Thursday, July 10, 2014

"The Seed, the Good Soil, and Understanding the Word": Readings for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday the readings focus on the imagery of seed-planting. Read in light of the fathers and doctors in particular, the readings teach us powerful lessons about what it takes to be fruitful: (1) God's grace; (2) perseverance in hope; (3) careful and prayerful attention to the Word.

Here's a brief overview. . .

FIRST READING: Isaiah 55:10-11
Thus says the LORD:Just as from the heavensthe rain and snow come downand do not return theretill they have watered the earth,making it fertile and fruitful,giving seed to the one who sowsand bread to the one who eats,so shall my word bethat 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.
The point of the first reading is very simple: God's word accomplishes its purpose. Here we can make three observations:

1. The redemption of Israel and the conversion of the Gentiles. In context, the reading is specifically referring to God's promise to redeem Israel and, in so doing, bring all humanity to recognize him as the Lord. Immediately before the lines read in the first reading, Isaiah 55 declares:
"Behold, you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you" (Isa 55:5).
Indeed, hope for the inclusion of the Gentiles is found throughout the book of Isaiah. In the next chapter, the Lord makes it clear that the nations will one day join Israel in worshipping him:
”And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." (Isa. 56:6-7)
Isaiah thus describes Israel in terms of a Servant whose vocation is to bring all humanity into covenant relationship with the Lord: "I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations" (Isa. 42:6).

In accomplishing this goal Israel, the descendants of Abraham, are to fulfill God's promise to the great patriarch: "by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:18).

The first reading, then, involves Isaiah announcing that God's word will accomplish its purpose, namely, he will redeem Israel and in so doing convert the hearts of people from all nations.

2. The Davidic covenant as the model for the messianic age. It is probably not insignificant that Isaiah 55 goes on to link the inclusion of the Gentiles to the Davidic covenant. While this section of the chapter is not read in the lectionary, it bears looking at here:
"Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5 Behold, you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you." (Isa 55:3-5)
Why is the inclusion of the Gentiles linked to God's covenant with David? 

The Davidic covenant involved an international dimension not found in the previous covenant legislation. Under Moses Israel was commanded to defeat the Gentiles and remain essentially quarantined from their influence. The Mosaic covenant emphasizes separation from the nations. 

The Davidic covenant, however, involved a change in tone. In fact, immediately after God announces his covenant oath to him, David responds by speaking about how God has shown him a “a torah for adam”, a "law" for "humanity" (2 Sam 7:19). Not surprisingly, then, under David and Solomon, the kingdom involved the surrounding nations acknowledging the authority of the Davidic king (2 Sam 8:11-12; 10:19; 12:30; 1 Kgs 4:20-21; 10:15). Nowhere, perhaps, is this seen more clearly than in the story of the queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10, who comes to hear Solomon’s wisdom and leaves praising the God of Israel (1 Kgs 10:1-13). 

Thus in a certain respect the Davidic covenant was a kind of model for the messianic age. As one scholar writes, “the glorified ‘golden age’ of David and Solomon . . . becomes the matrix of an idealized portrayal of a future reconstitution of the realm . . . in its former boundaries, with its sociopolitical institutions and apparatus.”[1].


3. Fulfillment in Christ. Of course, the fathers and doctors of the Church read the passage proclaimed in the first reading in terms of the New Testament and the coming of the "Word made flesh" (John 1:14), the true Son of David, who accomplishes the purpose of God by redeeming humanity. Aphrahat writes:
For the rain and the snow do not return to heaven, but accomplish in the earth the will of Him that sends them. So the word that He shall send through His Christ, Who is Himself the Word and the Message, shall return to Him with great power. For when He shall come and bring it, He shall come down like rain and snow, and through Him all that is sown shall spring up and bear righteous fruit, and the word shall return to His sender. (Demonstrations 8.15; cited from NPNF2 13:379)
RESPONSORIAL PSALM: 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14
R/ (Lk 8:8) The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest. 
You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
 
R/ The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest. 
Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows,
breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
 
R/ The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest. 
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
 
R/ The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest. 
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.
 
R/ The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
The psalm continues the imagery of seed-planting introduced in the first reading though here there is a greater emphasis on harvest imagery. By putting these two passages together the lectionary is reinforcing the kind of patristic reading of Isaiah 55 mentioned above. Let me explain.

