NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 13: 24-43
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying:
"The kingdom of heaven may be likened
to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.
When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.
The slaves of the householder came to him and said,
'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?
Where have the weeds come from?'
He answered, 'An enemy has done this.'
His slaves said to him,
'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'
He replied, 'No, if you pull up the weeds
you might uproot the wheat along with them.
“Let them grow together until harvest;
then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters,
"First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning;
but gather the wheat into my barn."'"
He proposed another parable to them.
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed
that a person took and sowed in a field.
It is the smallest of all the seeds,
yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants.
It becomes a large bush,
and the 'birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.'"
He spoke to them another parable.
"The kingdom of heaven is like yeast
that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour
until the whole batch was leavened."
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.
Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house.
His disciples approached him and said,
"Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field."
He said in reply, "He who sows good seed is the Son of Man,
the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom.
The weeds are the children of the evil one,
and the enemy who sows them is the devil.
The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire,
so will it be at the end of the age.
The Son of Man will send his angels,
and they will collect out of his kingdom
all who cause others to sin and all evildoers.
They will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun
in the kingdom of their Father.
Whoever has ears ought to hear."
No pun intended, but there are plenty of seeds for thought here, particularly considering last weekend’s Gospel of the Sower. This is a very subtle sequence from Matthew 13, and it is important to sort out the nuances in each unit in order that this segment comes together as the apocalyptic vision it was intended to be.
The opening paragraph begins with Jesus proposing another parable. I am using the NABRE translation, and the verb “propose” is not the best of all choices available to the translators. France points out that the Greek verb paratithemi means “to set forth,” and while the verb is used occasionally in the LXX or Septuagint Greek translation for presenting teaching or laws, it is more typically used for “serving a meal.” (p. 525) As France puts it, “Might it (paratithemi) be used here to suggest that parables are ‘set before’ people for them to tackle as best they can in order to get the full nourishment, but that they are not spoon-fed?” Such a reading is validated by the July 30 Gospel, where striving for the Kingdom becomes an all-consuming passion; “When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”
This parable at hand is quite different from last week’s, where the villain, so to speak, is bad terrain. This week the problem is not the soil, nor the sower’s grain, but the introduction of bad seed. Roman law dealt specifically with “agricultural sabotage” by an enemy who introduces darnel into a landowner’s seed bin or, as the case here, sows a planted field with this unwanted invader. Darnel was, to put it bluntly, nasty. It bears a close resemblance to new wheat until both are well settled, matured, and intertwined; it reaches a height of three feet, and the coup de grace, it is poisonous, even deadly, when consumed by humans. (Note the feeding theme again.)
My first instinct is the “who done it?” aspect, but this is not addressed here, and the slaves have the good sense not to pry too deeply into the master’s network of friends and enemies. Rather, knowing the danger of darnel—and considering the probability that this wheat would go into their bread—the slaves offer to pull up the weeds immediately, conveniently ignoring the master’s loss of much of his crop. (“If you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”) The master’s decision to let them grow side by side makes sense overall, as the two plants would be more recognizable. Then the harvesters—evidently a different work pool—will come and make the final determination of what to save and what to burn; there is more than a hint of apocalyptic meaning, which will be clarified later in the passage.
The next two parables have common themes. In both passages, a tiny seed and a pinch of leaven produce remarkable transformations, and they do so naturally, inevitably. Matthew conveys the inevitability of the spectacular success of the Kingdom of God from its humble beginnings, specifically the mixed results of Jesus’ preaching in Galilee recounted in Chapter 12. The “birds of the sky” taking refuge in the massive mustard tree is an Old Testament reference to Daniel 4, which to a Jewish listener of the time would have invited a comparison between the powerful but short-lived Kingdom of Babylon and the far greater and more permanent kingdom of heaven. (p. 527)
The final paragraph of Sunday’s reading returns to the opening one, establishing for the disciples, Jesus’ intimate followers, what France calls equivalences. The sower, unidentified last week and this week, is now defined as the Son of Man, the name Jesus most often applies to himself. Jesus did not invent the term; it is used extensively in Ezekiel and Daniel, works with significant apocalyptic overtones, to identify a future figure whose coming will mark the end of time and God’s punishment. The field is the world [see the last paragraph of the post regarding the universal reach of this Gospel]. The good seed represents children of the kingdom [of heaven.]
The weeds are “the children of the evil one.” The fact that the text identifies the devil makes this a highly personalized and continuing struggle between Jesus and the Tempter who has attacked him before in the desert temptation event and is continuing to do so through the kingdom Jesus has left behind. The devil is the enemy that ravaged the Son of Man’s wheat field in an underhanded way; France calls him a spoiler, “not a constructive authority in his own right.” (p. 535) The harvest is identified as the end of the age and the harvesters, as we suspected earlier, are the angels, the sorters.
