God’s Word, Fertile Soil & Betty Ford

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Betty Ford died last Friday night at the age of 93. She never imagined herself anything more than the wife of a US congressman, although even that was far from the dreams of her youth.[1]  What she really wanted to do was dance. She was thrust into the national spotlight the day Richard Nixon resigned from office, and her husband, Gerald Ford, became president. As first lady, she said things first ladies did not say, or at least hadn’t until then. She didn’t limit her comments to wholesome dinner-table topics, and caused quite a stir in the media. Her husband’s advisers were often troubled by her unscripted remarks, as they attempted to redirect focus from the troubled national self-image after the Watergate scandal. She spoke with courage and honesty about her personal struggles and concerns, and forced a national discussion about breast cancer. She spoke honestly of her own struggle with painkillers and alcohol addiction, advocating better medical treatment especially for women. And the American people listened. She did not shrink from difficult subjects and many were forced to hear what she had to say. Her words were not taken lightly, and many lives since have been forever changed.

People like Betty Ford have used their celebrity status to bring difficult issues to the national consciousness. And their words have effected widespread soul-searching, sometimes resulting in a significant change in popular attitudes and behaviors for the better. She spoke against child abuse, she raised money for handicapped children, she championed the performing arts. And although the polls showed she was widely admired by many, some say her outspokenness contributed to her husband’s defeat in 1976. Her struggle with alcohol after her husband’s retirement culminated in her family confronting her to get treatment. With her new lease on life, she found new purpose. “There is joy in recovery, and in helping others discover that joy,” she wrote in her memoir ‘A Glad Awakening.’ Her courage continues to inspire ordinary Americans to face their addictions and seek help.

If Betty Ford didn’t do it, maybe somebody else would have. We will never know. But what we do know is that she had the courage to speak about some difficult subjects. Maybe it was her personality, maybe it was just the right time in our history, maybe we were just more receptive then. But as a society, we paid attention and acted upon the information we received.

When Jesus Christ revealed to his listeners the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, he, too, had important things to say. He spoke with courage and conviction. He even performed signs that attempted to nudge his listeners in the direction of greater trust and faith in God. But those who heard him speak and those who saw the signs did not always understand. Maybe it was his personality, maybe it was just not the right time in human history, maybe it was their hardness of heart. We cannot say for sure. What we do know is that the message Jesus spoke 2000 years ago is still being spoken today. And many may still look but do not see. Many may still hear but do not understand.

As seed was sown in the parable we read today, the Word of God is sown in the hearts of women and men each day in great abundance. The farming techniques in Jesus’ time would be considered inefficient and wasteful today. Yet the parable describes a farmer spreading seed all over the landscape by hand, without a plan and without a care. The quality of the seed is never questioned. Given the right conditions, it will germinate and grow to maturity. What is of greater concern to Jesus is the receptivity of the soil to nurture the seed. As we hear in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, the abundance of God’s blessings and gifts, whether rain or snow or seed, is intended for one purpose and one purpose alone, that it produce a rich harvest.

If we are the soil that receives the seed of God’s Word, what is it that prevents us from truly hearing that Word, and truly understanding it, and truly putting it into practice?

Those entrusted with the responsibility of proclaiming and preaching God’s Word should most certainly take their charge seriously. It is not a task for those who are fearful, or those beholden to the world and its values, or those unable to be honest with their own struggles and weaknesses. The effective proclamation and preaching of God’s Word first involves an openness to be transformed by that Word. They who must proclaim and preach cannot speak the Word they themselves have not heard. And how can they expect their listeners to see and understand if they themselves are blind and deaf to God’s message of conversion and reconciliation?

The soil that receives the seed that is God’s Word needs to be cleared of stones and weeds and thorns, and any other obstacles to greater intimacy and friendship with God. These obstacles, these stones and weeds and thorns are our worldly cares, our spiritually harmful distractions, our destructive attitudes and selfish patterns of behavior, our stubborn refusal to let go of old resentments and hurts, our disinterest and quiet resistance to God’s frequent invitation to a change of heart and mind.

The receptivity of the soil is our own responsibility, especially if we like to think of ourselves as good Christians, who come to church regularly, who don’t murder, steal, cheat or lie, who are law-abiding and morally upright citizens, and who want to live with God forever in heaven. But if the seed of God’s Word that is planted in the soil of our hearts is to survive and prosper, we have to guarantee its maturity and fruitfulness. Maturity comes before fruitfulness. Allowing God’s Word to mature means allowing it to transform our lives. Whenever we hear God’s Word, it will challenge us to see with new eyes and hear with new ears, then to reorder our priorities, and to renounce those parts of our life that are contrary to God and the values of God’s Kingdom. And when we have been transformed by the Word we have received, we are better able to live what we understand, better able to explain and express convincingly what we believe by the example of our lives.

Betty Ford‘s example of courage and honesty has inspired many who struggle with cancer or addiction, to live with hope. We ourselves often hear the same message of hope, and the seed of God’s Word has already been planted in our hearts. Yet until we honestly strive to live what we believe, that seed has not yet matured, that seed has not yet borne fruit, and there is still much work to do.

[1] Connie Cass – Associated Press, Linda Deutsch. http://news.yahoo.com/former-first-lady-betty-ford-dies-93-012148379.html

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