer. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? He’s in anguish, burning for every weak believer who is or has been led astray, sharing in their stumbling as their faithful shepherd.
Speaking as the fool speaks, Paul boasts to the Corinthians of his many trials. And why? Is he boasting to show how brave and wonderful he is? No! And this is the key to patient endurance, Paul is not boasting in himself (as the false Apostles were doing in Corinth), but of how great and wonderful the grace of God is that sustains him in his weakness! Patience, fortitude, humility, every virtue is a work of grace, it is in Christ that we are strong, in Christ (or in clinging to him) we endure.
“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.” Fellow laborers, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” When by the grace of God you overcome and endure give thanks to God: “Of such a one will I boast” says the Apostle, “yet of myself I will not boast, but in my weaknesses.”
Finally, we must resist the temptations of the flesh. “And that which fell among thorns are they which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.” If we are going to bring forth the fruit of perfection we must not give into worldly temptations of busyness and material possession, nor be overcome by their concerns: for these choke the seed to death. Ease, comfort, gain, possession, accomplishment, more and more… all good things in moderation and in the context of their temporal value.
But when the desire for attainment eclipses the desire for Christ, the very vine which feeds and nourishes the branches of the tree are choked. We must endure under the never-ending attraction and allure of this world and what it offers, keeping created things in their rightful place subordinated under Christ from whom all good things come. Let us not confuse the gifts with the giver and Lord, let us not be as him who gains the whole world but loses his soul.
Christ is in the good soil and the good soil is in Christ, the seed embedded in the earthly soil of the heart where, when cultivated, guarded, and nourished produces the perfect fruit of righteousness: a yield which comes by patient fortitude. St. James says, “patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing.” (James 1:4).
Our growth in holiness is nothing more (or less) than the exercise of patience under adversity for the love of God. Virtue is tested by people and by the daily circumstances of life. When, for the love of God, we meet these challenges and adversities with patience and meekness, we grow in holiness. The motivation of the good soil, that which is the desire of the honest and good heart, is the love of God, and, also, the love of neighbor. It is this “purity of intention,” which most evidences the supernatural grace of God, the grace of the Gospel, which infuses the soil of the heart. For it is grace that takes the cursed ground of disobedience and restore it to Eden, the place of our participation in the life of God through Jesus Christ.
Let us therefore without ceasing hold fast by our hope and by the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ who “took up our sins in His own body upon the tree, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,” but for our sakes He endured all things, that we might live in Him. Let us therefore become imitators of His endurance; and if we should suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him. For He gave this example to us in His own person, and this we believe: Christ is our strength, let us boast in him. Amen.