THE ART OF UNDERLABORING

This Gospel reflection is based on Matthew 13:1-23.

Sower-farmer

Because we must’ve heard this parable thousands of times before, more often than not, we fail to notice the somewhat questionable agricultural method used by the sower in the parable. He goes out to the field, we are told, and scatters seed in every possible direction and–soon enough we find out–on every possible type of soil. What kind of farming is that?A line from an old hymn that alludes to this parable goes, “We scatter seeds with careless hand.” So true! When we think about it, that’s exactly what this sower looks like he’s doing: scattering seed carelessly, with utter disregard for something as basic as soil quality. 

But if, as we learn in the reading, the sower actually stands for God and the seeds the Good News, we realize that it isn’t at all the case that God is being careless as He is being characteristically lavish: God is being deliberately indiscriminate in reaching out to His children, refusing to be in any way exclusive or selective. He wants His Word to reach every single person regardless of their state: Not just those who are receptive to Him (as symbolized by the good soil), but even those who are weak and vulnerable to temptations (as represented by the soil where the birds ate up the seeds), as well as those who are shallow (the rocky ground) or too preoccupied with worldly matters (the thorny ground).

What a relief! Can you imagine if God had decided to be picky from the very outset? We wouldn’t stand a chance of receiving His Word and much less, bearing any fruit! So it is really gift enough that God has decided to be so lavish and indiscriminate in scattering His Word everywhere.

The Parable of the Sower is clearly an invitation to assess ourselves, to ask ourselves exactly what type of soil we are. In other words: How open and ready are we to receive and nurture God’s word in our hearts? But I think the parable is an invitation not just to self-examination, but also for us to learn the art of underlaboring.

“Underlaboring” sounds suspiciously like what people do when they are being plain lazy. But appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, “underlaboring” has nothing to do with underachievement. It actually means clearing the ground, pulling out the weeds, and removing whatever other rubbish might be there. To underlabor is to do the work necessary in preparation for the real work of farming that will be done.

As the Parable of the Sower teaches us, the “real work” is done by God; our work is merely to clear the ground, to prepare the soil in our hearts for God’s sowing.

What does underlaboring mean for us concretely? It means removing the clutter and unnecessary preoccupation we have in our lives. It’s actually a very simple but difficult task. It’s all about the routine that we design into our lives, and the habits that we end up forming. I had a friend who started his day by checking his email and Facebook as soon as he got up from bed. During the day, when he wasn’t working–or sometimes even while he was working!–he was glued to his phone, reading and responding to text messages. And he ended his days by binging on his favorite TV series. His days and nights were constantly filled with all sorts of external stimuli. On one occasion he shared with me that he felt that God was far away. “I don’t know,” he told me. “Maybe I’ve been too busy too.”

But the problem was not so much that he was too busy–I know many busy people who manage to maintain healthy spiritual lives. My friend’s problem was his routines and habits, which not only accumulated for him a lot of rubbish, but also prevented him from finding the space and time to do a much-needed underlaboring, clearing the soil of his heart of all the clutter that we all inevitably pile up in the course of each day.

After our talk, my friend decided to redesign his schedule: He started his day just sitting by himself, a cup of coffee in his hands. He swore to read only work-related email during his office hours, and checked his Facebook only in the evenings. He also opted to read a novel instead of watch TV. He ended his day with a short prayer. In other words, my friend made sure that his new routine gave him the time and space to perform a daily self-underlaboring. He hasn’t experienced a dramatic religious experience as a result; but he has felt more in touch with himself and has begun to feel more open and more receptive to God.

Perhaps it is time for you to assess your schedule and examine your routines. Have you designed the time for you to learn and to practice the much-needed art of underlaboring?

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4 thoughts on “THE ART OF UNDERLABORING”

  1. Given my constant desire for efficiency, it is quite difficult for me to understand God’s ‘reckless’ lavishness. Yet, I know deep in my heart that that it is what I am called to do sometimes to those around me, despite my pre-judging them on whether they deserve this lavishness or not.
    If taking a cup of coffee in the morning rather than busying one’s self with emails can prove to be infinitely more productive in the final analysis, ‘wasting’ time on those in need shouldn’t be any different.
    I pray for this grace.

  2. How timely and apropos. I realize that I have managed to fill my days with so much clutter that I often end up being too tired to pray at the end of the day. I shall endeavor to re-order my daily routine starting now.
    Thanks for the new word – underlaboring.

  3. Thanks for this reflection. I will be sharing it with 200 others in Ahon Sa Hirap, a legitimate NGO working for the alleviation of poverty.

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