Are Our Hearts Open and Our Ears Listening

“They hear, but they don’t understand. They see, but they don’t perceive. For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing and their eyes have closed.”

The Prophet Isaiah preached these words centuries before the coming of Christ, and yet, his words seem very relevant for us today. Isaiah criticized the people of his day for not being prepared to hear God’s word, for not being in a condition to understand his teachings. The prophets preached, but the people didn’t understand. The saints of the Old Testament lived holy lives, yet the people didn’t imitate their example. The hearts of the people were not attuned to God’s Spirit. Their ears were hard of hearing and their eyes were closed.

This is a serious warning for each one of us today. It’s not enough to come to Church each week and simply listen. Are we understanding the lessons of the Gospel as a way of directing our lives? It’s not enough to simply call yourself a Christian and vaguely believe in something good. Are our beliefs the sign posts by which we live, and are we struggling to journey on a path of holiness and union with God?

The spiritual life takes effort. Some of you go to the gym to work out and stay in shape. No matter how much you wish you could lose a few pounds or get into good shape, nothing will actually happen unless you do something. You have to work out. No matter how much you want to rise in your job nothing will happen if you don’t put in the time and hard work.

We all know the principle that the best things in our lives take a commitment and an effort to strive towards our goal. Today’s Gospel reading is a reminder to us that to receive the word of God and allow it to bear fruit in our lives takes a serious and sober effort on our parts to prepare our hearts and open our minds.

The world around us - with its secular spirit, its comfortable and materialistic worldview, with its often conflicting message towards our Christian ethos and morals - anesthetizes us to what is essential and important in our spiritual lives. If we don’t consciously make every concerted effort to listen to the Word of God, to wrestle with understanding how to apply it in our lives, and then to struggle to live it out in our daily lives, then we will also be like the people that Isaiah criticized. Our hearts will have grown dull, our ears will be hard of hearing and our eyes will be blinded.

Today’s Gospel story reveals to us some of the ways we must prepare ourselves to become more open to understanding and following God’s Spirit.

Jesus tells a story relevant to his listeners, mostly whom were farmers. Maybe we can understand it if we compare it to our gardening efforts. “There was a gardener planting seeds, and as he threw the seeds, they fell on different types of ground. Some seed fell on hard soil, which could not penetrate the ground. Some seed fell on rocky soil, which did not allow roots to grow.  Some fell on thorny soil, which eventually choked the growing plants. Finally, some fell on soft, cultivated, prepared soil.  Only this seed fully developed, with roots deep in the ground. Only this seed grew into a plant that produced fruit. 

Note that the central focus of this story is not on the sower, who is God, nor on the seed, which are His teachings. The story concentrates on the soil, which represents our hearts!  This lesson challenges us to look at our own lives, and see how to prepare the soil of our heart to be one that is open to God’s Spirit.

When the first seed falls on the hard ground, this hard surface obviously represents a hard heart. A heart not open to learn. A heart not interested in growing. According to the story, the ground was hard because it was a place where many people trampled on it. It was within range of the passers-by. This implies that for us to take care that our lives are not always occupied with people and our daily busyness. We need a time to withdraw from the busy world, to learn to sit in silence and contemplate alone the things of God. To protect our heart from becoming hard, take the time each day to remove ourselves from everything and focus solely on things divine. Silence is a great teacher in the spiritual journey.

For ground to become fertile, we must take care to water it. Frequent watering implies frequent nourishment. For our hearts to be open to God we must take the time daily to nourish our souls with prayer. We must understand prayer as connecting to God. Who wouldn’t want to connect with God? Well, such connection takes place through conscious prayer – talking to God throughout the day, setting aside certain times to offer up the prayers of the Church. We need to make time to connect with God. And we do this also through reading the Bible, reading spiritual books. Finding something divine that can nourish our souls.

In today’s story, our Lord warns us about the thorns that will try to strangle the spiritual plant to which we are giving birth. Thorns can represent worldly attractions and distractions that suffocate our spiritual desires. These may represent certain vices of greed, lust, anger, hatred and the like. But seemingly innocuous attractions may also hinder our spiritual growth – when an undo focus is set on our family, our children, our work, or certain hobbies. Our Church Fathers talk about the three most common and threatening weeds -- cares or anxieties of the world, the deceit of riches, and our desire for pleasure. Society bombards us with these temptations. Some such temptations may not appear to be bad in and of themselves. We must stay vigilant, however, and take care that nothing crowds out our Lord. If anything in our lives makes us too busy to find time with God, if anything takes away our primary focus and loyalty to Christ, then such things have become weeds and thorns endangering our spiritual wellbeing. We must dig such weeds out and cast them aside. We have to regularly examine the attractions and distractions of life, and see how they hinder or help our openness to God’s Spirit.

Ultimately, our goal as Orthodox Christians is to cultivate hearts that represent fertile, rich soil. Such soil not only accepts the seeds of faith, but becomes fertile land for faith to grow unhindered. And the result of such a faithful heart will be abundant fruit. Remember, such soil accepts the seed, allows it to grow unhindered by anything else, and then becomes a plant which bears fruit. Here lies a fundamental goal of our Christian lives – not only to grow in Christ, but to bear fruit!

And how do we cultivate hearts that will bear fruit? Any gardener knows that good soil is a mixture of natural gifts and careful cultivation. The soil may have many nutrients, which are given by God, but the gardener must still diligently work in the garden. The gardener must cultivate, water, and care for the soil DAILY. We cannot cultivate an authentic spiritual life without daily and patient effort, without struggling to repress certain thoughts and feelings, without an amount of discipline, without meditation and self-examination, and without an ascetical struggle. We cannot nourish a spiritual life without an effort of learning our faith and participating in the sacraments of the Church.

God’s grace works together with our effort. We must cooperate with God. Of course, God will do most of the work for us, but he insists that we add our own effort.

“They hear, but they don’t understand. They see, but they don’t perceive. For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing and their eyes have closed.” May these prophetic words of Isaiah not be true for us, but may we become the good and fertile soil that allows the words of God to bear fruit!

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