The following is a homily for the fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.
I have a friend who is an absolute model citizen. He is among the most principled people I know: he works hard, is dedicated to his family, gives to charity, reads the Bible and prays every day, and is just a genuinely nice guy. I remember walking with him once in the city one night when a woman, carrying two big bags, tripped and fell in the street. Without hesitation, he jumped right in front of a moving car to stop her from getting hit, helped her pick up her belongings, and made sure she got to the sidewalk safely. If I were in trouble, I don’t think it would matter what time it was or what I was doing, he would get in his car and drive for hours to help me. Truly, my friend is a heroic man in the most ordinary of situations.
And yet, this friend is not without his flaws. His principles have a way, sometimes, of getting in the way of compassion—he can be quick to judgment, holding people to unfair standards. He struggles to see why anyone would have a different opinion than himself, and has been known from time to time to be somewhat offensive in the name of righteousness. He jumped right in front of a moving car to protect that woman, yes, but then spent the next two minutes making fun of her for being drunk and condemning the woman for her bad decisions. I may call him in a crisis, but I’ve also muted him on Facebook because I’ve had enough of his condescension. Truly, my friend is kind of a jerk sometimes.
And so I ask you. Having heard what you have about my friend, would you say that he is a good person or a bad person? Put another way, where do you think he would fit into Jesus’ parable today?
We hear this passage every year, it’s one of the most familiar parables to us, and so I want to put it to action. Where does my friend fit? Is he the path among the birds, hearing the word but falling to the devil’s wishes? Is he rocky ground, loving God for a moment but then quickly getting bored with Christian life? Is he like the thorns, tricked by riches and anxiety of the world? Maybe he’s the perfect rich soil, completely accepting God in his life in every way.
If you ask me… it’s not so clear. He’s kind of a mixed bag. Like, you know, all of us.
Unfortunately, we have this tendency sometimes to use grand labels, to put others, to put ourselves, into big “black and white” categories. People are good or bad. Good people are always good and always do good things, and bad people are always bad and always do bad things. We know, obviously, that this is not true. Our human experience is far more complicated than this. There aren’t just two categories of people. We don’t always act consistently.
You can be an incredible mother to your children, sacrificing your wants and needs for their sake… while at the same time being kind of lazy and inconsiderate to your coworkers.
You can be extremely charitable, giving to nonprofits and going on mission trips… while also being a bit racist.
You can be humble and loving in one moment only to be grouchy and unforgiving in the next.
It’s not that we all have schizophrenia or that we’re not suffering from split personality disorder—this is just the nature of being human. As beings that are both spirit and flesh, imperfect beings with free will, none of us goes through this world as wholly good or wholly bad. Each and every one of us, each and every one of our friends, each and every one of our enemies, has the possibility of goodness, the capacity to hear the word of God and produce abundant fruit. There are times when we are the good soil. In just the same way, we also have the possibility of doing evil, the capacity to ignore God’s word and do what we want, to grow very little. Sometimes, we are the path, the rocky soil, the thorns.
Even the saints weren’t perfect soil all of the time but struggled with sin even to their death. Remember what St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” This is not Paul before his conversion, Paul before meeting Christ. This is Paul the Apostle, Paul the great saint called to build the Church. And yet, he still struggles with temptation, still struggles with sin. He does what he hates. He writes in his letter today that “all creation is groaning in labor pains.” This is what he means. There is a tension within us, that even the best among us can be rocky at times, can fail to produce good fruit. Yes, even the greatest of saints remain sinners.
Similarly, even the worst of sinners can, from time to time, be good soil and do heroic things. In the book of Joshua, it is Rahab, a prostitute, who saves the Israelites, who acts heroically for the mission of God. The reason that Moses fled Egypt in Exodus 2 was because he killed a guy. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, thought about what he was going to do in a premeditated fashion, and killed a guy. This was the man God used to free his people, the greatest of the prophets in the Old Testament. Was Rahab good soil or rocky soil? Was Moses good soil or rocky soil?
When I hear this parable from Jesus, I don’t think of these four categories as rigid, permanent states of life, that we all fit perfectly into one of these boxes and never stray from them. What I hear Jesus saying is that he is the word come down from heaven, he is the seed looking for a place to grow. Sometimes, we’re not open to him in our lives. In some situations, we’re a path, a rocky soil, thorns. But other times, in other situations, what we should strive for at all times, we can be good soil. What I hear him saying, what I have experienced myself, is that each moment is a new opportunity. No matter how good or bad you have acted before, every new situation gives us the option to choose: am I going to hear God’s word and nurture it, or am I going to throw it away?
It’s in looking at the parable in this way that I exhort you to one simple thing this week: stop labeling people. There is no such thing as someone who is pure goodness. There is no one who is pure evil. We, all of us, are complex mixes. Not a single one of us is a barren wasteland with no possibility of growth, and not a single one of us is perfect soil without any rocks or weeds. Each and every one of us is a wide open field with some good soil and some not so good soil.
To label someone bad and dismiss them because of something they’ve done—he’s a criminal, she’s an adulterer—is the epitome of judging people as Jesus forbids. It takes who a person was on their worst day and treats them as if that is the totality of their being. It’s just not true. It’s not fair. And it’s not loving. Rather than seeing someone as a label, as a broad category, we as Christians must see the person before us, the mix of good and bad. How many Rahabs have we missed in our lives? How many Moseses have we condemned? When we label people as bad, judge them and dismiss them, we fail to see what God sees in them—a beautiful creation with such great potential.
But it goes the other direction as well. To label someone as good and accept everything they do as good, fails to see how we all need to grow in holiness. My friend has heroic qualities. He is a loving father, a principled man, someone who looks to God in all that he does. And that’s great. But let’s not forget that he, too, has some things to work on. Even he, in all of his virtue, still has some vices to work out. All of us do. If we truly care about being holy, truly care about being disciples of Christ, fit for the kingdom, it is not enough to say that we’re “good people,” that we don’t have flaws or that they don’t matter. Even the best among us have rocky soil.
Where is that for you? What is the rocky soil of your life? When are you not at your best, not open to letting Christ live in you?
Be honest with yourself. You may have acres and acres of good soil, and that’s great, but the seed is dying wherever there are rocks. Find those areas where Christ cannot grow, where your heart is hardened, and till the ground. As long as we have one rock in our field, as long as there are still thorns growing, we’ve got some work to do.