HOMILY BY POPE ST. GREGORY, PREACHED IN THE
CHURCH OF ST. PETER ON SEXAGESIMA SUNDAY
I. The extract from the Holy Gospel which you have just heard, beloved brethren, needs not so much that it should be explained as that its lesson should be impressed on your minds. The Truth Himself has explained it, and after that, it is not becoming man s frailty to discuss His exposition as if not reliable. But there is, in that very explanation of our Lord, somewhat which it behoves us well to weigh. For, if we asked you to believe that by the seed is signified the word, by the field, the world, by the birds, the devils, and by the thorns, riches, you would perhaps doubt the truth of our exposition. Therefore, the Lord Himself deigned to give this explanation, and that, not for this parable only, but that you may know in what manner to interpret others, the meaning of which He has not given. Beginning His explanation, the Lord says that He is speaking in parables; and thereby He assures us when our weakness would unveil to you the hidden meaning of His words. For who would believe me were I to say that riches are thorns? Thorns prick, but riches afford us delight. And yet riches are thorns, indeed, for the anxiety they bring is a ceaseless pricking in the minds of their owners, and, if they lead to sin, they are thorns which tear the soul to bleed. But we understand from another Evangelist (Matt 13:28), that in this place our Lord speaks not of the riches themselves, but of the deceitfulness of riches. Those riches are deceitful, which can be ours for a little while only; those riches are deceitful, which cannot relieve the poverty of our souls. If, then, you seek to be rich, beloved brethren, earnestly desire the true riches; if you would be truly honourable, strive after the kingdom of heaven; if you love to reach the summit of titles and dignities, hasten to have your names written in Court above, where angels are.
II. Take to heart the Lord’s words which your ears hear. The food of the soul is the word of God. When the stomach is sick it rejects again the food that is put into it; and so is the soul sick when a man hears and digests not in his memory the word of God. And if any man cannot retain his food, that man s life is in a desperate case. Thus we ought to fear for our soul, lest it should be lost, when receiving the food of holy admonition, we do not keep in our memory the words of life which would preserve in us true Christian justice. Further, consider that, whatsoever you are doing now, will in time pass away, and that every day you come nearer the moment of the strict account to be given to God. Are you convinced of this truth? Then why do you love such goods as you must leave, and why are you careless about that end which you will soon reach, and by which your fate in eternity will be decided? Do remember the words of your Redeemer: He that hath ears to hear let him hear. Not all of those who were present and heard these words, understood them; for our Lord wished them to be heard with the ears of the heart and mind, and not with the ears of the body only, so that His doctrine may be understood and accepted. Be careful, therefore, that the Divine word you receive be not taken from your heart and memory; be careful that this word fall not by the way side, that is, watch, lest through your carelessness and distraction the devil take the word out of your hearts. Be careful that this precious seed fall not into your souls as upon rocks, that is, that for want of perseverance on your part, it cannot take root, and will, therefore, wither away. Many are seen receiving the words of salvation with joy; some also are noticed beginning to practise virtues, but they fall away in time of temptation. By their inconstancy and the fickleness of their mind they are like the dry and rocky ground, where the seed springs up and withers away, because it has no moisture. Such Christians perhaps hear a sermon against avarice, and at once they feel for that vice the aversion it deserves, and they praise those who despise the goods of this world. But as soon as an opportunity is at hand to gratify their own concupiscence and covetousness, the praises given to the contempt of riches disappear from their memory. When a sermon against impurity is preached, there are many who, at the terrible picture drawn of this shameful vice, not only resolve never to commit such heinous sins, but are also deeply ashamed of their past offences where with they are reproached by their own conscience. Yet, should a dangerous object be presented, they long for it with the same eagerness, as if they had not made the resolution to avoid such objects. They relapse into the same sins which they had previously committed and execrated. It sometimes happens that they shed tears over their debaucheries, and yet they return to them as soon as they cease to bewail them. Thus Balaam shed tears of contrition, seeing the camp of the Israelites, and wished to be in death like this people beloved by God. Let my soul die the death of the just, he said, and my last end be like to them (Num 23:10). But these feelings of contrition were hardly expressed, when the desires of this impious man were again inflamed by avarice. At the sight of the presents offered to him, he gave the most abominable advice, so as to bring about the destruction of the very people to whom he had wished to be like. His sorrow and contrition were forgotten, for he had not entirely extinguished the flames of avarice burning in his soul.
