II Cor. 11:19-31 Luke 8:4-15
Among the many books by C.S. Lewis, the one it seemed to Lewis himself that everybody had read was The Screwtape Letters. He said that he had more difficulty writing that book than any other, because he kept having to think opposite his convictions. For example, because Screwtape is a senior devil writing to a junior devil about subverting and damning the soul under his charge- his patient- he refers to God always as “the Enemy.” To help us with the parable in today’s Gospel we should look at part of the first of these letters. Writes Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood:
Remember, [your patient] is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (oh, that abominable advantage of the Enemy's!) you don't realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, "Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning," the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added "Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind," he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape, and in later years was fond of talking about "that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safe guard against the aberrations of mere logic." He is now safe in Our Father's house.
This is, of course the seed by the wayside. In fact, it is not quite on that level. Screwtape’s atheist at the British museum has only had a mere course of thought removed from his mind; but the ground by the wayside loses the seed of the word of God as it has been preached by a messenger. It does not require always a lie as intricate, or as ridiculous, as The DaVinci Code; it can be something as simple as perceiving lunch to be reality, and perceiving God to be a fantasy. Today’s Old Testament lesson covers this ground, so to speak (from the 50thchapter of the book of Isaiah the prophet):
The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned. The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed. He is near that justifieth me; who will contend with me? let us stand together: who is mine adversary? let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord GOD will help me; who is he that shall condemn me? lo, they all shall wax old as a garment; the moth shall eat them up. Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God.
The sufferings of Christ are foretold here, in part. And, His true followers have suffered often the same persecution. In the midst of his own sufferings as a genuine servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, Saint Paul addressed the Corinthian Church with an expression of the kind of love a good father always has for his children. He knew that false teachers were allowed into their services, presenting strange ideas, and always bad-mouthing Paul. That he himself was spoken evil of, did not bother the saint and apostle. What bothered him was that the Christians at Corinth chose to believe some of the strange doctrines that could lead them away from pure and simple devotion to Christ.
That is always the issue. If you wonder why some of us among the clergy are very dogmatic and even strict at times, why we don’t change with the times, why we don’t accommodate allegedly new ideas about morality, or about God, it is because the care of the churches is upon us. We are responsible for the cure of your souls. We are here to present the word of his Servant, His Suffering Servant who went to the cross for the sins of mankind; we must be the servant of that Suffering Servant, and so we must present His words. And, we know that just like Screwtape’s atheist at the British museum, even as you sit here in a pew as members of the Church, the devil can steal the word out of your hearts.
It is easy to see this happening. One trick is to make you think of yourself as a preaching critic. While you ought to be hearing, you are thinking instead about all sorts of irrelevant things, like how well you think the delivery is going. The best advice I can give you is this: During a sermon, listen, pay attention and learn. That may sound brazen and self-confident; but take the advice anyway. Another trick is for a little devil to sit on your shoulder and whisper in your ear about how long this is taking, and about how hungry you are.
You see, the people who need to hear are not only those outside the Church, yet to become believers. Everyone needs to hear the word of God. It is the seed that has that power we call life; that power that alone can grow and bear fruit. If conversion were as simple as a one-time decision (to use the favored phrase of Billy Graham), this parable would have a very limited application. But, conversion (though often including a major life changing epiphany), involves for most of us a lifetime of turning every day away from sin and darkness to God and His light.
The words that our Lord Jesus spoke, in concert with all His prophets who had come before Him, had more to do with hearing than with listening. Without the grace of God, we cannot hear His word.
The Lord said to the prophet Isaiah: “Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed (Isa. 6:10).” The very ability to know the truth is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus, after His resurrection, gave the Apostles the gift of understanding the scriptures: “Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures (Luke 24:45).” He did not give them an “open mind.” An open mind is a bad thing, because it leaks its contents all over the place. It is quite messy really. Rather, He opened their understanding. This takes humility to receive, and so receive it if you can. Without this gift, no matter how clever or enlightened you may seem to be, you cannot see, hear or understand. Saint Paul spoke of those who are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (II Tim. 3:7).” How telling it is that some of the modern advocates of Gnostic ideas see this kind of busy and perpetual ignorance as virtuous. Virtuous it is not: it is the mark of someone who has yet to meet the risen Lord.
It takes humility to believe that the Church in its Tradition, in its Scripture, has the mind of Christ and the authority to teach; it takes humility to grasp the fact that the Church is smarter than I am. It takes humility to see that only by a gift from the Risen Christ can my understanding be opened and unlocked. It takes humility to look at the words that God spoke to Isaiah, and then to pray that the Lord, in His mercy, will give us eyes that see, ears that hear and a heart that understands, that we may convert to Him and be healed. Only by the Holy Ghost and His gift can we hear the word, let it take root in us and bring forth its fruit to perfection.