In the Parable of the Sower (Mk 4:1-20; Mt 13:1-23; Lk 8:1-5), Jesus uses an analogy of a seed in different types of soil to exhort the people to be receptive to the Word in their lives and to bear fruit with it in the world. Bad soil—a heart that is cold, stony, or fearful—will choke the seed, whereas good soil—a heart that is open and willful—will help the seed reach its full potential and nourish the earth. It is among the most commonly recognized parables, and despite the disciples’ inability to understand it without explanation, it’s one that we understand quite well: good soil produces better results.

But despite its clarity, there is often a temptation with parables to take their analogies to the literal extreme, using our imagination to come to conclusions that were not intended. For instance, some might see us (especially those who minister in the Church) as taking on the role of the farmer, the ones who distribute the Word. It’s a logical connection, for sure. And as farmers, if we accept that seed scattered on rocky soil does not produce much fruit, then we might conclude it to be irresponsible to spend time and money carelessly dropping seed where the best results won’t come. Right? And if that’s the case—continuing with the analogy of the Word presented by Jesus—it might lead us to conclude that our spiritual resources as ministers should be carefully distributed only to those who are prepared and willing to receive the Word. It might lead us to falsely believe that the growth of the Word depends on us, that it couldn’t possibly grow unless we are perfect.

But we are not the farmers. And we do not make the seed grow.

As anyone who owns a driveway or walks on a sidewalk knows, plants continually find a way to grow in the most inhospitable conditions, surviving harsh weed killers and constant pruning, even breaking through concrete and cement to flourish.  Not only do they overcome less-than-ideal conditions without good soil, they manage to grow despite our best efforts to stop them from doing so. They may not produce “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold” like that of the good soil, but they can still produce good fruit.

And so it is with the people of God.

It is not our decision to determine who will receive the Word and in whom it will begin to grow. Despite all odds, goodness can flow with abundance. Despite years of sinfulness and obstinance, conversion can create someone anew. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the soil and nothing to do with the attention the farmer gives it… the Word simply grows. It fights through the cracks, it overcomes the toxins, and like an abandoned parking lot after many years, comes to reclaim the space as its own to flourish and produce more fruit.

As ministers, people who are often stretched very thin with the many needs of the community, it can be very tempting to act as a prudent farmer, someone who counts the cost and calculates what will produce the best return, overlooking the people and things that offer us little opportunity for success. It can be very tempting to look at those who are “rocky soil” as not worth our time or energy because we believe that nothing good can come of them.

But we are not the farmers. And we do not make the seed grow.

When we forget this, reading this parable not as a call for openness in our lives but as a blueprint for who deserves our help, we limit greatly limit ourselves and our work. As Fr. Gregory Boyle, S.J. writes in his famous book Tattoos on the Heart,

If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.

When become the arbiter of what is possible and what is not, seeking after the cases that will turn out well for us and writing off others as lost causes, we run the risk of overlooking the grace of God in our midst and an opportunity to nurture what could be an abundant harvest one day in heaven.

And it’s tempting to do so. When we have a room full of excited people who want to learn and a homeless person sitting at our door, there is much more of an upside to giving our full attention to the room full of people; it’s good soil versus rocky soil. But here’s the thing… the plant growing in the rocky soil doesn’t care that it’s not as big, that it’s a more difficult case, or that it has a lower upside. It just wants to survive. And it can survive.

Jesus is not a stingy farmer that counts the cost and so only plants the seed in the good soil, He plants it everywhere. As ministers, it is not our role to choose where to plant the Word, it is simply to nourish and encourage it wherever it can grow.

The following is a reflection on this week’s readings, the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year C.

Have you ever stolen something, lied to your parents, called someone a hurtful name, done something hurtful to yourself, or anything else you regretted enough to had to go to confession?

If so, have you ever been smote by God’s wrath, hit by a lightning bolt from heaven, or dropped dead immediately after doing something wrong? Probably not.

