In today’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus, “Why do You speak in parables?” Good question!
Gospel (Read Mt 13:1-23)
Our Gospel opens with a picturesque scene of Jesus sitting “by the sea” and drawing such a large crowd that He had to get into a boat and go offshore a bit so the people could hear Him. If we were reading Matthew’s Gospel from its beginning, we would see that the reason Jesus had such a big following was that “He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. So His fame spread…” (Mt 4:23-24a). We would notice, too, that the first great teaching by Jesus recorded in this Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount. Here we find several chapters of straight talk about how men ought to live. Noticeable is the lack of any parables. After that, we get many more accounts of Jesus’ miracles. Then, in chapter twelve, we find the beginning of strong opposition to Him. He healed a man on the Sabbath, and “the Pharisees went out and took counsel against Him, how to destroy Him” (Mt 12:14).
Knowing this background adds something to our understanding of today’s Gospel. Here we see Jesus addressing an enormous crowd, but instead of straight talk, He teaches them in a parable, the first of many in this chapter. The disciples are puzzled by the parable—not just its meaning, but why Jesus is now using this new teaching technique. Fortunately, He answers both questions.
First, Jesus tells a simple story of a sower, his seed, and what happens to the seed in different kinds of soil. People who grew their own food and knew the challenges of a good harvest would have easily understood this story. After telling the parable, Jesus marks its significance by announcing, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This was another way of saying, “This is important. Pay attention.” He left it at that! The disciples’ curiosity was aroused. “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus’ answer suggests that the parable was meant to be difficult to understand; why, then, would He use it? Apparently, He sensed something in the crowd that reminded Him of a prophecy from Isaiah: “They look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand.” Why had these people followed Jesus to the seashore? Were they looking for the sensationalism of more miracles? Were they looking for a chance to turn Him in to the authorities? Were they simply there to find out why the mob scene had gathered to listen to Him? Jesus decided to speak in a parable to sift out the serious seekers from all the others. A parable requires thought, reflection, and, above all, humility. If one is not able to admit, “I don’t get this,” he will not take the time to pursue its meaning. Serious seekers in the crowd would have decided to keep listening, keep following, keep watching this Jesus. Jesus promised that a person with a desire for understanding would get it, in abundance. Likewise, a person who, upon hearing the simple story, had little curiosity about its deeper meaning would go away with nothing, letting go of the little curiosity he had when he arrived. “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have in abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Now, to those who followed Jesus for the right reason, His disciples, Jesus was glad to explain the meaning of the parable. “Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.” Jesus knew that many righteous people in Israel’s history had longed for the privilege now enjoyed by these disciples. He explained to them that the “seed” is God’s Word. Those who hear it “without understanding it” are those in whom the Word takes no root at all. It is like a seed that simply sits on top of the soil. Birds, the wind, or insects can easily remove it. In the case of God’s Word lying inert in a man, finding no reception at all, it is the evil one who will come to remove it, and there will be no resistance to the theft.
When the seed actually begins to take root and puts down an anchor in the soil, it still faces challenges. If the soil is rocky, the root will be compromised. This represents one who “hears the word and receives it at once with joy.” However, difficulties from the outside (tribulation, persecution) make him “fall away.” He has no endurance; he bears no fruit. If the seed is sown among thorns, its life can get choked off; it also is fruitless. Here, although the Word takes root in a man’s heart, difficulties from the inside (anxiety, love of riches) make the Word sterile. Rich soil (not rocky, no weeds) will yield a wonderful harvest. This represents the one who hears and understands the Word, and his perseverance means abundant fruit.
This parable is simple enough to grasp. It presents a clear picture of the Church’s teaching on our need to cooperate with the grace God gladly gives to all men. Fruitfulness is not automatic. We will need to clear the rocks from the soil of our hearts and kept it free from weeds. If we are honest, we know that sometimes we do this with energy, sometimes not. Fortunately, God wills to keep sowing His seed in our lives, year in and year out. He does this through His Church, especially in the Mass. Over and over we hear Scripture readings, homilies, and the words of the liturgy. Over and over we receive Jesus in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation. The Sower never gives up on us! He’s always looking for rich soil. He always wants our fruitfulness.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, sometimes the soil of my heart has been rocky and weedy. Help me to be good soil for Your Word today.
