Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 7-23-17
Peace be with You,
This Sunday we once again find ourselves in the classroom of the true Teacher, Jesus Christ, as he continues his lessons concerning the Kingdom of God, giving us at once a deeper understanding of the reality we live in and the end towards which we set our feet in this pilgrimage called life. Last weekend, we were treated to the parable of the Sower, and therein, we examined both the person of the Sower and the various types of ground upon which he had sown his seed(s). We noted an intricate complexity, hidden both within the identity of the Sower; seen simultaneously as God and the Church as the Body of Christ, and thus by extension us, who are members of said Body (cf. Colossians 1:18); and his relationship to the ground he has set out to cultivate and render productive. In the end the message that was highlighted to us was, once again, that of humility and meekness seen in previous weeks, as humility and meekness allow for the Sower to till the soil deeply, clearing it of all that would hinder the Word from flourishing within us, making of us a most productive soil (cf. Matt. 13:8).
This weekend, the Teacher wishes to give us three additional analogical representations of what the Kingdom of God is, both now and in its future state. This analogical quality designated by our Savior’s words that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” Once again, it is worth noting as this language demonstrates, that none of these images is sufficient in and of itself to convey a complete understanding of its subject matter; what’s more, even if we could somehow construct within our imaginations a composite of all of the images described to us, it would still not give us a perfect understanding of what the Kingdom of God is. The reason for this is as simple as it is complicated, and that is that the Kingdom of God is ultimately a mystery. That said, though our understanding be incomplete, it remains sure and true, as that which is revealed to us is granted to us by him who is the Way the Truth and the Life (cf. John 14:16). Therefore, we would do better to understand these various parables as different angles of perception, as though we were examining a statue. From one angle, we would see certain details included by the artist that remain invisible the moment we transition to the next and so on; each angle gives us a deeper understanding of the work and therefore of the artist who created it. So it is with these three parables, each image allows us to delve more deeply into the masterful work of Divine art that is creation while simultaneously revealing to us something of the Divine Artist.
If we were to categorize the three parables we hear today according to theme we might say that the first had to do with the quality of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13:24-30), i.e. its existential quality, the manner in which it exists here and now; the second we might see as dealing with the Telos or the End of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13:31-32); and the third we might consider as dealing with the Purpose or Mission of the Kingdom of God, that is how it will go about reaching the End presented in the second parable from its current condition as presented in the first parable (Matt. 13:33). Of course this is not a definite rubric for the reading of these three parables, but they are perhaps more easily understood as a set sequentially.
Turning then to the first parable, we hear an account very similar to that which we heard last week; however, the mechanics are quite different. Additionally, like the parable of the Sower last week, there are several layers of meaning to peel back on the imagery. And, once again, the beauty is in the details. Our Lord begins by saying “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away” (Matt. 13:24-25). Once again, as in last weekend’s parable, the image of the Sower is most readily likened to the Creator. This analogy provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate precisely why these are analogies, i.e. that while they capture some truth they are not meant to present its entirety. In this case the Sower is quite obviously working with pre-existing material, the seed and the land. If we were to take this image straightforwardly it would suggest that God created the universe from existing matter as the Gnostics once did, however, Christianity’s understanding is that God created all things ex nihilo, i.e. from nothing, as the Psalm says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (cf. Proverbs 8:22-36; 2 Maccabees 7:28). Such an understanding was present in the mind of the Church from her earliest days as we see in the work of St. Irenaeus, who in the 2nd century refuting the Gnostics wrote: “God, according to His pleasure, in the exercise of His own will and power, formed all things (so that those things which now are should have existence) out of what did not previously exist” (Against Heresies, 2.10.2; cf. St. Augustine, Confessions, 12.7). Thus, the image of the Sower is an analogous image of one who creates, as a farmer sets out to produce a bountiful crop from barren field, an image which we will say more about later.
Returning once again to the parable under examination, we note that this image of God as Divine Planter or Gardener is quite reminiscent of the image we find in Genesis 2 and 3, where we find the second account of creation and the Fall; it’s like Jesus is telling us the same story using different images. What’s more the mechanics are very similar, God creates this beautiful garden, and because produced by him, all is good, the same modifier used to describe the seed here (Matt. 13:24). This has something to tell us both of creation at large and more particularly of ourselves, that we, i.e. the human family, were made, as St. Antony of Egypt says, “beautiful and perfectly straight” (St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony, 20). But then evil interposes itself and the enemy of the Sower comes and sows weeds among the wheat, and went away (Matt. 13:25). There are two things to comment on here. The first is that here again it is of the utmost importance that we remember the analogous quality of the account for the image of the enemy sowing bad seed should not suggest to us that evil, or in this case the Evil One, can create anything, especially evil people, instead evil is always a deprivation of the good, and thus, the only sowing the Enemy is capable of is sowing discord in order that by separating us from God we might be diminished. The second is to notice that the enemy, after causing chaos in the beautiful order created by God, just as we read in the Genesis account, goes away (Matt. 13:25), for not only is he our enemy now, but he has been so from the very beginning (cf. John 8:44). He does not wish to accompany us along this pilgrimage of life, nurturing us to full maturity as we shall see our God spoken of later on, he simply desires our destruction.
