Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 7-16-17
Peace be with You,
There is a humble source from which all things flow, a wisdom which providentially directs and accompanies the changing of times and seasons, a love which binds all things in its embrace, making a unity of the immense diversity which colors the panorama of creation. Such words can be uttered and accepted as something more than poetic fictionalization only through a gift of faith, for the images which fall upon the waking human eye as it searches the world today suggest something far more chaotic, something far more barbarous, something far more broken. For this reason, last weekend, we heard Wisdom summon us to imitate his humility and meekness, in order that we might accept the gift of faith which allows us to see things as they really are and remain docile to the Word of Truth and so move ever further down the road that leads to the unity which enlivens all things; a unity whose realization, as we will see today and for the next three weekends, has already been initiated, but which awaits perfection (cf. Romans 8:18-23).
Over the next three weekends we will be treated to Jesus’ presentation of several parables concerning the Kingdom of God. They are, no doubt, as intriguing as confusing, quite often leaving us wanting more while at other times just leaving us scratching our heads. So the first point to keep in mind is this: the Word of God, whose words possess the force of Life and the fullness of Truth, in assuming his humanity has assumed all that we are and experience, including the limitation which our language and our mundane manner of knowing impose upon us. Limitations which the Savior himself seems to have been frustrated by at times, asking his disciples time and again, “Do you still not understand?” (Mark 8:21; cf. Matt 15:16 & 16:19). Of course, we ought not understand this frustration as impatience or as a condescending jab at those less well-informed, but instead it is a frustration born from the love that desires free and easy harmony, for the understanding needed to comprehend the mysteries spoken to us by our Lord come not from the human intellect, but from intimate relationship; what is needed then is not logic, but communion born of faith. That this is the case is seen in our Lord’s broken-hearted question to Philip: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?” (John 14:9). Our Savior comes possessing in himself all that we yearn for (cf. Matt. 13:16-17), desiring to hand himself over to us and yet we so often remain impervious to it because of our inability to know by loving.
Yet our Savior, in his humility, deigns to speak to us in ways we can comprehend. Like a master artist who has poured all of his talent into creating an extravagant work of art in honor of his beloved. Having devoted himself to the perfection of every detail on the canvas and staged his work carefully, he unveils the image before her, and yet the masterwork she gazes upon means nothing to her. She knows nothing of art, nothing about the symbolic nature of the colors or the mastery of light needed to bring the canvas before her to life. Yet he tries tirelessly to explain to her the beauty in every detail, pacing back and forth in front of her, pointing to this brushstroke and that, gesturing with his whole body the way the light falls on every square inch of the canvas so as to give it a radiant quality, not with the hopes that some syllable uttered may awaken her to the greatness of his talent, but the profundity of his love. This is how we ought to imagine our Lord as he explains to us the reality we experience and the love which guides its every moment, leading it to his loving embrace.
Thus, we see the master take his position of authority in the opening verse of our gospel today, where we read, “…great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat there; and the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables…” (Matt. 13:2-3). If the scene setting here sounds familiar it is because this is very similar to the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount, where we read, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying…” (Matt. 5:1-2). Now, we could be quite pedestrian in imagination and assume that it was for sheer practicality that our Lord had positioned himself just so in each occasion. And that may have well been the case, but nothing our Lord did was so boring, so utterly mundane, his every movement was saturated with Incarnate Truth, and thus, even his sitting tells us volumes. In sitting our Lord is taking the position of a Jewish Rabbi, who did not stand as the Greeks did when they taught, but instead sat down. But notice please where he sits; the chair he assumes has awaited him from the beginning; the teaching seat of the Creator is the grand mountaintop and the vast sea; thus, the evangelist takes an easily recognizable Jewish cultural symbolic gesture and supernaturalizes it, if you will. And just as he did in the Sermon on the Mount, the words spoken by the Word will speak to us of the underlying reality of all things.
In addition, there is one further detail unique to this account we ought to take note of. For here, Jesus speaks his revelatory message from a boat. Recalling what was mentioned earlier, that the truth is known through relationship rather than sheer intellect, we may consider this setting to echo the ark of Noah. Traditionally, the ark has been seen as a figure of the Church, both keeping the people of God safe from the dangers of the fallen world in order to ensure their survival and serving as an indicator of truth in the midst of apparent disorder and chaos (e.g. Augustine, City of God, Bk 15.26-27). Especially given our conversation two weeks ago concerning the Church as the Body of Christ, we might see our Savior’s teaching from within the boat a figure of his presence within the Church, which by his providence and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, protects and promulgates the gospel in order to keep the human family safe for eternal life. What we see here then is that in setting the stage, the evangelist has done his part to awaken our imagination, and see past the mundane in the images we hear our Lord describe, so that as ‘he opens his mouth in parables we will recognize them as revealing that which has been hidden since the foundation of the world’ (Matt. 13:35).
