Wednesday of the Third Week in Ordinary
By BENEDICT AUGUSTINE
“’And some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit.
It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.’
He added, ‘Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.’”
No other parable or story catches the essence of teaching and instruction better than the Parable of the Sower. Day in, day out, teachers do their work of instructing students, young and old, to learn content or develop skills in reading, writing, and thinking. Often, students react much like the unsteady earth receiving these seeds of knowledge. Some students follow along quite well, but in their enthusiasm, quickly forget what they’ve learned because they have distractions at home that sap whatever learning they may have done at school. Other students refuse to listen, refuse to work, and remain quite ignorant in their stubbornness. The taskmasters of the world swoop down on these kids and set them to work with their hands—that is, if these kids ever find work at all. Perhaps the most tragic students are the ones that show promise and learn their lessons quite well only to mix with bad crowd (the weeds) and underachieve forever afterward.
Fortunately, a few students escape this fate and shine in the classroom and beyond. They not only come with talent, which helps, but they also enter the classroom with a positive attitude. They will see humor in the teacher’s little jokes. They will try to identify with the old abstruse writers they read, and naturally try to apply their arguments to their own time. They will take the time to practice a new math concept, to write out their lab report, to read their textbooks. And if they are truly good students, they accomplish these things not for a grade, but because it is good and they actually like it.
Good teachers distinguish themselves by their hope in reaching the student, regardless of their background. As they sow their seeds of knowledge and wisdom, they understand the seeds may not always bear fruit, or that they may only bear fruit in a limited fashion. Nevertheless, they sow as if their whole field consisted of good soil. The faithful administrator—yes, they’re on our allegorical field as well—trusts his teachers to bear fruit, supporting them and letting them focus on their task by warding off the birds. Finally, the loving parent continues their work on the soil, breaking it up, nurturing it, letting those seeds take root and grow—they probably have the most difficult job, so love is absolutely key.
By contrast, the hopeless teachers, the faithless administrators, the loveless parents too often have the tendency to cut their losses and run away from the challenge. The hopeless teachers stop pushing their students; the faithless administrators stop trusting their teachers or students to do the right thing and hide their faces in “data” and new education gimmicks; and the loveless parents stop expecting anything from their kids. In such a school, and there are many, weeds fester, the ground stays barren, and the birds of corruption gather and defecate all over the place.
As St. Augustine observed the dysfunction and decline of education in his time which preceded the barbarian invasions into Rome by a few years, he came to realize that education was not the product of economic prosperity or political agenda: education was a moral activity, a product of the soul. In his major work, De Doctrina Christiana, he first imagined that school of hopeful teachers, faithful administrators, and loving parents. The school did not try to make fatuous cads copying the rhetoric of Cicero and buying into the bogus mystery cults and heresies of the day; it tried to create good men and women living out the truths of the Bible.
Although some scholars have criticized Augustine’s work—I know this because I wrote my graduate thesis on it—since Rome fell into decline shortly afterward, his educational theory obviously took hold in the saints in the centuries afterward. St. Isidore, St. Gregory, St. John Cassian, St. Martin of Tours, and Saint Leo the Great proved that great scholarship aligned with Christianity, not with Paganism or Aryanism. These saints did the work of preserving the Western intellectual tradition—Augustine’s plan wisely adopted and adapted the classics worth keeping—despite the massive assimilation of uneducated Goths in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, and the onslaught Muslim Arab invasions threatening Christendom for nine centuries afterward. Augustine’s idea of a spiritual education held strong, producing many saints and scholars (like St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day is today), and eventually led to the birth of the modern world, proving the that the patience of the sower will eventually pay off if the seeds are truly good.
Along with illustrating the sowing aspect of teaching, Jesus’ parables also shed light on the other roles present in this process. Jesus will ask His apostles to sow, no doubt, but he also asks His audience, what will become His Church, to be good soil—“Whoever has ears ought to hear.” They need to stop acting like weeds choking the progress of others, or like the shallow soil accepting the truth half-way and drying up before the seed matures, or like the hard soil leaving the Truth of the gospel exposed to the idiots and villains of the world hoping to steal it away and make nothing of it. Instead, they must soften their hearts, open their minds, and let the seed of Truth sink in and take root.
In practical terms, this means breaking down the soil with prayer, removing its pests with fasting, and enriching it with alms. The devout life aims to make us good soil that bears the fruit of Love and Truth. Nothing less will do.