A reflection on the readings for July 16, 2023, the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
While browsing the paper online this past week, I was introduced to the somewhat arresting term “hellstrip” in an article from gardener and writer Tovah Martin. In her telling, this term was coined for land next to the road where nothing will grow other than undesirable plants like crabgrass and poison ivy. She writes, “The soil typically has the consistency of cement, a fertility level around zero, and it’s exposed to all the nasty stuff winter road crews toss on the street.”
The connection to today’s Gospel is an easy one to make – Jesus calls each of us to have ears and hearts that will serve as the rich soil, which hears and understands the seed of his word and bears a yield of fruit — 30- or 60- or 100-fold. This is the opposite of the hellstrip.
But I couldn’t help but think about what it is that makes these strips of land so inhospitable to fruitfulness and life. First and foremost, it’s location. These roadside strips are often on public land and belong to everyone and therefore tend to belong to no one. The county may come by to mow every now and again, but there’s not someone who purposefully tends that ground.
And that accounts for the second problem. Without tending, that soil remains hardened to the extent that the rain runs right off it, just like it runs off the sidewalk. Without moisture, there’s no softening; without softening, there’s no chance for new growth — let alone fruitfulness.
And then there’s matter of what falls on the soil other than rain – the “nasty stuff winter road crews toss on the street,” as the writer says. The salt that melts the ice on the road leaches into the soil and renders it parched and unreceptive to any new growth.
And to belabor this analogy just one more time, it’s worth considering what little actually does grow in a hellstrip – those undesirable plants and invasive weeds that do take root are often the hardiest and most opportunistic plants out there. But while they may spread, they don’t bear fruit. Rather, those invasives often choke out the growth of plants that can bear fruit.
These horticultural images align very nicely with the parable Jesus shares and unpacks in today’s Gospel. Given how important agriculture was to the people of that time, we shouldn’t be surprised that his listeners knew well of what he was describing. Indeed, Isaiah’s words in the first reading — from an even earlier time — perfectly describe the water cycle: the way water evaporates from the surface of the earth, rises into the atmosphere, cools and condenses into rain or snow in clouds, and falls again to the surface as precipitation.
Isaiah tells us the Word of God is like the rain and the snow that fall to the earth, watering it and making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the sower and bread to the one who eats. And the Word will not return to God until it has done his will and achieved the end for which he sent it. Which begs the question – what is that end? What did God send his Word to achieve?
For the rain, the end is to foster the growth of the grain that — when it comes to fruition — can be sown to make more grain or can be ground to make flour for bread. So too, the Word. If we let it, the Word of God nourishes our hearts and our souls. From there it can spread from us to others, nourishing them as it nourished us, and spreading from them as it spread from us.
This doesn’t happen right away, nor does it happen because in our fervor we want it to. Today’s psalm describes a slow process of preparation. We hear about God visiting the land and enriching it, preparing it by drenching the furrows, breaking up the hardened clods of earth, and softening it with showers. We’ve seen those clods of dirt on roadsides or in our gardens – they’re like rocks, incapable of having anything grow in or on them.
When our hearts are like those hardened clods of dirt, they need to be broken open in order for the Word of God to penetrate and soften them. If we let God visit our hearts as he visits the land in the psalm, the process of preparation can begin. But it’s a process that God can begin only with our cooperation.
In the second reading from the letter to the Romans, we hear an account of that process well underway; indeed, almost complete. We hear that all creation is groaning in labor pains as it awaits the revelation of the children of God, the revelation that will free humanity and all God’s creation from slavery to corruption. Those labor pains will conclude with a new birth that will bring forth a new creation that is free from the futility to which it’s been subjected.
This birthing process relies on God. When we try to “go it alone,” if we ignore the firstfruits of the Spirit that St. Paul describes — the fruits of the Holy Spirit we all receive in Baptism and Confirmation — our efforts will always ultimately be futile. It is very easy to fall into a spiritual malaise and forget just how awesome the calling and the gifts are that we received through Baptism and Confirmation. We are called to recognize, embrace, and celebrate those gifts every day so that we can produce even more fruit.
Fruitfulness is what Jesus is teaching us about in today’s Gospel. He freely gives us his word, his love, and his body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist. If we allow them to change us, they will be fruitful. If we don’t, they will become futile.
Most of us prefer to see ourselves in the most positive light. Many of us will hear the words of today’s Gospel, and reflexively think “Hey, I’m the good soil ready to receive the seed.” We may well be. But I think we might want to test that self-assessment with a simple question: “What are my fruits?”
Each of us is called in a different way, but every one of us is called to bear fruit. The Lord will show you where you’re called to be if you let him. Begin by hearing his word. Certainly, at Mass, but also by reading Sacred Scripture on our own. Listen attentively and reflect. God will soften your heart with his gentle shower of love and bless its yield. With that softening, our patch of ground is no longer impermeable, but rather ready to receive the seed of God’s word.
Then seek to understand the word, to let it take root and sink deep. Reflect on the word, pray on it, read books that break it open. Attend a Bible study, or a women’s or men’s group, or another faith sharing group in your parish or community. Pray with your family at home each day. Finding ourselves in a place where we encounter God’s Word — rather than along the harsh roadside of the passing world — helps separate us from the caustic elements that keep our hearts barren. Christian fellowship and the encouraging accompaniment of others will reinforce the Word and help make it a part of our daily lives. And that will have an effect. It will bear fruit.
When we prepare to receive the Word bodily in Holy Communion, let us ask him to till the soil of our souls so that his life might sink so deeply into our own that we will bear abundant fruit. This is fruit that will last into eternal life. This is fruit that will become the seeds of the Word of God in the lives of those we encounter.
Image: Adobe Stock. By orestligetka.
Deacon Steve O’Neill was ordained for service to the Archdiocese of Washington in June 2013 and serves at St. Andrew Apostle in suburban Maryland. After four years in the Marine Corps and three years at the University of Maryland (where met Traci, now his wife of 30+ years, and earned a degree in English), he has worked as an analyst with the Federal government. Deacon Steve and Traci have two sons and two daughters and three grandchildren.