Or, after having done something wrong, something you regretted, did you later have an experience of God, a powerful prayer, a feeling of relief, or anything that made you know that God was still with you, that he had not abandoned you? My guess is that the latter experience is a bit more common…

You see, on the one hand, our God is a God of justice. He set a way that his people were to live and told them that if they follow it they’ll be rewarded and if they don’t they’ll be punished. Justice: people get what they deserve. Look at how he reacted to the Israelites in our first reading today: seeing that they built an idol out of gold to worship, his first reaction is to send down his wrath of fire to destroy them. Harsh? Maybe. But he gave them rules to follow, told them that death was the penalty for sin, and they couldn’t even handle the FIRST commandment. Justice meant paying them what they were due, and they were due punishment.

But God didn’t end up doing that, did He? While our God is a God of justice, He is also a God of mercy. Even though He was very clear of the rules, and even though they immediately broken a really big one, God chose to show mercy to His people and give them more than they deserved: a second chance, new life, safety from death.

It’s the same story with St. Paul in our second reading. While we all know Paul as the great missionary that built up the Church after Jesus, sometimes we forget that he was a great sinner prior to his vision of Jesus. In our second reading today he even says himself, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated.” Even though he tore down the church, imprisoned and killed Christians, and denounced Jesus, God did not give him the punishment he was due, He gave him mercy… He gave him forgiveness; God was able to transform something terrible into something great.

Why? Because God loves those who love Him and are perfect, right? God loves those who help themselves, right? Quite the opposite, actually. Time and time again we hear that God loves the outcast… the sinner… the weak… the lowly. The very reason that Jesus tells the parables in our Gospel today is because the Pharisees were complaining about who He was eating with: “This man welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them!” He was eating with the lowest, most detestable people in society. But why? Because no one outside of God’s mercy, there is no length that God won’t go to bring them back.

Jesus asks them, “Who among you, losing one sheep, wouldn’t leave the 99 behind to find the one?” The correct answer is everyone! The idea of leaving behind 99 sheep to find just one is ridiculous! But that’s what God does for all of us. He’s like the woman who completely overturned the whole house to find just one coin and threw a major party over it. He’s like the father who didn’t care that his son disrespected him, took half of his wealth, defaced himself, and then came crawling back for help. No one is outside of God’s mercy… no matter who they are… no matter what they’ve done.

God doesn’t treat us fairly, He doesn’t give us what we’re due… he gives us so much more than we deserve. Even tax collectors. Even sinners. Even people who lie and cheat and say mean things to their parents, who don’t feel connected at mass, or don’t even think they need God. Even them, you, and me. Even… Even terrorists.

On this the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on our country, we will be inundated with a simple, two-word message: Never forget… Never forget… Never forget. It’s a powerful message, a catchy message, an important message. But what does it mean? What exactly is it that we never want to forget as long as we live?

For some, it is an opportunity to focus on justice. What we should never forget is the horror of the day: the deaths of so many people and the hatred of the people that did it to us. This was an objectively evil act, and we need to take it upon ourselves to give them what they’re due: punishment. Never forget what they did.

When we go down this road, fueled by hate and anger and fear, we have a tendency to take horrible, sinful acts and give them back even worse. More than 300,000 middle-Easterners dead, torture, regular acts of distrust, name-calling, and violence against completely innocent Muslim citizens of this country. If all we remember is the terrible acts of the day, if all we remember is the sadness and anger we felt when it happened, that is likely all we are going to be able to give back in return.

Is that the Christian response?

In light of our readings today, I want to suggest an alternative, that the thing we should “Never Forget” is not the evil of that day… but rather the mercy of God who continues to be with us all… even the sinners. The God who turns evil into good and never tires of chasing after us…even the terrorists. The God who doesn’t give us what we deserve, because he gives us so much more. Instead of remembering the deaths of so many, let’s never forget the lives that God touched, the saints and sinners in those buildings for whom God waited on patiently their whole lives. Instead of remembering the destruction and turmoil, let’s never forget the heroic acts of first responders risking their lives for others, how the whole city, an entire nation united together, moving beyond our differences to be one. Instead of remembering the terrible things that others have done and how they need justice, let’s never forget that we are all sinners and yet all of us have been treated mercifully by God.

When people hurt us, they betray our trust, inflict pain… our first reaction is almost always to get even; we want justice. And there’s room for that: a world in which no one is accountable for there actions and sin is okay is not a world that our God wants. But we never need reminding of this; our instinct to fix this comes naturally. What we do need from time to time, though, what we must never forget, is that God has treated with his mercy, and wants us to do the same for others. Never forget.