Having laid out the terms, Jesus can now proceed to the ultimate meaning of this parable: it is an apocalypse, a glimpse of the end times, and in this case a “glimpse” goes a long way. The contrasts are extreme—sufferings for evildoers and, interestingly, “all who cause others to sin” (bad leaven?); and an eternal radiance in the kingdom of their Father. While Matthew 13 has a timeless invitation and warning, its composition would have been of help to a persecuted church which perhaps was understandably wondering about its effectiveness and future in its time of suffering.
In this context, I need to address a particular insight from France, who observes that throughout history the parable of the wheat and the weeds had been excessively interpreted as addressing problems within the church—i.e., that good members and bad members are allowed to coexist without a dramatic intervention from God. France argues that the scope of this parable is the entire world, beyond religious boundaries. St. John, of course, elaborates this thinking in his famous remark to Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world.” The Kingdom of heaven is here and now, despite the fact that much of the world goes on unchanged. There is, he argues, an element of patience necessary for the believer. The mustard tree will bloom, the bread will rise, but all in God’s good time and in proportion to our growth as seeds in the universal vineyard, for as Sunday’s Gospel makes clear, “the good seed [is] the children of the kingdom.”
My next Sunday Gospel post will be August 15, as I am taking some down time. I will post links to alternate Gospel commentaries during the interim.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 13: 1-23
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
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."
I checked this morning to see if Burpee’s was still in business, and indeed it is, although I did not provide a link because the site is an advertising nightmare—one can only hope that its seeds sprout as well as its online pop-ups. If you grew up in cold winters like Buffalo’s, the late-winter arrival of the Burpee’s seed catalog—in my case through my Uncle Paul—was welcomed with all the joy and expectation of the Second Coming. Across the beautiful flower beds on the cover of the catalog ran a banner: “Fourth of July Corn!” (Geographically targeted, I’m sure.) My ambitions as a horticulturist/farmer were somewhat stymied by the fact that my entire yard was concrete, and it may be that this Sunday’s Gospel might fall on better soil in Iowa than Times Square.
My fear about this Gospel and its regular appearance in the Sunday Lectionary is the “been there, done that” temptation to preachers and hearers alike. We get the drill: farmer throws seeds, some survive, some don’t, some thrive. The moral: avoid distractions [insert yours here] and get with the program of being a good Christian in some vague and unspecified way. A rush to this interpretation is particularly common where parishes opt for the short version, verses 1-9, which is an option in the Lectionary, albeit an unfortunate one.
As R.T. France explains, Chapter 13 is a response to the immediate previous chapters, where Jesus’ preaching was received in a variety of ways, many of them lukewarm or even hostile. Given that much of Jesus’ discourse in Matthew is directed toward the disciples, and that the actual text went to paper a half-century after Jesus’ ministry when Christian preachers found their own message falling on hostile and indifferent ears, what we have here is something of a philosophy of ministry. Jesus needs to address the vagaries of preaching the Good News. It is interesting that Jesus’ observations here have provided Christian theologians throughout the centuries with food for theology: Thomas Aquinas and the prompting of God’s grace in Medieval times; John Calvin and his doctrine of predestination in Reformation times are attempts to address the question of how and why faith blooms among some and not among others.
The heart of this Gospel text is Jesus’ own commentary addressed to the disciple privately, who ask him why he speaks “to them” [the general audience] in parables. This is a curious question, because the opening paragraph—Jesus’ description of sowing and its results—is not very mysterious, not exactly how we think of parables as metaphors. This is farming 101. It is only the last sentence, “Whoever has ears ought to hear,” is an indication of layers of meaning; the disciples must have been used to Jesus’ style and had seen him speak like this before, for they ask “"Why do you speak to them in parables?" “Parables” is plural, so the question actually becomes— “why do you speak mysteriously to them and plainly to us?”
Jesus replies with three distinct truths: (1) the Kingdom of God is mysterious; (2) the disciples in their privileged position of understanding are being groomed for continue Jesus’ mission; and (3) the hardness of heart and/or failure to grasp the mysteries of the Kingdom by his listeners is part and parcel of Israel’s experience, as Jesus quotes extensively from Isaiah 6, where the prophet is instructed: “ Make the heart of this people sluggish, dull their ears and close their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and their heart understand, and they turn and be healed.” One can read Isaiah several ways, but it would seem that God, deeply offended by Israel’s infidelities, has concluded that only a profound suffering (such as the Babylonian Captivity) will bring his people back to faith.
Given that Matthew portrays Jesus as the New Moses, it is not surprising for Jesus to strike powerful words of judgment upon a people who has lost a hunger for the true spirit of the Law. Understanding of the New Moses and the new law of Sinai (the Sermon on the Mount) will be nearly impossible without the wisdom of a mysterious God. Put another way, a faithful Jew, a son of Abraham, would have understood the message and meaning of Jesus; a Jew distracted by indolence, the cares of this world, or the misinterpretations or poor examples of his priests, would not. Again, there is significant evidence that Matthew’s Gospel was written after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., a reality that quite possibly gave additional credence to his readers that God’s wrath with his beloved Israel for failing to hear the prophets such as Isaiah had reached a tipping point.
The final paragraph provides an intimate interpretation of the original parable. Jesus refers to this text as “the Parable of the Sower,” with the farmer evidently the Father in heaven. The seed is not the Word of God; the seed is “the one who hears “the Word of God; in every scenario the hearer does, in fact, hear the Word of God. The question is—what happens? In the first instance, the evil one steals away the Word from the heart. Recall that the Evil One had attempted to steal the soul of the Master himself in the temptation in the desert.
The second cluster of hearers starts off promisingly, but the pressure of persecution causes them to whither, too. The third cluster succumbs to the “lure of riches,” a theme from the Hebrew Testament’s books of Wisdom and the Gospels’ account of the rich young man “who went away [from Jesus] in sadness, for he had many possessions.” Finally, we come to those who hear the Word and understand it as a true descendant of Abraham, but even here Matthew notes that there is a gradation of fullness, “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Again, this is consistent with Matthew’s account of the Eight Beatitudes, open-ended invitations to embrace the kingdom with all one’s heart, to do the best that one can without measure. The new Kingdom of God, it would seem, is not a place of measured legalism.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 11: 25-30
FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
At that time Jesus exclaimed:
"I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father.
No one knows the Son except the Father,
and no one knows the Father except the Son
and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him."
"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
I have some fear and trepidation about attending Mass this weekend, as this is our first Sunday of “relocation.” Our church building is now closed for remodeling (?) and our public services will be held in a social hall on-site. Extra Masses have been added to the schedule. I have been through this before, about thirty years ago, when I built a church from the bottom up. There is no nice way around the disruption, and I guess it is every parish’s destiny to go through a Babylonian Captivity once or twice in its history. But, the Word must be preached, and so we proceed.
Next Sunday’s Gospel is an “oasis passage” in the sense that it stands in a peculiar place between Jesus’ condemnation of the cities that had rejected his message (specifically, Chorazin and Bethsaida in 11: 20-24) and multiple challenges to Jesus’ authority (12: 1-45). R.T. France (see home page) refers to Sunday’s text as the “Revelation to the Little Ones.”
It is fairly obvious even at first reading that there are two original texts joined together here. The first is a commentary/prayer of Jesus to his Father; the second is an invitation to the minority, those few in the Matthean narrative who have taken Jesus’ teachings to heart. What holds this text together is the mystery of the Kingdom of God: the proud and the self-righteous will never understand it; only the “little ones,” the humble of this earth—like the simple supplicant in the Temple who confesses his sinfulness in contrast to the haughty Pharisee—will resonate with the mystery of the divine plan. And only they, in turn, will find peace of heart, genuine rest, release from burdens.
France makes the point that the original audience for this expression of Jesus, the prime “little ones,” are the disciples themselves, which is also true of the Sermon on the Mount and the subsequent teachings earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. It is helpful to remember that this Gospel in its entirely represents the “New Law” from Jesus, the New Moses, and the disciples are the fathers of the restored Twelve Tribes of Israel in the new Kingdom. This is a Gospel of attitudes and mindsets as well as behaviors, harkening back to the many Psalms that extol the original Biblical Law, such as Psalm 19:7, “The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.”
There is another aspect of Sunday’s text that might not be so obvious: Matthew’s inclusion of the late Old Testament concept of the Wisdom of God. The Hebrew Wisdom books—such as Sirach, Proverbs, and Wisdom—speak of God’s Wisdom as a separate entity yet inseparable from God, perhaps a forerunner of our Trinitarian thinking of God in the Christian era. Sunday’s reading addresses the “things hidden from the wise and the learned” but “revealed to little ones.” Put another way, to think with God is a true union with God; Jesus elaborates that all things have been handed over to him by his Father, and thus union with Jesus—particularly his teaching—is a unique communion with God that is impossible to attain in any other way. Jesus, in the new order of things, is the Wisdom of God, separate but the same.
And what of the rewards of the new kingdom, the possession of the wisdom of God? Those who are labored and burdened will find rest. Relief from burden and the tranquility of rest is a consistent theme of the Hebrew Scripture. Labor is described as a curse for the sin of Adam; the Psalms will celebrate the good shepherd who gives rest to his sheep. France writes that the text here has multiple levels of meaning. The “burden” may be understood generically as the difficulties of life. However, in 23:4 Matthew addressed the scribes and Pharisees for placing “heavy cumbersome burdens on people’s shoulders,” which Jesus contrasts here to his own easy yoke and light burden.
France describes Jesus’ new yoke as “learning,” specifically that which God requires. The term “yoke” in the Bible generally implies servitude to the one who applies it, i.e., the farmer. Not to beat the metaphor to the ground, but those who embrace the teaching of Jesus are changing yoke masters—from one who is cruel and overbearing to one whose yoke is gentle and transforming. The yoke is real—a commitment of faith and the determination to imbibe the Wisdom of God—but this is a profitable and enriching service, unlike the excesses and harsh impositions of some forms of religious leadership that eventually lead to either cynicism or despair, then and now. The mystery here is how the yoke of God’s Wisdom proves to be the ultimate freedom.
Enjoy the Fourth today!