III. Explaining His parable, our Redeemer says that the cares, the riches and the pleasures of this life choke the seed of the Divine word. Indeed, they choke it through the continual thoughts awakened in the mind, preventing this word of life from taking root. Then, since these useless thoughts shut the door of the heart to good desires, they also prevent the heart from receiving the inspirations of the Holy Ghost, Who preserves the life of the soul. Let us also note that, in the parable of the Lord, both the cares and the pleasures of this life are connected with the possession of riches, because the troubles about riches oppress the mind; then, by their superabundance, they deliver us up to sinful pleasures. For it is certain that rich people have many cares and troubles on account of their love for the things of this world; .and it is also certain that they indulge in sensual pleasures, though it seems that these two statements do not agree. Yet, we may say, that if at one time they feel uneasy about their riches, at another they are mollified by the allurements of lust, to which they are attracted by their wealth.
IV. The good seed, falling upon good ground, yields fruit a hundredfold, yet brings forth that fruit in patience. For our good works would be of no avail to us, did we not patiently and generously bear the trials inflicted on us by our neighbour. The more we advance in virtue, the heavier become the crosses wherewith our Father in heaven allows us to be burdened, in order to try those who serve Him. How is this? Because the more a soul endeavours to be separated from the love of the world, the more it finds this same world contemptible and loathsome. Indeed, we see that the greater number of virtuous people doing good works are nevertheless overwhelmed with troubles and trials. The stronger they fight against sensual temptations, the more bitter are their sufferings. Yet it is just in this manner that, according to the Redeemer s words, the just bring forth fruit in patience. They humbly submit to the scourges wherewith they are smitten by God in this world, and afterwards rise to enjoy the eternal rest prepared for them in heaven. We may compare them with grapes, which, being trodden under feet, yield a delicious wine. They are also like the fruit of the olive-tree, which yields in the press a frothy liquid, that becomes the precious oil. Lastly, the just are like to the wheat, which, being thrashed on the floor and separated from the chaff, is preserved in the barn. Those, therefore, who wish their sins and passions to be destroyed, ought to submit willingly, for their spiritual progress, to the stripes wherewith Divine Providence chastises them. Then they will appear before the judgment-seat of God so much the purer, the more they were cleansed from the rust of sin by the fire of suffering.
V. My assertions will be proved by the example of Servulus, which I now place before you. He was begging at the door of the Church of St. Clement, and many among you have known this poor man as well as I did. Deprived of all earthly riches, yet rich in spiritual goods, he was for years afflicted with a terrible disease. From his youth to the very end of his life, he was on his sick-bed, without being able to rise or even to sit up. Palsy, which reduced him to this bad condition, had deprived him of the use of his limbs; he could neither raise his hand to his mouth, nor turn over on his bed. The mother and brother of this poor man waited on him, and gave to other poor people the remainder of the alms he received. Though he had never learnt how to read, he had a copy of the Holy Scripture bought, and pious people, whom he most hospitably received, read it out to him. Thus he acquired a thorough knowledge of the Holy Writ, according to his intellect, which, as I said, had not been cultivated. Amidst his sufferings, his principal object was to thank and praise God day and night with psalms and spiritual canticles. But when the hour came that heaven was to reward such heroic virtue, the acute pains of the palsy reached the heart, and, feeling himself at the point of death, he summoned his own people and others, and asked them to stand up and sing psalms until he died. Whilst he himself was singing with others, he suddenly stopped, and said in a strong and extraordinary voice: Do you hear the songs of praise resounding in heaven? And while listening to that melodious heavenly harmony, his innocent soul left his body. A delicious fragrance was noticed by the assistants, and recognised by them as a sign that his soul had been taken up to heaven. A monk belonging to a monastery, where I stayed for some time, witnessed these facts, the remembrance of which made him shed tears of joy. I was assured by him that, until the burial of the body, the same delicious odour was perceived by all those present. Beloved brethren, do think of the precious death of one who, whilst on earth, bore all the troubles and trials of life with patience and resignation. By his invincible courage, he became like to the good ground, which, according to our Redeemer, brings forth fruit in patience, and, after suffering the plough of tribulations, yields fruit a hundred-fold. Now, I ask you and entreat you to consider what answer we shall give at the terrible judgment? In spite of the graces wherewith we were enriched by Divine Providence; in spite of the hands given to us for useful work, we languish in idleness and neglect good works. Does not the example of that poor and sick man condemn our carelessness? He had in this life neither the goods of this world nor the use of his limbs, yet he strictly observed the Lord s precepts. What shall we say for our justification, when the example of the Apostles, surrounded by the innumerable nations converted by their labours and preaching, will be placed before us by the Judge; when we shall see so many praiseworthy martyrs who, making the sacrifice of their lives, bought heaven with their blood shed for Jesus Christ? What shall we answer, when blessed Servulus stands before us he who constantly laboured and did good works, though his arms, paralyzed by disease, were of no use to him? think of all this, beloved brethren, in order to encourage yourselves to do good works; place before your eyes the beautiful models of virtue proposed to your imitation, and one day you will share with them the eternal beatitude in heaven.