Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sexagesima Sunday

2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9 / Luke 8:4-15

The Chinese philosopher Mencius (Mengzi) argued that the human heart, every human heart, was fundamentally good. By this, Mencius was not being willfully blind to human wickedness, the weakness and even darkness that can reside in human character. Rather, what he claimed was that, merely in virtue of being human, every heart had four sprouts, compassion, shame, deference, and judgment, which, when rightly cultivated, will grow and flourish as the four cardinal virtues of Confucian thought: from compassion the virtue of benevolence or humaneness, from shame the virtue of uprightness and dutifulness, from deference the virtue of the observance of rites and right relatedness to persons, and from judgment the virtue of wisdom. Were one to see a wicked man, or someone devoid of these virtues, Mencius would conclude not that he had not a fundamentally good heart, but rather that circumstances and his own folly had torn up the sprouts of virtue, and continually did so, that that what was essentially fertile by nature would nonetheless be barren in fact. Furthermore, Mencius notes that we can err just as much by trying to hard to force the virtues as by failing to cultivate them, even as only a fool would pull at seedlings to help them to grow, even as it would be folly not to remove the weeds that would choke them in their early and fragile stage of growth.

On the face of it, the Confucian wisdom of Mencius seems to collide with the divine teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel. Like Mencius' image of the sprouts in the human heart, Jesus sets before us a parable of soil and seedlings, of some plants that succeed and flourish and others that wither and die, or never even begin their growth at all. However, while Mencius would assert that each and every heart, by its nature, is as capable as any other of producing even the sublime virtue of a Sage, Jesus' parable presents the image of soil of different character: the wayside with no soil at all, the rocky ground with only the shallowest of soil, the soil overgrown with thorns, and the rocky soil. This image, on the face of it, suggests that human hearts are not all able to receive God's word, that the success or failure of human flourishing is not a universal potential in every human heart.

Such a reading, though, would not be true to the parable. On a second reading, we can see that the receptivity of the soil, the potential to yield rich fruit from the seeds of God's word, is not a static and unchanging fact that divides the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve into different types of people, namely, those who can and those who cannot receive God's Word. Rather, it is our mode of living that renders our soil the way it is. The wayside without soil is not an inhuman heart with no fruitfulness by nature, but one who is still so with the Prince of this world, the devil, that preaching does him no good. The rockiness of the shallow soil comes, again, not by nature, but by weakness in the face of temptation, from a good weather and not a lasting embrace of God's Word in good times and in bad. Even the thorns do not represent permanent and natural features of the soil of human hearts, but rather cares and riches and pleasures of this life.

And the good soil? Does Jesus simply say that all soil is good by nature? What we see is that the focus of the parable is not on the nature of the soil as such and in itself. The goodness and receptivity of soil is just as much a feature of how we choose to respond to God's Word in our lives as the badness of the other soil was a result of prior bad choices and spirit-killing commitments. As Jesus tells us, that on the good ground are they who in a good and perfect heart, hearing the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit in patience. Even as Mencius saw by natural wisdom, so Jesus teaches us by divine knowledge, that the growth from seed to seedling to fruitful crop is not something that we can leave unattended, but equally so, it is not something that can be forced to occur on our schedule, on our time, according to our expectations of what good growth ought to be. It must occur, as Jesus tells us, in patience.

In the light of the glory of the Cross, this means not merely the delayed gratification of waiting in time, but also the stronger sense of patientia, that is suffering. While the Gospel may not demand of any one of us the trials of St Paul — Of the Jews five times did I receive forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I was in the depth of the sea: in journeying often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils from my own nation, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren: in labor and painfulness, in much watching, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness — we are surely all bound by the law of love to share his daily instance, the solicitude for all the churches. That is, we are bound by love to care for those who share our life in Jesus Christ and in a willingness to suffer hardship in its service, perhaps in our bodies, likely in our social lives and reputations, necessarily in our hearts. We are, more than that, called to do so not as equipped with power and might to ward off all who would oppose us, as though our confidence in the Gospel were derived from a confidence in our strength to be up to whatever task the world set before us. No, our patience by which we will bear fruit is rather that we can say with Paul, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things concerning my infirmity.

O God, Who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do: mercifully grant, that by the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles we my be defended against all adversities.

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