In ancient Judaism "harvest" imagery was associated with the restoration of the people of God (cf. Hos. 6:11). Indeed, Psalms using "harvest" language were read by ancient Jews in terms of hopes for the coming messianic age. Yet, from the perspective of the New Testament, this age has dawned in Christ. Building on the first reading, then, we recognize that Christ is the Word, the seed that bears fruit. That fruit is ultimately "harvested" in the glorification of the saints, which is what I think this psalm, set within this particular set of lectionary readings, is understood as celebrating.

In other words, within the context of the liturgy, in singing the responsorial psalm the Church is celebrating the fact that God has now accomplished the plan announced in Isaiah.

Here's the first major take-away from the Sunday lectionary readings: God will accomplish his purpose. The harvest will be fruitful because of God's power. It is not simply the result of our efforts. God sends out his word, God waters the land, and God makes the rich harvest a reality.

Of course, as Augustine reminds us in a homily on this psalm, that harvest has not yet arrived. Until that time the grain will be mixed with the weeds. Recalling Jesus' parable on this, he urges Christians to be vigilant and persevere:
Seed is now sowing, that which is sown is growing, there will be the harvest too. And now over the seed the enemy has sown tares; and there have risen up evil ones among the good, false Christians, having like leaf, but not like fruit. . . Therefore of the sowing of the tares thus says the Lord: "There has come an enemy, and has sown over them tares" [cf. Matt 13:25] but what has he done to the grain? . . . Conquer the devil, and you will have a crown. You shall bless the crown of the year of Your goodness. Again he makes reference to the goodness of God, lest any one boast of his own merits. Your plains shall be filled with abundance.
The second reading, to which we now turn, emphasizes this "not yet" aspect of Christian hope.

SECOND READING: Romans 8:18-23
Brothers and sisters:I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothingcompared with the glory to be revealed for us.
For creation awaits with eager expectationthe 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 itselfwould be set free from slavery to corruptionand 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.
Note how the reading fits into lectionary selections so far. If the first reading promises that the word of God will accomplish its purpose, i.e., "giving seed" and making fertile, the second reading highlights the way believers--even in the midst of distress--already have the "firstfruits of the Spirit". In other words, the reading coheres well with the sowing imagery of the first reading and the harvest imagery of the second.

Yet Romans 8 emphasizes that the fullness of redemption has yet to come. Specifically, Paul explains that the redemption of our bodies remains a future reality, something ultimately only realized in the resurrection at the end of time. Paul reminds believers that while redemption has been inaugurated it has not yet been made fully manifest.

To understand Paul's point here we might return to the imagery of seed-planting used in the earlier lectionary readings. Paul is essentially teaching that God has planted his seed in us by giving us the Spirit, which produces in us faith, hope, and love. What he has planted will continue to grow in us but  in an invisible way, i.e., the seeds remain underground, hidden from the view of the world.

Yet, Paul reminds us, despite the suffering we now experience in the world, we must not lose heart. The new creation has already been inaugurated and the glory that is coming far surpasses whatever we may now have to suffer. A simple cost-benefit analysis is in order: faithfully endure the suffering of this present world for a brief time--suffering you can't escape anyways since the created world has been made subject to futility--and you will have incomparable glory on the last day.


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 himthat 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 heavenhas 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, becausethey 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 eyesand hear with their earsand 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 peoplelonged 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 onewho hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it,and the evil one comes and steals awaywhat was sown in his heart.The seed sown on rocky groundis 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 wordand it bears no fruit.
But the seed sown on rich soilis the one who hears the word and understands it,who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” 
As usual, it is not possible to say everything we'd like to about the Gospel reading. Here let me simply highlight four items.

1. Why Jesus spoke in parables. Jesus explains that he speaks in parables because "they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand." Indeed, Jesus really only begins to speak in parables in the Gospel of Matthew in chapter 13. Sermons of Jesus up until this point in Matthew, such as the Sermon on the Mount (chapter 5-7), are not characterized with such parables.

Why the shift? The answer seems to be that in Matthew 11-12 the Jewish leaders not only oppose Jesus but claim he is working with the devil. Later on they will look for ways to twist his words against him.