First Reading (Read Isa 55:10-11)
In this passage, the LORD describes, through the prophet, Isaiah, the power of His Word. These verses come in the second half of the Book of Isaiah, sometimes called “The Book of Comfort.” The first half of the book announces a coming judgment on the covenant unfaithfulness of God’s people. They will undergo chastisement for their sin, but they will also experience restoration by God’s hand. Isaiah calls out, “Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that He may have mercy on him…” (Isa 55:6-7) In our Gospel reading, Jesus is looking for just such people. In the form of a parable, He, too, describes the great power of God’s Word to bring forth fruitfulness, “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” The Word of God, as Isaiah tells us, is never impotent in the soul of one who seeks the LORD: “My Word shall not return to Me void, but shall do My will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” Think about God speaking the universe into existence in the first chapter of Genesis, beginning with “Let there be light!” Our job is to prepare the soil of our hearts to receive His Word. It is God Who provides the growth.
These verses remind us of the remarkable value of reading Scripture (as you are doing now). Any time we put ourselves in contact with God’s Word, with a willing and generous heart, we “are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18), as St. Paul wondrously wrote. We may not see or feel it, but the transformation is taking place, for God’s Word never returns to Him void. What a beautiful promise!
Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for the promise of power in Your Word. Help me seek it like the pearl of great price.
Psalm (Read Ps 65:10-14)
The psalmist gives us a remarkably beautiful prophetic poem describing God’s work in making His Creation fruitful. He sees the good, wise, and loving hand of God everywhere bringing life to the earth, making all things prosper. This is a wonderful metaphor of the Word of God in action. God is like an artist, painting robust color and meaning into His majestic handiwork. What is Creation’s response to this tender care from God? “The fields are garmented with flocks and the valleys blanketed with grain. They shout and sing for joy.” This is heartbreakingly poignant! The “fields” and the “valleys,” having received the seed of God’s Word, rejoice in their fruitfulness and cannot still their praise: “The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other lectionary readings. Read it again as your own prayerful response to God’s Word.
Second Reading (Read Rom 8:18-23)
St. Paul gives us a vision of Creation somewhere between the sowing of God’s Word in the hearts of men described in the Gospel and the prophetic paean of praise in the psalm, a joyous picture of the earth bursting with life and fruitfulness. As we know, seeds take time to mature and bear fruit. Before the coming of Christ, as a result of man’s Fall in the Garden, St. Paul says that “Creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the One Who subjected it.” In Eden, a dark shadow fell across man and the earth he was meant to subdue and govern. The shadow was not to be permanent, however. It fell “in hope that Creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Fairy stories have often featured this kind of “spell” being cast over a kingdom as it waits for Someone to appear and break it. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis describes Narnia, just such a benighted kingdom, as being a place where it was “always winter but never Christmas.” How perfectly that describes the earth’s wait for the Savior to appear in human
history. In Lewis’ story, Aslan, the lion, represents Jesus. When he appears in Narnia, the ice and snow quickly begin to melt and the earth bursts forth into magnificent bloom, as springs and rivers gush again with water. Help has arrived.
That is precisely what happened in the Incarnation. God’s Word—Jesus—was planted in the earth in death, but He rose victorious to bring new life to the dark, chilled world. Ever since, God has been sowing that Word into the rich soil of men’s hearts. Has that brought the total overthrow of the blight of “futility” in the world? St. Paul says not yet, BUT we ourselves, although we wait for the fulfillment of the psalmist’s vision, are the “firstfruits of the Spirit.” The “firstfruits” of a harvest are exactly that—the first growth of the hoped-for harvest that gives confidence for what is to follow. We who have the Spirit of Christ in us are the early evidence of the earth’s complete transformation yet to come. Don’t we all, with St. Paul, “groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies”? When Jesus returns to draw history to a close, the work of redemption will finally be complete. Meanwhile, the fruitfulness we experience now—the changes in us that we know can only be from God—give hope to all Creation that the spell of sin and death has been broken. The harvest is secure. Rejoice!
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me have the patient perseverance it takes to wait for the fullness of redemption, both for myself and all Creation. Thank You for the gift of Your Spirit, Who makes the harvest sure.
image: Herrad of Landsberg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons