Seeding the New Kingdom
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.
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