For those receiving this post by email, click here for the short video reflection related to this post.

There are a few meals that I will never forget as long as I live.

I’ll never forget Thanksgiving dinner with my family some years back. We all tried our best to be as behaved and formal as we could, but alas… it’s just not in the Cole genes. Napkins were used as puppets and funny hats, napkin holders became building blocks, and normal, respectable voices turned into eruptive proclamations and impersonations.

I’ll never forget visiting one of our friaries for dinner as a postulant. Spontaneously visiting for the weekend, the five of us not only got the opportunity to meet the three friars living there, we were coincided with the surprise visit of two other friars from out of town. A casual dinner soon turned into a small party: wine, laughter, and a dinner conversation that lasted more than three hours.

I’ll never forget the times I went on retreats or away on Spring Break as a college student. There, away from our normal routines, intentionally together, we set up, cooked, shared a meal, and cleaned up together. With nothing to do or to distract us from each other, dinner was something we did together.

In each of these cases, what made the so memorable was not the food we ate, it was the company that attended. While meals can certainly be practical ways of obtaining calories, a purely physical necessity, meals can also be powerful social, even spiritual experiences. With good friends around a table, time can almost stand still. It’s the place where bonds are formed, relationships are nourished, and memories are instituted for ever.

There’s no doubt that Jesus understood the power of a good meal with friends. In our Gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke, Jesus does much of his ministry around the table breaking bread. It is around the table, not in a synagogue or temple, not in the city streets, and certainly not from a throne, that Jesus has his most intimate moments with his disciples. Just before he died, it was a meal he shared with his disciples; after he was resurrected, it was a meal that caused the disciples to know who he was; just before the ascension, it was a meal that reestablished the fellowship he had begun in order to commission them into the world.

What Jesus did through meals has served as the “source and summit” of our Catholic faith for two thousand years. At the mass, we break the bread of life, our savior given to us, as a means of building our own table fellowship, coming closer to the one who created us, and inspiring us to go out and be the Body of Christ in our world. As Catholics, we marvel at God’s ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, a miracle before our eyes, and offer thanksgiving for the great gift that is his eternal grace.

But as we heard in our first reading at mass today, there can be a danger in such marvels. Witnessing a man healed in the waters, the crowds flock to those who blessed him to see more miracles. A good thing for sure, a sign of faith. And yet Peter is furious. How are you amazed at this miracle but you refuse to accept the one who caused it, Jesus the Christ? What inspired the people was not the person of Jesus; they desired no relationship with him nor did they want to be a part of his community. What amazed them was the external sign, the miracle, the “magic” of unexplained powerful things.

There is, I will say, that temptation in our Eucharistic meal. Focusing solely on the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” there have been times in our history (and spiritualities even today) that are so concerned with the holiness of physical body and blood of Jesus, that the whole experience either becomes, a) the reception of a miraculous, grace-filled wafer that is so objectively powerful that nothing else matters except saying the proper words and personally receiving with proper devotion, or b) something so very holy that one is rarely ever worthy enough to receive, a prize to be won by the perfect but hardly ever earned. Something is surely lacking here.

Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a meal, a form of table fellowship. He established it not to be dispensary of miracles and grace, but as a way to encounter the living and true God in an intimate, communal way. What we do at mass is a very holy experience, one that requires a certain level of reverence for sure. But it is a holy experience because it establishes and nourishes the community that Jesus established and serves as its head. When we gather for Eucharist, we gather together around the table, not simply as coincidental bystanders in a common location, but as men and women forming and nurturing a community of faith. When we gather for Eucharist, we gather together with our risen and living Lord just as we would at our kitchen table: to share a meal with a close friend.

There’s a reason that Jesus gave us a meal as a way to remember him. Meals can be the places where communities are born, where times can stand still, where we can be who we are in a comfortable setting. It’s no wonder that Jesus made the center of our worship a table for eating. Our hope as Christians is that the life we share together at the kitchen table—all of our joys, fears, vulnerabilities, and excitements—will be what we bring to the altar of our Eucharistic table, sharing with Jesus and his gathered Church in a way that makes time stand still and forms memories that we will never forget.

