July 12, 2020: 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Isaiah 55:10-11

Thus says the LORD:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

This brief reading from the prophet Isaiah is actually an extended metaphor in which he is celebrating the power of God’s word. The author looks to the workings of the natural world as a beautiful way to explain the ways of God, an explanation that will add substance to Jesus’ parable of the sower in today’s gospel reading.

Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

Isaiah has provided us with a glimpse of what ecologists today call the hydrologic cycle: continuous movement of water between the earth and the atmosphere. His knowledge of this cycle comes from observing nature itself, the primary source of wisdom.

Rain and snow originate in the heavens and fall to the earth. It does not roll off like water on a tin roof; rather, it soaks in, altering, making fertile and fruitful the earth upon which it falls. It then returns to the heavens, having accomplished its purpose.

This observation lays bare several characteristics of the integrity of creation.  The first is the interrelationship that exists between the various spheres.  Without water, the earth would not be fertile; without the fruits of the earth, human beings would not have food to eat.

A second characteristic, not expressed but presumed, is the consistency of the workings of the natural world. There an order persists that is reliable, an order we can trust.

Finally, contrary to anthropocentric arrogance, it is clear that humans are totally dependent on the fertility of the natural world and the laws that govern it. These three characteristics constitute the tenor of the metaphor: the features that belong to the natural world apply to the word of God.

Speaking through the prophet, God declares: So it is with my word!  A cause-and-effect relationship exists between the word of God and the outcome it accomplishes; the word of God is consistent and reliable, and humans are totally dependent on it. We are assured that we can be as confident of this as we can be of the working of the natural world. Just as nature produces miracles upon which we can rely and because of which we can survive, so the word of God will effect miracles upon which we can rely and because of which we can live.

2nd Reading – Romans 8:18-23

Brothers and sisters:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing
compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
For creation awaits with eager expectation
the revelation of the children of God;
for creation was made subject to futility,
not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,
in hope that creation itself
would be set free from slavery to corruption
and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

In this week’s second reading, Paul continues his teaching on eschatology, but with an interesting turn: he maintains that the new life of which he speaks is not limited to the human sphere.

Brothers and sisters: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.

Jewish eschatological thinking referred to “birth pangs of the Messiah” (see Matthew 24:8 and Mark 13:8): afflictions that accompany the transition from the present age to the age of fulfillment.

The word used here for “present time” is kairós, which refers to a particular moment in time, the decisive or ideal moment of opportunity.  The Greek word for what we typically think of as chronological or sequential time is chronos.

“It is fitting for us, meditating upon the glory of this splendor, to endure all afflictions and persecutions because, although the afflictions of the just are many, yet those who trust in God are delivered from them all.” [Saint Cyprian of Carthage (ca. A.D. 250), Letters 6(2)]

For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God;

This is material creation apart from human beings. Saint Paul sees the world sharing in the destiny of humanity, not as spectators but as participants.  Recall Yahweh’s promise to Noah of the covenant to be made “between myself and you and every living creature” (Genesis 9:12-13).

for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,

The futility of material creation (mataiótēs) is its inability to realize its intended purpose. Before Adam’s sin, material creation was subject to him, just as he was subject to God (Genesis 1:28). Man’s sin disrupted this subordination and introduced abnormality and futility. God cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17).

in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Just as creation fell under the punishment imposed on humankind, it will be transformed along with it. Paul assumes a bond exists between the natural world and humanity, which of course there is — humankind is not separate from the natural world, it is a unique expression of it.

“Paul means by this that the creation became corruptible. Why and for what reason? Because of you, O man! For because you have a body which has become mortal and subject to suffering, the earth too has received a curse and has brought forth thorns and thistles (see Genesis 3:18). … The creation suffered badly because of you, and it became corruptible, but it has not been irreparably damaged. For it will become incorruptible once again for your sake. This is the meaning of “in hope.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 14]

We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;

This compares the rebirth of nature to a woman’s labor. It groans in hope and in expectation, but also in pain. And though the pain may be intense, it is forgotten when the child is born (John 16:21). So, too, will the present afflictions pass.

and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, 

Here on earth, believers possess the firstfruits of God’s redemptive plan, i.e., the Spirit.

Firstfruits serve as a pledge or deposit that guarantees that there is more to come. Paul offers hope that not only human beings, but the whole created order will partake in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.

we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

With the firstfruits of the Spirit, the Christian looks forward to the full harvest of glory, the redemption of the body.

