Sunday of week 15 of Ordinary Time


Commentary on Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23

THERE ARE THREE DISTINCT PARTS in today’s Gospel: parable, interlude, and    explanation of the parable. A way of looking at this division is to regard the parable as being close to the actual words of Jesus. This is followed by a theological ‘interlude’ on “hearing” and finally there is an interpretation of the parable possibly emanating from the early Church and, in effect, producing a related but distinct lesson or message.

In the parable itself the emphasis is on God (the sower) who works and produces results. The interpretation of the parable puts the emphasis more on us (the soil) and the ways in which we can respond. The interlude or comment in between gives the key to our response and subsequent    fertility of the seed.

God’s munificence

The parable has strong links with the First Reading from Isaiah. In both we are told that God shares his abundance with us and his plans will not be frustrated. God’s creative and nurturing work is compared with rain and snow falling on the earth and not returning until it has given    moisture, “making it yield and giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating”. In the parable, it is true that the seed falls many times on inhospitable soil but some will undoubtedly fall on rich soil and produce an abundant harvest. “So,” says the Lord in Isaiah, “the    word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in was it was sent to do.”

This is clearly a message of hope for communities which may at times be discouraged by the meagre results of their evangelisation efforts. We are reading here from Matthew 13. The whole chapter consists of “parables of the Kingdom”. They all say in different ways that the Kingdom of God, in spite of its tiny and weak beginnings will be established for it is “like a treasure hidden in a field” or “a pearl of great price”. Once discovered, all else is given up in order to be part of it.

In the whole of Scripture God’s word is not just a spoken word. It is a doing word, a creating, life-giving word. It is like a life-bearing seed. Where do we encounter that word? If we are sufficiently sensitive, we encounter it unceasingly in every experience of our lives, whether that   experience is joyful or sad, a success or a failure, pleasant or painful.

There is clearly, of course, for us one place in particular where God’s word is more clearly experienced and that is in Jesus Christ. For Jesus is the Word of God. Everything that Jesus said, everything that Jesus did was God communicating to us through him. Not just his teaching but his    whole life, from the hidden years of Nazareth through his public life to his death and resurrection – in all of this Jesus was, and is for us today, the Word of God.

Barren soil

And yet, as in the parable, much of that Word fell on barren soil. Many refused to hear or to see (hence so many cases of deafness and blindness in the Gospel). Even Jesus’ closest disciples did not provide, at first, very promising soil. Jesus’ life and mission seemed to end in tragic and    dismal failure. There was not a single disciple in sight. His enemies laughed and mocked him. And yet… It was precisely at that moment as the seed “fell into the ground and died” (cf. John 12:24) that the Word of God began to take root in people’s hearts. Beginning, like the tiny    mustard seed, like the small amount of yeast in a large batch of dough, the seed, the Word of God, began to grow and flourish against all odds.

“The word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.” As with Jesus himself, so with us today we need to be reminded that God’s plans will not be frustrated, that the Kingdom will be established. “Listen,    anyone who has ears!”

Why speak in parables?

The part that follows contains some apparently alarming words. Is Jesus saying that he spoke in parables so that only his inner circle would understand and that the rest be left in darkness? That hardly makes sense. It does provide a bridge to the interpretation of the parable to follow. There seems, especially in the quotation from Isaiah, a heavy sarcasm. Those who see but never understand; those who hear and hear but never get the message. Why? Not because they are stupid but because they basically do not want to. If they saw, if they really heard, they might be converted, they might have to change their ways radically – and that is the last thing they want to do. In the context of Matthew’s gospel these words seem particularly directed at those of his people who rejected Jesus but it applies to all who close their ears in prejudice and fear.

But to his disciples and followers Jesus says, “Happy are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear!” Many before Jesus’ time longed to see and hear but never got the privilege of Jesus’ followers.

The key word today is ‘hear’. It is a very scriptural word and contains essentially four elements:

to listen with a totally open and unconditional mind (“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”)

to understand what one hears

to accept and appropriate fully what one understands and, finally,

this acceptance flows out into our behaviour.

One can listen but not understand and one can understand without accepting and one can accept without implementing. All four are necessary for conversion and healing. All four are necessary for full hearing.

Different responses

All of this leads naturally into the third part, an interpretation of the parable on the level of different kinds of hearing. Some seed falls on the path. There is no soil here. There is no prospect of the seed taking root. Ears and eyes are closed and unreceptive to the Word of God.

The seed falls on rocky ground in the field where there is a thin layer of soil. The seed takes root, begins to grow but soon gets burnt up by lack of water and the heat of the sun. It is like those Christians who, after baptism or after a retreat or some spiritual experience, have a great rush of enthusiasm for God but, under the slightest pressure, soon run out of steam and fall away. Probably there was no real hearing, no real understanding and hence no real commitment. This group, in the text, may be referring to people who became baptised Christians in the early Church and were full of enthusiasm until faced with persecution for their faith. They caved in and gave up.

What is my response?

Some seed also falls on soil where there are many weeds and thorns. As it grows, it gets smothered by the competing plants. This we might call the “having your cake and eating it” response. I do want to be a good Christian but I also want to have all the things that the world around me thinks     important, even if they are in conflict with the Gospel vision. It won’t work. We cannot at the same time totally serve God and be a part of the materialistic, consumerist, “success”-hungry world. Probably a very large number of us, in varying degrees, belong in this category. As a result, the Church’s work in building the Kingdom is severely hampered.

Finally, some of the seed falls in rich, nutritious soil. This soil is like the “man who hears and understands [the Word of God]”, he is the one “who yields a harvest” in varying degrees of abundance.

In the long run, as we said at the beginning, the work of God cannot be frustrated either by threats from society or from within the Christian community. But what matters for me as I hear this Scripture is to be aware that I, as this individual, can refuse to provide the fertile patch of soil for God’s Word to take deep root. God’s plan as a whole will succeed but it is up to me to be part of that plan. I personally can say No or Not yet or Yes, but… I can, like many of the people that Jesus    knew, resist the radical change of view that conversion entails. In the process I will also miss out, of course, on the deep healing that the Word of God can bring into my life and, with the healing, a sense of liberation, happiness and peace.

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