To admire the labours of the saints is good; to emulate them wins salvation; but to wish suddenly to imitate their life in every point is unreasonable and impossible.
[John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent]
The parable of the grain of mustard seed is a mystery, as the Fathers have said, and we are called to imitate its example. It is written, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a person took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of herbs and becomes a shrub, so that the birds of the sky come and make nests in it’s branches.” [Mt 13:31]
This, then, is the grain of mustard seed, and these are its virtues which we are called to imitate in every way. When it says, “it is the smallest of all seeds“, it is referring to humility, that we must be subjected to all people. Its growth signifies meekness and longsuffering. Its redness means purity, not having any stain in the flesh. Its sharp twigs are the hatred of the passions, for such hatred is bitter for those who still desire wordly things. Its sweetness, which is only activated when it is mashed or threshed, signifies endurance. Its thresher is stung in the eyes on account of its powerful affliction. It is used to pickle dead things in order that they do not stink. Let us understand this and do likewise, dipping in it the dead parts of our soul so that they are not exposed to stench or worms.
This is why the Lord Jesus became human, in order that we may be concerned with endeavouring to behave as he did, searching ourselves as best we can in accordance with his example, asking whether or not we are like that seed, its condition humility, its sweetness and bitterness and taste. His mercy will strengthen us according to his will, for his is the glory, of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to the ages of ages. Amen.
[Abba Isaiah of Scetis, Ascetical Discourses, Discourse 11]
Someone asked Abba Isaiah, ‘What is repentance and what does “to flee from sin” mean?’
He replied, ‘There are two ways: one of life and one of death (cf. Jr 21:8 and the Didache). The person who walks along one does not progress along the other. The person who walks along both is not yet reckoned for the kingdom, or for punishment. When such a person is dead, his judgement is in the hands of God, who also has mercy. Whoever wishes to enter the kingdom keeps watch over his actions because the kingdom puts an end to every sin. The enemies sow (cf. Mt 13:39) but their thoughts do not grow. If, through the Spirit, a person contemplates the loving kindness of the Godhead (cf. 1 P 2:3) the arrows of the enemy do not penetrate him (cf. Ep 6:16). He is, in effect, putting on the armour of virtues (cf. Ep 6:11), which guards against the enemy, taking care not to allow him to be troubled. If frees him in order that, in his contemplation, he may see, know and distinguish between the two ways, fleeing from one and embracing the other.”
[Abba Isaiah of Scetis, Ascetic Discourses, Discourse 21]
Abba Isaiah said, “O me, O me! For I did not struggle to save myself. O me, O me! For I did not struggle to purify myself in order to be made worthy of the intervention of the God of mercy. O me, O me! For I did not struggle to overcome the onslaughts of your enemies so that you might reign over me.”
He also said, “O me! For I have been invested with your name, and I am serving your enemies. O me, O me! For I do what God abhors; that is why he is not healing me.”
He also said, “O me, O me! For there are those before me who are accusing me of faults or which I am aware and unaware, and am unable to repudiate them. O me, O me! How can I meet my Lord and his holy ones when my enemies do not allow that even one of my members is pure in the sight of God?”
[Abba Isaiah of Scetis, Ascetic Discourses, Discourse 26]
A brother asked an elder, “How is it that my soul loves impurity?” The elder said to him, “The soul desires the passions, but it is the Spirit of God who takes it in hand. We should weep over our own sins and impurities. Did you notice how the Lord called down to Mary when she stooped down at the sepulcher and wept [cf. Jn 20:1-16]? That is how it will be for the soul.
One of the elders said, “If you hate something, refrain from doing it to somebody else. Do you hate it when somebody speaks ill of you? Then speak no ill of any person. Do you hate it when somebody makes false accusations against you? Then do not accuse anybody falsely. Do you hate it if somebody sets you at naught or insults you or makes off with what is yours or does whatever is like that? Then do nothing of that sort to another. For the person who can keep this saying, it will suffice for his salvation.