The mechanics of the parable as related by Christ are very straight forward, yet the dynamics are infinitely complex, and this because the reality we live in is equally so. Moreover, there are layers upon layers to pull back over nearly every word as we see from the very first line: “A sower went out to sow” (Matt. 13:3). The most obvious understanding is that God is the Sower; however, we may additionally see the sower as the Church, functioning as the Body of Christ within history, and thus proclaim the very same good news first uttered by her Head. With this understanding the seeds; in this particular parable (in contrast to next week); is the gospel message, which if we extend to the furthest limits is the presence of the Word of God himself. The various soil types then are us, who created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27), have within our very nature the capacity, the capax Dei, to be animated with these seeds of the Word, and allow his life to grow within us simultaneously accomplishing our flourishing as human persons created in such a way (cf. Is. 55:11).
Jesus continues by telling us that some seed fell along the path and birds came and devoured them; others fell on rocky ground and quickly dried up for lack of soil; still others fell among thorns and were choked out by the thorns which surrounded them; however, some fell on good soil and bore much fruit (Matt. 13:5-8). Now, because our Lord interprets this particular parable, there is not much detective work to be done here (see Matt. 13:18-23). However, we may ask why it is that this Sower did not place these seeds more carefully, or why he did not take time to prepare the soil in order that the seeds, once planted, would blossom? At this point the complexity really sets in, but it is precisely in the complexity which the profound love of our God shines forth most clearly. If we are the various soil types, might we liken the path where the seed is vulnerable to the attack of the enemy those who have never heard the gospel message proclaimed to them in its entirety, such that when they do finally hear it, any counterargument whether logical or experiential is enough for them to turn away in disbelief? Perhaps the rock ground are those who have not had the fortune in growing up in a home where the gospel is cultivated and a life of virtue emphasized such that even the words they have heard have meant hardly more than a fading sound. Perhaps the ground containing thistles which choke out the word are those who live in poverty, whether material or moral, or those whose culture is so counter to the gospel message that even when heard its appearance is choked out and made to resemble the thistle instead of the profitable fruit. More than likely, we are each of these three types of seed at various times in our lives and sometimes all three all at once; in some cases due to our own shortcoming; in others due to the environment we find ourselves surrounded by; but in many cases a combination of the two.
It is here that the patience, the kindness, and the mercy of our God becomes apparent. For regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, he will not cease to offer the Word of his infinite love to us. He not only broadcasts it once in the remote chance that something may grow, but he continually scatters seeds of his Word within us; providing us with the opportunity to produce the good fruit we have been created to with every encounter with another, and by every last solitary element of his created world which speaks so wonderfully of its Designer. However, the Sower does not thwart or override the free will of the soil he seeks to cultivate; try as he may to make the Truth that is his presence known, we may remain unwilling to accept his love for any number of reasons in which case we might remain as those who ‘hear but never understand, and who see but never perceive, people whose hearts have grown dull, whose ears are heavy of hearing, and whose eyes they have closed’ (Matt 13:14-15). In this description Jesus is here paraphrasing the sixth chapter of Isaiah. It is a description reminiscent of that used by the Psalmist in Psalm 115, where he writes that “their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see…” (Ps. 115:4-8). Why the similarity? Because as St. Augustine tells us time and time again we are transformed and become like that which we love: “Each person is as his love. Do you love the earth? You will be earth. Do you love God? What shall I say? Will you be God? Listen to Scripture, for I dare not say this on my own: You are gods, and sons and daughters of the Most High, all of you” (Homilies on the First Letter of John 2.14.5). If you have not had to read this twice because you were sure you misread it as it sounds so outrageous, you need to slow down and read this again. God desires to share his very life with you, and this is what he is so desperately trying to accomplish; this is the reason for the Incarnation; this is the reason for the Crucifixion; this is the reason he shed his blood and offers it to you in the chalice of everlasting life upon the sacred altar before you; this is the masterpiece of love!
My friends, as we see time and time again, the plans that our God has for us, the intention with which he created us from the very beginning is so utterly amazing and unfathomable that it sounds downright heretical! Yet, this is the Truth that the Church has proclaimed from the very beginning, it is the Truth which the Incarnation makes manifest, you were made to participate in the very life of God precisely because this was God’s desire for you when he called you into being. But like any true lover, he will not force you to love him; love must always be free, if it is not free, it is not love. And yet, as we saw in the parable we have examined today, it is not a simple matter of our will, we simply can’t bring about the conditions by which the Word will grow within us; no, this is a matter of grace. Thus, we must ask the Divine Sower, not only to share with us his Truth, but shower us with his grace in order that by it we might be cleansed of all that could keep us from the penetrating force of his Word, becoming a humbly receptive and meekly tillable soil. If we ask with sincerity, we can be sure he will grant it to us (cf. Matt. 7:7); for such a prayer is but an echo of the will that is Divine Love.
Heavenly Father, you created the family while gazing upon the beauty of your Son, Jesus Christ, fashioning it as a perfect receptacle of the Love which is yours from all of eternity. We ask you this day to remove all that would prevent us from recognizing the abundance with which you Love us, the overwhelming Goodness that pervades all there is, speaking to us of the plans you have for us; plans to give us a future filled with the glory of your presence where you live with the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever, and ever. Amen.
Your servant in Christ,