2 Corinthians 11:19-31
“Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)So we read this morning at Mattins.
According to “COMMON PRAYER: A Commentary on the Prayer Book Lectionary”, the Sundays of Septuagesima are about the cultivation of Virtue. Temperance and Justice were addressed last Sunday; Prudence, and Fortitude this Sunday, and next Sunday, the last before Ash Wednesday, is given over to Love.
The Four “Cardinal Virtues” of Temperance, Justice, Prudence, and Fortitude were first enumerated by Plato, and elaborated by other ancients, including the Book of Wisdom. The Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love were first described by Saint Paul. What distinguishes these two classes of Virtues? The first four “Moral” virtues, “may, as natural virtues, be acquired by our own efforts,” by practicing them until they become a habitual disposition. The latter three place us in relation with the Trinity and are called “infused; that is, poured into our souls, because they are strictly gifts of God.”
In our Epistle today, Paul is contrasting himself with what he calls “Super Apostles” who have recently been to Corinth - they seem to have advertised themselves based on their Jewish pedigree, their wonder-working, and their authoritarian demeanor. (The Authorized Version translation makes this passage difficult because of Paul’s use of sarcasm.) He compares and contrasts his own credentials with theirs: “If these are the things that matter to you,” he says to the Corinthians, “well, then, I exceed these teachers on every front: and furthermore I exceed them in what I’ve suffered to spread the Gospel. All the glamour doesn’t matter: “If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.” Paul exemplifies the virtue of Fortitude in the midst of his sufferings; and faults the Corinthians for a lack of Prudence: of being able to distinguish between Virtue and Vice, between his true Fortitude and the Pride of the “Super Apostles.”
The Gospel today is interesting. As Fr. Robert Capon points out, we tend to think it surprising that Jesus has to explain this parable, since the meaning is so obvious, and yet, it is perhaps less obvious even to us than we think, and no more so than to his original listeners. We might hear the parable something along these lines, “The seed is Christian preaching, which everyone needs to hear; but only in those who act uprightly, who are Virtuous, will it operate.” Fr. Capon sees in this parable something far less comfortable to us - and yet far more comforting. If we follow the premise of allowing the Bible to interpret itself, the seed can be nothing but Jesus himself. “The seed is the Word of God.” Saint John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Speaking of the “Hour when the Son of man should be glorified,” John quotes Jesus as saying, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” So the seed is Jesus, and he is sown to all conditions of life. And what is the purpose of seed? To fall to the ground and die. No matter what the conditions that receive the seed, its purpose will be fulfilled. What of the birds that ate the seed off the road? “And the fowls of the air devoured it”- The devil thought at the Crucifixion that he had won - but that was the fulfilling, not the frustration, of God’s purpose. When birds eat seeds, the seeds pass through them and spread further - and bring about more growth than if the seeds had only fallen. “And some fell upon a rock, and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.” And yet the withered plant then turns to soil, and subsequent moisture can now be retained. Among the thorns, “The thorns sprang up with it, and choked it” - choked it, yes, preventing “perfect fruit”, but not preventing its growth entirely. And one who sees the potentially fruitful growth among the thorns might well be inspired to then clear them away. And finally, the “good ground,” where the seed may bring forth fruit an hundredfold.
The Gospel doesn’t allow us to sit smugly knowing that we are good, and thus the seed is only effective in us, like Paul’s “Super Apostles.” The seed is everywhere, and it is effective everywhere, because that is God’s purpose and it does not depend upon us. All that we have to do is to cooperate or not. If we do - we will enjoy the fruit that springs up an hundredfold. If we do not, its purpose will be effected anyway.
This brings us back to the curse of the fall. We are no longer in the garden - and yet, the ground itself still gives its natural fruit through the sun and rain and seed that God distributes. And God distributes his graces to all humanity as well, that the fruit on coinhering with him and with each other may be brought to perfection. No effort of ours may cause or prevent this. But we can work with it by rooting out the thorns as best we can; and tilling with the cultivation of Virtue. We may practice the Fortitude of enduring the “times of temptation,” and the “cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life,” and Prudence of knowing that even so, we are not – in success – causing or earning or, – in failure – preventing or frustrating God’s gifts to us — that our heart may be made “good ground” for God to work through in us.