What then is the parable? “Behold,” saith He, “a sower went forth to sow.” (Mat 13:3)
Whence went He forth, who is present everywhere, who fills all things? or how went He forth? Not in place, but in condition and dispensation to usward, coming nearer to us by His clothing Himself with flesh. For because we could not enter, our sins fencing us out from the entrance, He comes forth unto us. And wherefore came He forth? to destroy the ground teeming with thorns? to take vengeance upon the husbandmen? By no means; but to till and tend it, and to sow the word of godliness. For by seed here He means His doctrine, and by land, the souls of men, and by the sower, Himself.
What then comes of this seed? Three parts perish, and one is saved.
He said not, that He cast them, but that “they fell.”
And some upon the rock, where they had not much earth; and forthwith they sprang up, because they had no deepness of earth; and when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among the thorns, and the thorns sprang up, and choked them. But others fell on the good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear let him hear.” (Mat 13:5-9)
A fourth part is saved; and not this all alike, but even here great is the difference.
Now these things He said, manifesting that He discoursed to all without grudging. For as the sower makes no distinction in the land submitted to him, but simply and indifferently casts his seed; so He Himself too makes no distinction of rich and poor, of wise and unwise, of slothful or diligent, of brave or cowardly; but He discourses unto all, fulfilling His part, although foreknowing the results; that it may be in His power to say, “What ought I to have done, that I have not done?” (Is 5:4) And the prophets speak of the people as of a vine; “For my beloved,” it is said, “had a vineyard;” (Is 5:) and, “He brought a vine out of Egypt;” (Ps 80:8) but He, as of seed. What could this be to show? That obedience now will be quick and easier, and will presently yield its fruit.
But when thou hearest, “The sower went forth to sow,” think it not a needless repetition. For the sower frequently goes forth for some other act also, either to plough, or to cut out the evil herbs, or to pluck up thorns, or to attend to some such matter; but He went forth to sow.
Whence then, tell me, was the greater part of the seed lost? Not through the sower, but through the ground that received it; that is, the soul that did not hearken.
And wherefore doth He not say, Some the careless received, and lost it; some the rich, and choked it, and some the superficial, and betrayed it? It is not His will to rebuke them severely, lest He should cast them into despair, but He leaves the reproof to the conscience of His hearers.
And this was not the case with the seed only, but also with the net; for that too produced many that were unprofitable.
But this parable He speaks, as anointing His disciples, and to teach them, that even though the lost be more than such as receive the word yet they are not to despond. For this was the ease even with their Lord, and He who fully foreknew that these things should be, did not desist from sowing.
And how can it be reasonable, saith one, to sow among the thorns, on the rock, on the wayside? With regard to the seeds and the earth it cannot be reasonable; but in the case of men’s souls and their instructions, it hath its praise, and that abundantly. For the husbandman indeed would reasonably be blamed for doing this; it being impossible for the rock to become earth, or the wayside not to be a wayside, or the thorns, thorns; but in the things that have reason it is not so. There is such a thing as the rock changing, and becoming rich land; and the wayside being no longer trampled on, nor lying open to all that pass by, but that it may be a fertile field; and the thorns may be destroyed, and the seed enjoy full security. For had it been impossible, this Sower would not have sown. And if the change did not take place in all, this is no fault of the Sower, but of them who are unwilling to be changed: He having done His part: and if they betrayed what they received of Him, He is blameless, the exhibitor of such love to man.
But do thou mark this, I pray thee; that the way of destruction is not one only, but there are differing ones, and wide apart from one another. For they that are like the wayside are the coarse-minded, and indifferent, and careless; but those on the rock such as fail from weakness only.
For “that which is sown upon the stony places,” saith He, “the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it. Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while; but when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended! When any one,” so He saith, “heareth the word of truth and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth that which was sown out of his heart. This is he that is sown by the wayside.” (Mat 13:20-21)
Now it is not the same thing for the doctrine to wither away, when no man is evil entreating, or disturbing its foundations, as when temptations press upon one. But they that are likened to the thorns, are much more inexcusable than these.