Thus once the leaders have rejected his message, Jesus relays his message in a hidden way in parables. This was recognized by early Christian writers such as John Chrysostom:
"He told them many things in parables." He had not done this on the [sermon on the] mount. Here he wove into his discourses many parables. For one the mount were multitudes only, a simple people, But here are also scribes and Pharisees.[2]
In fact, prophets in the Old Testament were known to use parables to speak oracles of condemnation against those in power. Such is the case, for example, with the prophet Nathan. When Nathan condemns David for his sins of adultery and murder he does so by telling him a story--a story David himself doesn't even realize is about him until the prophet reveals its true meaning (cf. 1 Sam. 12:1-7). In short, prophets use parables to speak truth to power. Jesus is now speaking truth to power and only those open to his message will understand what he is saying. In fact, Matthew says that this fulfills Isaiah 6, in which the prophet Isaiah is sent to proclaim a message that he is told will be rejected.

2. The Sower as Christ. Although speaking of a different parable, Jerome and others have observed that Jesus identifies himself as the Sower later in Matthew 13 (cf. Matt. 13:37).[3] This may help explain one of the strange features of the parable: the sower appears careless in sowing everywhere--spreading the seed so liberally it falls upon many places where it is unlikely to grow. The implication seems to be that Christ preaches the Gospel everywhere. He holds it back from no one.

3. The meaning of the parable. The meaning of the four kinds of soil is set out plainly by Jesus in his explanation.

a. The seed that falls on the path and is eaten by birds represents the one who hears the word "without understanding it". This person hears the good news but doesn't pay close enough attention to what it means. The word goes in one ear and out the other. Since he or she is not sincerely listening to Jesus, the devil is able to come and take the word away (i.e., the birds eat it up).

b. The seed that falls upon the rocky ground and is scorched by the sun represents the one who receives the word with joy, endures for a while, and falls away. In other words, this seed at first grows quickly--it "springs up". There is here an initial enthusiasm about faith in Christ. 

However, the seed doesn't put down roots and when the rocky ground gets too hot in the midday sun, the seed just withers. This symbolizes those who follow Jesus enthusiastically at first but then quickly give up their faith when things "heat up". They are faithful so long as its fun. When trouble starts, their enthusiasm quickly disappears. The word doesn't take root in their soul. Rather, faith is a fleeting emotion.    

c. The seed that falls upon the thorns represents those who receive the word but cannot detach themselves from worldly desires. They want to serve both God and mammon. They fail to renounce temporal pleasures and the allure of this world. They want to be Jesus' disciples but they also want to hold on to their wealth and fame. They will not separate from goods they do not need or allow their faith to somehow be a risk to their status or reputation. They may also insist on hoarding their wealth because they are anxious about the potential needs of tomorrow, failing to trust in God to provide their "daily bread". 

Those who live in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, in particular,  are in danger of becoming this kind of soil. We stress over frivolous "first world problems" such as finding the right shoes for an outfit or our ability to buy luxury gadgets while other people in the world go without. We are in serious danger of becoming this kind of soil. We would do well to remember St. Paul's teaching that "the love of money is the root of all evils" (1 Tim. 6:10). We would all do well to re-read Matthew 6:25-34! Are we consumed with the cares of the world--potential problems we may or may not face tomorrow--or do we truly trust in the Lord?

Or let's put it more practically: when you decide how much to put in the collection basket are you doing that from a place of trust in God or from a place of anxiety over the cares of the world? Are you making that determination as an expression of trust in God? Or do you put more trust in your capacity to take care of yourself?

d. The good soil that bears fruit represents those who hear the word and understand it. Note that understanding is the key factor here. It is not enough to simply hear--or "read"--the word. One must let it take root in one's soul. One must internalize it. Only then can one be fruitful.

That leads us to point #4.

4. The good soil and lectio divina. How do we ensure that we do not become like the first three kinds of soil that fail to yield fruit? How can we "keep our kids Catholic"? 

Jesus' parable shows us how we can avoid being numbered among those who "fall away": we must learn to let the Word of God become embedded in our hearts. We can't simply "hear" it. We must ponder it, reflect on it, and contemplate its meaning for our lives. We must go beyond the "surface" meaning and figure out how God is calling us to apply it specifically to our own lives.  

To that end I think it is significant that the Catechism of the Catholic, in the section on lectio divina--the practice of reading Scripture in prayerful meditation--says the following: 

Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower. (CCC 2707)
To become the good soil we must really "digest" the word of God in meditation. Meditation is not an option for the Christian, it is a requirement. Psalm 1 explains that the blessed man "meditates on the law of the Lord day and night."

It's not simply enough to let the Word of God go in one ear and out the other. We need to take the time to read Scripture prayerfully. We need to search out the meaning God wants to communicate to us through the sacred page.

This means sitting down with the Bible and reading it anew. It means hearing it again "the first time". Familiarity with the word can cause us to be inoculated to its message. It also means carving out time in our schedule to do this.

Let me say that again: it means making time for meditating on Scripture.

So the lectionary readings teach us that in order to be fruitful we must (1) recognize that God is the source of our fruitfulness, (2) we must persevere in hope, confident that his plan will be accomplished, and, finally, (3) that we will only be fruitful if allow his word to take root in our heart.

This Sunday let us prepare to receive the word by meditating on these Scriptures, asking the Lord to help us not only "hear" but "understand" what it is he is trying to communicate to us.

NOTES
[1] Shemaryahu Talmon, “’Exile’ and ‘Restoration’ in the Conceptual World of Ancient Judaism,” in Restoration: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives (vol. 72 in Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism; ed., James H. Scott; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 107-146
[2] The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 44.2; CCL 77:101; English translation from Manlio Simonetti, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Ia: Matthew 1-13 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 264.

[3] See Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, 2.13.3; CCL 77:102.

9 comments:

Susan Moore said...

Dr. Barber, a long time ago (a week ago), I told Professor Bergsma that I could not tell yet if I was on the same page as he. This blog has shown me, and it is good. Now I feel settled and believe I am at the right kind of school. Perhaps one day I could teach on Deut. 6:4-9, Matt. 22:37-39, Mk 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28, John 13:34-35, John 14:15, and John 15:9-17. Applied theology -our missing link. Giving thanks for you all, and God bless.

Marino J. Dasmarinas said...

You are the good soil (4)!Thank you very much for this Divinely inspired commentary. I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to shower His many gifts to you.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful commentary!
Thank you so much!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you - very helpful for homily prep!

Miguel Melendrez said...

It has really been a blessing to find The Sacred Page. May God Bless You. Thank you so much!!!!

Fr. Andrew Colvin (Navy Chaplain) said...

Yes, I concur with "Anonymous" ... very helpful for homily prep! Thank you, Dr. Michael Barber!
I have two questions:
1. Matthew chapter 13 begins, "On that day ..." It is the Sabbath Day. What may we garner from that?
2. In Matthew 13:11 Jesus says, "Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you ..." I do not have my Greek translation handy. However, I would guess the Greek word for "mystery" is the same word used for "sacrament." I see a connection between the veiled mystery of the sacraments and the veiled Word of God revealed to those who believe and, as you say, "allow the word to take root in our heart(s)."
Incidentally, do you Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, CA?

Fr. Andrew Colvin (Navy Chaplain) said...

Dr. Barber,
I failed to ask my second question: How might you draw a connection between the Word of God and the sacraments in this pericope based on the word "mystery" ... or, would you?
Thank you and God bless you!

Anonymous said...

Something to contemplate-Who,What,Why?

When reading the Bible ask yourself-

Who is talking to me?
What is He really saying to me?
Why is He saying it to me?

When praying ask yourself-

Who am I talking to?
What am I really saying?
Why am I saying it?

De Maria said...

Fr. Andrew,

You asked,

Dr. Barber,
I failed to ask my second question: How might you draw a connection between the Word of God and the sacraments in this pericope based on the word "mystery" ... or, would you?


I don't know whether he would or not. But I would. I have to go outside of St. Matthew to explain my reasons.

First of all, St. Paul says, in reference to the Church:

1 Corinthians, Chapter 4 1
Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

Thus he acknowledges that the Rulers of the Church are stewards of the mysteries of God. And it is to the foundation of the Church, to the future Rulers of the Church, that Jesus Christ was speaking when He said:

Matt 13: 11
* He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you,

To me, mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven and mysteries of God are synonymous.

Scripture doesn't always speak of mysteries, but also of mystery. I believe it is because in the mysteries, i.e. Sacraments, we encounter Christ, who is the Mystery revealed from the beginning. As St. Paul says:

Col 4: 2
Persevere in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving;a 3 at the same time, pray for us, too, that God may open a door to us for the word, to speak of the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison,

Thus the Word of God, the Seed, Jesus Christ is the mystery of God. And the mysteries of God are the Sacraments wherein we encounter and receive, the Mystery of God.

So, mysteries are in one sense, the Traditions and Doctrines and Rites of the Catholic Church. In a deeper sense, they are Jesus Christ Himself, encountered and received in the Sacraments.

Sincerely,

De Maria