“The adoption as sons is the redemption of the whole body.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (ca. A.D. 380), Letter to Priests 52]

Gospel – Matthew 13:1-23

On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea.
Such large crowds gathered around him
that he got into a boat and sat down,
and the whole crowd stood along the shore.
And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying:
“A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,
and birds came and ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.
It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep,
and when the sun rose it was scorched,
and it withered for lack of roots.
Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,
a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

The disciples approached him and said,
“Why do you speak to them in parables?”
He said to them in reply,
“Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven
has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.
To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich;
from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
This is why I speak to them in parables, because
they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts and be converted,
and I heal them.

“But blessed are your eyes, because they see,
and your ears, because they hear.
Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people
longed to see what you see but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

“Hear then the parable of the sower.
The seed sown on the path is the one
who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it,
and the evil one comes and steals away
what was sown in his heart.
The seed sown on rocky ground
is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time.
When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word,
he immediately falls away.
The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
and it bears no fruit.
But the seed sown on rich soil
is the one who hears the word and understands it,
who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

This week we move forward in Matthew’s gospel to the Parable of the Sower.

Jesus is conducting his public ministry in Galilee. Between our readings of last week and today, Jesus has had a number of controversies with the Pharisees: he has plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath, healed the man with the withered hand, and taught that his true relatives are those who are in the covenant with him: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.

The Pharisees were so upset that Jesus disobeyed the Sabbath laws by picking grain on the Sabbath and healing on the Sabbath that they “went out and took counsel against him to put him to death” (Matthew 12:14). In addition, the Pharisees accused Jesus of healing by the power of Beelzebul. The antagonism against Jesus is growing.

Despite this opposition, Jesus continues to teach.

On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea.

Jesus’ teaching has moved into the public arena. He is no longer speaking merely to his disciples.

Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore.

The crush of the crowd was so intense that Jesus moves onto the lake of Galilee. Picture Jesus in a boat while the sloping shore within earshot is covered with people: sort of a natural amphitheater. Sitting is the normal posture of an oriental teacher.

And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying:

A parable is a distinct literary form that, at its core, rests on a comparison between the audience to whom the parable is told and some element of the story. The function of a parable is to call people to conversion by enabling them to understand some blind spot, some fault that they themselves have.

Parabolic teaching was a very common pedagogical technique. It was neither unique to Jesus nor to his time in history.

“A sower went out to sow.

This parable employs a simple description of the process of farming in Palestine. Because of the nature of the soil, time was too precious to waste in preparation; the seeds were simply cast out everywhere, tossed out before the ground is plowed. (Interesting side note: this is the origin of the word “broadcast.”)

It is called the parable of the sower, but it might better be understood as the parable of the soil. The role of the sower is unremarkable — the point being made is about the varying receptivity of the soil.

And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up.

It fell not on a road, but onto soil that had been trampled into hard paths through the fields. The soil could not be plowed so the seed lay on the surface, where birds could get at it.

Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.

The fields were sown throughout, even the edges and corners where the limestone base lies very near the surface. Much of Palestine is rocky, and the topsoil is often quite thin.

It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots.

The seed sprouts too soon, unprotected by deeper soil, unable to sink roots. In the blaze of the Palestinian sun, the sprouts burn up and shrivel.

Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.

Wild thorns are the most common weed in the area and a constant annoyance to farmers. They are not cleared before plowing but turned under by the plow. The soil is sufficiently deep, but the weeds are powerful enough to choke out the new sprouts.

But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

When the seeds fall on deep, unencumbered soil, they bear abundantly, though we should note that their yield is not in equal measure.

The meaning of the parable is quite clear: the crowd is being compared to the soil. Jesus is urging them to be good soil, that is, to be receptive to his word.

Paired with our first reading, we have a beautiful insight to how receptivity to God’s word combined with the efficacy and power of his word produces a mighty yield.

Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

This is a common refrain in Matthew (11:15; 13:43). It constitutes an invitation to the listener to think reflectively on the deeper application of the metaphorical language. Those who have ears, those who are open, ought to hear and understand.

Those who have this openness will gain understanding of the parables; those who do not will experience the parables as a source of confusion or misunderstanding.

The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.

At first glance, it sounds like Jesus is saying that he teaches in parables in order to hide the truth from the crowd. We know that this impression is false because Matthew later tells us that Jesus teaches in parables to reveal the truth:

“All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation [of the world]’” (Matthew 13:34-35).

To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

God gives further understanding to those who accept the revealed mystery of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.