Today’s Gospel reading at mass was the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). What I offer to you is the reflection that I gave to my brothers in formation this evening.

“I didn’t do anything.”

That’s what I said to the principal when I was called into her office in 4th grade. (I’m not entirely sure if my parents actually know about this story… so… surprise!) You see, there was a kid in my class that no one really liked. He was loud and immature, often dressed inappropriately and had bad hygiene, and was known for acting out,  bullying others, and saying inappropriate things to the girls. He was a bully that no one liked… a very bad combination.

One day, things boiled over. At morning recess, he apparently touched one of the girls in our class and said something to her, and my friends didn’t like that. Enough was enough. They planned to teach him a lesson. At lunch recess, they were going to corner him and “beat him up” as they said. When lunch came, we all went out to recess, and three of the guys in my class started pushing him, calling him names. I think one of them even kicked him.

The kid didn’t sustain any major injuries, just a scraped knee and a scratch on his eye,  but it was a big deal in the school. The three students who had orchestrated the whole thing were called into the principal’s office, but so was I and a few other students. “I didn’t do anything,” I said. “It was ____ and _____ and _____. They were the ones who beat him up. I did not even touch him.”

In my mind, I was innocent. My principal didn’t think so. As she saw it, I knew something bad was going to happen, but I didn’t stop it. Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I intervene? Why didn’t I help him? Even though he was weird, even though he might have even brought it on himself, even though I may have suffered a bit myself for defending him, no one deserves to be treated that way. I had the power to do something, but didn’t do anything.

In our Gospel passage today, the rich man finds himself in a similar situation. No doubt shocked to find himself in a place of torment while Lazarus is in the place of honor, you can almost hear him say, “But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t make him poor. I didn’t steal from him. I didn’t make him unclean.” And maybe he didn’t. But just like me in the fourth grade, the rich man knew Lazarus. He knew that he was suffering. I mean, cmon, he was lying at his door! He probably needed to step over him to go out! Even though Lazarus was not the most desirable person in town, even though he was probably unclean and the rich man may have suffered for helping him, no one deserves to be treated that way. The rich man had the power to do something, but didn’t do anything.

I think that is what’s so powerful for us to remember today: Not doing anything is not amoral. Doing nothing does not free us from guilt; in life, there is no “pass”; we can’t just opt out of acting… even doing nothing is something. It’s why in the confiteor, the act of contrition we say at mass, we pray for God to forgive the sins of “What I have done, and what I have failed to do.” Sometimes, what we don’t do can have a tremendous effect on others, and can absolutely be sinful.

It doesn’t take much to see so in our world. When we look at the world’s problems, global epidemics of poverty, climate change, human trafficking, and so on, it’s easy for us to say, “Well I didn’t do that.” And maybe we didn’t (I think we are complicit in much more than we realize, but that’s for another post). But what we often don’t realize is that we are in a position of privilege. If you are able to read this post, it’s likely that you find yourself among the wealthiest 25% in the world. Wealth. Education. Civil liberties. Social status. Even just the knowledge that there are problems in the world that need fixing and the time to think about them is a privilege. In so many situations, we are the rich man facing Lazarus each day.

But it happens much closer to home. What about our friends and families. Here in this house as brothers. We often know what our brothers are going through. We know that they need help at times. Sometimes, it can be very easy, especially if it’s a brother that we don’t particularly like or even annoys us, to write them off and say, “He brought it on themselves” or “He’s not my responsibility,” or “I didn’t do anything.” And likely we didn’t. But that’s not what’s important here: there is a situation in which we are able to do something to build up the kingdom of God.

Because, in the end, whether it’s our brother, Lazarus, or that poor boy in my 4th grade class, it is not up to us to determine who is worthy and who is not. It is not us that grants dignity, and so it is not up to us to decide who we should care for and who we shouldn’t. We may face a lot of people in need in our life, a lot of which are very difficult to be around—you might even think about some people in this room. Who knows. One day, though, we will have to answer to Jesus for what we did and what we did not do. On that day, will we be able to say that we did something for our brothers and sisters in need, or will we be left with nothing to say except, “I didn’t do anything”?

Through stories, letters, historical accounts, laws, proverbs, and liturgical texts, the Bible contains truths about God, our humanity, the world, and how we are to be in relationship with each. It is a wealth of wisdom and knowledge, capturing what God’s people have said about God for thousands of years, and so naturally is something that we as Christians should study seriously.

But the Bible is not simply a source of truth and knowledge, a book of facts for one to amass and master. Sacred Scripture is a living document, a mystery, a source of spiritual nourishment that can only be entered into, never fully grasped. As much as it is useful to study the Bible in an academic way so as to understand the context and the meaning that the human writer intended, one’s knowledge of the Bible is only truly useful to a Christian to the extent that it helps one enter more deeply into what the divine writer, God, had in mind. Scripture is something to be studied, yes, but it is more fundamentally something that should be prayed.

By no means an exhaustive list, I want to share two ways that I have found to do just that.

Ignatian Reading One of the most common ways to pray with Scripture, credited to St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits, is to use one’s imagination to enter into the text. After reading a passage two or three times, the reader is encouraged to close one’s eyes and to reconstruct the whole scene as if s/he was there as a witness. What did the scene look like? Was it bright or dark? Who was there? Were there any distinct smells or sounds? What did the situation physically feel like? By using one’s imagination, the scene becomes more than words on a page but a real life situation. Often the reader is encouraged then to take on the role of one of the characters in the story, maybe a minor role, to see the text from a new and focused perspective. What did the character feel when this happened? 

In using one’s imagination in this way, the reader is focused less on coming up with an intellectual summation of the text (the passage means ____) and more on experiencing the passage as it was actually experienced. The brilliance of this method is that one does not simply walk away with a concrete directive or definitive interpretation, but with a first-hand emotional and sensory encounter. Unlike interpretations, encounters are personal, intimate, and new every time. And so is Scripture.

Incarnational Reading The second method is a bit less popular, and as such, I’m not sure if it even has a name. After reading the passage two or three times, the reader is encouraged to draw on the lived experience of the reading in today’s world. How have I experienced this passage in my own life? Where have I seen this character before? When has this situation happened to me? Unlike the Ignatian method that helps the reader go back to the world of the text, this method of reading Scripture brings Scripture forward to the life of the reader. It is not a means of entering into the Word, per se, but a means of noticing the Word alive and true all around.

A comparison might be the best way of explaining the difference. If we were to read the passage, say, of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), the Ignatian method would provide a powerful sensory experience: the sight of the poor man lying on the road, the smell of the dogs all around him, the feeling of hunger, the texture of his sores, and so on, would allow the reader to feel as if s/he were in 1st century Palestine with Lazarus himself. Reading the same story with the Incarnational method, however, might provide the reader with a new sense of clarity and divine vision: thinking about the poverty of Lazarus might remind the reader of a homeless person s/he passed earlier that day or a time when s/he acted like the Rich man in his indignation towards the poor. In doing so, the text comes alive just as in the Ignatian method, but alive in the sense that the Word is realized to be a lived experience in today’s world, not just 2000 years ago. Oh… Jesus loves that poor homeless man on the street and it is a grave sin for me to walk past him with no concern. The story is about me

The brilliance of this method is that it moves the experience of Scripture and God’s Word (Jesus) away from “something that happened” toward “something that is happening.” God’s word is alive. The events recounted in Scripture are not meant to be read as a history book, finished and complete, never to be repeated again; they are snapshots in time of who and what God is in eternity. Reading in this way moves God–and religion in general–away from rules, facts, rituals, and morals to be remembered and towards a personalintimate experience of God today, right now.


Naturally, both methods offer incredibly valuable insights and promote a prayerful reading of Scripture. They encourage active participation, and transform the text into a personal encounter with our God. Personally, as a Franciscan, I am much more inclined to favor the latter example as it is straight out of our spirituality, but I recognize the benefit of the Ignatian method and think that they can work in tandem for a deeper experience of prayer. Of course, these are just two ways of prayerfully studying Scripture, and if neither of them work for you, maybe there is another method that would work better! The important this is not the specific method we use, but that we engage the Word of God in our lives in a way that it guides and transforms us into disciples of Christ.