In order then that none of these things may befall us, let us by zeal and continual remembrance cover up the things that are told us. For though the devil do catch them away, yet it rests with us, whether they be caught away; though the plants wither, yet it is not from the heat this takes place (for He did not say, because of the heat it withered, but, “because it had no root”); although His sayings are choked, it is not because of the thorns, but of them who suffer them to spring up. For there is a way, if thou wilt, to check this evil growth, and to make the right use of our wealth. Therefore He said not, “the world,” but “the care of the world;” nor “riches,” but “the deceitfulness of riches.”
Let us not then blame the things, but the corrupt mind. For it is possible to be rich and not to be deceived; and to be in this world, and not to be choked with its cares. For indeed riches have two contrary disadvantages; one, care, wearing us out, and bringing a darkness over us; the other, luxury, making us effeminate.
And well hath He said, “The deceitfulness of riches.” For all that pertains to riches is deceit; they are names only, not attached to things. For so pleasure and glory, and splendid array, and all these things, are a sort of vain show, not a reality.
Having therefore spoken of the ways of destruction, afterwards He mentions the good ground, not suffering them to despair, but giving a hope of repentance, and indicating that it is possible to change from the things before mentioned into this.
And yet if both the land be good, and the Sower one, and the seed the same, wherefore did one bear a hundred, one sixty, one thirty? Here again the difference is from the nature of the ground, for even where the ground is good, great even therein is the difference. Seest thou, that not the husbandman is to be blamed, nor the seed, but the land that receives it? not for its nature, but for its disposition. And herein too, great is His mercy to man, that He doth not require one measure of virtue, but while He receives the first, and casts not out the second, He gives also a place to the third.
And these things He saith, least they that followed Him should suppose that hearing is sufficient for salvation. And wherefore, one may say, did He not put the other vices also, such as lust, vainglory? In speaking of “the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches,” He set down all. Yea, both vainglory and all the rest belong to this world, and to the deceitfulness of riches; such as pleasure, and gluttony, and envy, and vainglory, and all the like.
But He added also the “way” and the “rock,” signifying that it is not enough to be freed from riches only, but we must cultivate also the other parts of virtue. For what if thou art free indeed from riches, yet are soft and unmanly? and what if thou art not indeed unmanly, but art remiss and careless about the hearing of the word? Nay, no one part is sufficient for our salvation, but there is required first a careful hearing, and a continual recollection; then fortitude, then contempt of riches, and deliverance from all worldly things.
In fact, His reason for putting this before the other, is because the one is first required (for “How shall they believe except they hear?” (Rom 10:14) just as we too, except we mind what is said, shall not be able so much as to learn what we ought to do): after that, fortitude, and the contempt of things present.
Hearing therefore these things, let us fortify ourselves on all sides, regarding His instructions, and striking our roots deep, and cleansing ourselves from all worldly things. But if we do the one, neglecting the other, we shall be nothing bettered; for though we perish not in one way, yet shall we in some other. For what signifies our not being ruined by riches, if we are by indolence: or not by indolence, if we are by softness. For so the husbandman, whether this way or that way he lose his crop, equally bewails himself. Let us not then soothe ourselves upon our not perishing in all these ways, but let it be our grief, in whichever way we are perishing.
And let us burn up the thorns, for they choke the word. And this is known to those rich men, who not for these matters alone, but for others also prove unprofitable. For having become slaves and captives of their pleasures, they are useless even for civil affairs, and if for them, much more for those of Heaven. Yea, and in two ways hereby our thoughts are corrupted; both by the luxury, and by the anxiety too. For either of these by itself were enough to overwhelm the bark; but when even both concur, imagine how high the billow swells.
And marvel not at His calling our luxury, “thorns.” For thou indeed art not aware of it, being intoxicated with thy passion, but they that are in sound health know that it pricks sharper than any thorn, and that luxury wastes the soul worse than care, and causes more grievous pains both to body and soul. For one is not so sorely smitten by anxiety, as by surfeiting. Since when watchings, and throbbings of the temples, and heaviness in the head, and pangs of the bowels, lay hold of such a man, you may imagine how many thorns these surpass in grievousness. And as the thorns, on whichever side they are laid hold of, draw blood from the hands that seize them, just so doth luxury plague both feet, and hands, and head, and eyes, and in general all our members; and it is withered also, and unfruitful, like the thorn, and hurts much more than it, and in our vital parts. Yea, it brings on premature old age, and dulls the senses, and darkens our reasoning, and blinds the keen-sighted mind, and makes the body tumid, rendering excessive the deposition of that which is cast away, and gathering together a great accumulation of evils; and it makes the burden too great, and the load overwhelming; whence our falls are many and continual, and our shipwrecks frequent.
For tell me, why pamper thy body? What? are we to slay thee in sacrifice, to set thee on the table? The birds it is well for thee to pamper: or rather, not so well even for them; for when they are fattened, they are unprofitable for wholesome food. So great an evil is luxury, that its mischief is shown even in irrational beings. For even them by luxury we make unprofitable, both to themselves and to us. For their superfluous flesh is indigestible, and the moister kind of corruption is engendered by that kind of fatness. Whereas the creatures that are not so fed, but live, as one may say, in abstinence, and moderate diet, and in labor and hardship, these are most serviceable both to themselves and to others, as well for food, as for everything else. Those, at any rate, who live on them, are in better health; but such as are fed on the others are like them, growing dull and sickly, and rendering their chain more grievous. For nothing is so hostile and hurtful to the body, as luxury; nothing so tears it in pieces, and overloads and corrupts it, as intemperance.
Wherefore above all may this circumstance make one amazed at them for their folly, that not even so much care as others show towards their wine skins, are these willing to evince towards themselves. For those the wine merchants do not allow to receive more than is fit, lest they should burst; but to their own wretched belly these men do not vouchsafe even so much forethought, but when they have stuffed it and distended it, they fill all, up to the ears, up to the nostrils, to the very throat itself, thereby pressing into half its room the spirit, and the power that directs the living being. What? was thy throat given thee for this end, that thou shouldest fill it up to the very mouth, with wine turned sour, and all other corruption? Not for this, O man, but that thou shouldest above all things sing to God, and offer up the holy prayers, and read out the divine laws, and give to thy neighbors profitable counsel. But thou, as if thou hadst received it for this end, dost not suffer it to have leisure for that ministry, so much as for a short season, but for all thy life subjectest it to this evil slavery. And as if any man having had a lyre given him with golden strings, and beautifully constructed, instead of awakening with it the most harmonious music, were to cover it over with much dung and clay; even so do these men. Now the word, dung, I use not of living, but of luxurious living, and of that great wantonness. Because what is more than necessary is not nourishment, but merely injurious. For in truth the belly alone was made merely for the reception of food; but the month, and the throat, and tongue, for other things also, far more necessary than these: or rather, not even the belly for the reception of food simply, but for the reception of moderate food. And this it makes manifest by crying out loudly against us, when we tease it by this greediness; nor doth it clamor against us only, but also avenging that wrong exacts of us the severest penalty. And first it punishes the feet, that bear and conduct us to those wicked revels, then the hands that minister to it, binding them together for having brought unto it such quantities and kinds of provisions; and many have distorted even their very mouth, and eyes, and head. And as a servant receiving an order beyond his power, not seldom out of desperation becomes insolent to the giver of the order: so the belly too, together with these members, often ruins and destroys, from being over-strained, the very brain itself. And this God hath well ordered, that from excess so much mischief should arise; that when of thine own will thou dost not practise self-restraint, at least against thy will, for fear of so great ruin, thou mayest learn to be moderate.
Knowing then these things, let us flee luxury, let us study moderation, that we may both enjoy health of body, and having delivered our soul from all infirmity, may attain unto the good things to come, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might forever and ever. Amen.
[St. John Chrysostom, Homily XLIV on the Gospel of St. Matthew]