This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’

Jesus is saying that he teaches in parables because his audience is resistant to his message. To get around this resistance, Jesus tells a story to that his listeners, at first, do not realize is about them. After the story is told, those listening realize that someone or something in the story is being compared to them. Through that comparison, they are being called to conversion.

Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but not understand you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.’

Isaiah 6:9-10. This is the longest explicit quotation in Matthew.

“But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

This beatitude expresses the privileged role of the disciples as eyewitnesses.

“Hear then the parable of the sower.

Jesus goes on to interpret his parable as though it were an allegory.

An allegory, instead of deriving its meaning from a single comparison between something in the story and the audience, derives its meaning from a number of comparisons. The plot elements on the literal level of the story stand for something else; this implied level of meaning is where the teaching is to be found.

This allegorical interpretation names those things that prevent God’s word from taking root in people’s hearts: the evil one, tribulation, persecution, anxiety, and the lure of riches.

The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it,

This doesn’t signify intellectual apprehension, but hesitation or resistance to full acceptance of the gospel.

and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart.

The evil one easily snatches away the message of God’s reign in the person who is not prepared to receive it.

The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away.

Those in the second group are opportunists who cannot meet the challenges of suffering or persecution. They are enthusiastic but unstable.

The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit.

The third group hears and accepts, but is distracted by secular interests. They possess the proper dispositions for spiritual growth, but they are prevented from producing fruit because of external circumstances: care for this world and the deceitfulness of riches.

But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

The final group hears, understands, and performs. Again, the yields are not equal among them.

The normal Holy Land yield was about seven-and-a-half to one.  Jesus’ assertion of a hundredfold yield, which would be about 250 bushels to the acre, is, according to the laws of nature, impossible. Jesus’ numbers, therefore, suggest a fruitfulness that is supernatural. God blesses with supernaturally abundant blessings.

It should be noted that in each case, the word that was sown was actually heard, and to some extent, it was accepted. Jesus is not referring here to outright rejection from outsiders, but to the way followers receive the word of God. In fact, we should consider that the conditions of the soil encountered by the sower aren’t necessarily in four different fields; in the Holy Land, it’s entirely possible to encounter all these states in a single area.

And so it is with us, Jesus’ followers. Sometimes we can’t take the word of God because our hearts are just too hard. Sometimes we’re enslaved by the attractiveness of the world. And sometimes, when the conditions are just right, we permit the rain of God’s word to bring forth the blossoms of our love.

Connections and Themes

Levels of receptivity.  Receptivity is the willingness to receive from another, to be influenced, perhaps even to be transformed.  As children, receptivity came very naturally — we instinctively knew we were needy.  As we grew and matured, we became more and more independent and self-directed, and less inclined to be influenced by others.

By definition, disciples are receptive to the one they are following.  Because of the independence into which so many of us have grown, we can experience a major problem here.  To be a disciple of Jesus requires receptivity, so it is important that we scrutinize ourselves to discover the extent to which we are open.  Is our openness superficial, like the rocky ground?  Is it fickle, like the thorny ground?  Or are we really receptive to the word of God, like the ground that produces?  And finally, are we as productive as we might be?

The word of God.  To what should we be receptive?  To the words of Scripture, the words of the liturgy, the words of the sacraments, the living tradition of the community.  God’s word is sown in many forms and under many guises.  It is easy to receive what agrees with our own thinking, with our point of view, with our own theological stance.  What is difficult is to be open to statements of insights or practices that stretch or challenge us, that may force us to reevaluate what we hold dear.  At issue is not the character of the seed but the disposition of the soil.

It makes little difference who sows the seed.  God works through both the well recognized and the most unlikely of sowers.  It might be a legitimate leader of the community or one of its otherwise ordinary members; it could be a child or an elder; it might even be someone from the outside, someone with whom we are not familiar, someone we don’t particularly like.  God moves through life indiscriminately, sowing the seed prodigally.  How will we receive it?

The world of God.  The people of biblical times were aware of the revelation of God in and through the natural world.  Isaiah employs this realization in his teaching about the effectiveness of the word of God.  Paul claims that eschatological fulfillment will include all creation, not merely humankind.  Unfortunately, the more sophisticated we have become, the less concern we have shown to the very matrix of life.  We seem to have closed our eyes to the needs of the natural world, stopped our ears to the cries of the earth, hardened our hearts to the world of which we are merely a part.  Yet the word of God will accomplish the end for which God sent it; the creation that was made subject to futility still waits with eager expectation; those who hear this word will bear fruits and yield a harvest for us all.

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