“So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also” (Matt. 13:26). Here we are immediately reminded of words our Lord speaks to us elsewhere, “thus you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:20). We can therefore say that our Lord wishes to suggest to us a similar truth here, i.e. that our works, the things we do, say, and even think, tell us something about who we are. Now of course we cannot know the thoughts of anyone else, and thus, while we may know something of who they have allowed themselves to become for good or ill by what they do, they will ultimately remain a mystery to us. For this reason, when the servants ask the Sower “then do you want us to go and gather them (i.e. the weeds)?” the Sower replies, “No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at the harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matt 13:29-30). Here we may glean a couple of key insights. The first is that, currently, the Church is what Augustine called corpus permixtum or a mixed body (De Doctrina Christiana, 3.32,45). What he meant by that was, here and now, as it makes its way through history, the Church, and by extension the whole human family, contains members who work for good and for ill, whether consciously or not. However, as we see in the parable, it will not always be so, for one day, the good will be separated from the evil according to the all-knowing eye of the Sower, who alone knows the quality of the plants he harvests (Matt. 13:30). There is, however, another reason that the Sower does not want the weeds pulled out before harvest time, is that these are no ordinary plants; remember the analogy is to persons, and persons are subject to change, an inherent quality of that which was brought into being out of nothing (cf. Gregory of Nyssa, Address on Religious Instruction, 8), which is perhaps our best quality, for as Gregory of Nyssa says, “in truth the finest aspect of our mutability is the possibility of growth in good” (On Perfection, 46). Such an understanding is likewise present in the thought of St. Augustine, who in commenting on this very parable writes that when it comes to the good dealing with the bad, that the good ought to “tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world” (Sermon 73.4).
Through this reading of the Tradition we gain another keen insight; i.e. that we are not divided into good and evil people, rather, none of us are perfect and all are in need of constant conversion to the good. This, to be sure does not mean that some are not further along the journey towards the Good than others, but those who are further along ought not rid themselves of those who have lost their way, instead they must patiently deal with us who lag behind charitably, so that one day all may be one in accordance with the desire of our Lord (John 17:21). Moreover, those who are further along ought never to consider themselves as having advanced under the strength of their own will, rather they must remember the mercy which has graced them with the power of purifying their love in order that they may imitate the Only Begotten (Wisdom 12:15), who deigned out of love to be identified as one with his wayward creatures, at once elevating their status from mere creature to brethren, sons and daughters of God.
We now briefly turn to the latter two parables. The first is that of the mustard seed. Here again we find the image of the Sower, who plants a mustard seed in his field. The image of the mustard seed is chosen because of the radical transformation it undergoes, for “it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matt. 13:32). Here we see that God has “planted” the Church in the world in order that all may take shelter within her loving embrace, and in her arms feel the love of Him who is her Head (Colossians 1:18). Moreover, we see the theme of unity alluded to above is echoed here, as traditionally the birds have been interpreted as the Gentile people, who would one day come to be incorporated into the People of God. We might therefore think of this image as a graphic representation of the desire expressed by Christ in John 17:21.
The final parable is that of the parable of leaven where our Lord says, “the kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened” (Matt 13:33). The thing to note here is the disproportion of the leaven to meal; the idea being that though seemingly outsized, the kingdom of God will one day make its presence felt to all, for good or ill. What’s more we ought to notice how it is that the leaven works, from within the dough not apart from it. So too, we who are members of the Body of Christ must work for the conversion of the world within the world, or as the Church has traditionally said, be in the world but not of the world.
My friends, with these images our Lord makes known to us the beauty of both his creation and recreation, i.e. the redemption of all he once spoke into being. Within these images we see both the great potential which lies inside of every human person and the humility of the only Begotten Son, who desired that this potential not be squandered, but might have the opportunity of fully flourishing. And yet there is more! Perhaps the most life-giving message we hear spoken of this week underlies each of the parables, and finds clear expression in our first reading from the Book of Wisdom. Therein we hear of God’s power and caring mercy alike (cf. Wisdom 12:13 & 16-18), a foreshadowing of the Incarnate Son; but just previous to the selection we hear from the pews there is this little detail: “Therefore you correct little by little those who trespass, and you remind and warn them of the things through which they sin, so that they may be freed from wickedness and put their trust in you, O Lord” (Wisdom 12:2). We see in this the wondrous patience of our God, who out of nothing except sheer love waits patiently for the conversion of his wayward children, instructing them little by little in the hopes that one day they might see that all has been created out of love for them (cf. Wisdom 12:19)! This patient love is precisely the power that upholds all things in existence (cf. Wisdom 11:24-26); desiring nothing for it except complete and utter happiness!
Lord Jesus Christ, in communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit you gave life to all things and made them holy. Our rejection of your goodness was to you but a symptom of our childlike nature, so full of potential, and so far from complete. Thus, in order that we might flourish to maturity and provide you with a harvest of abundance, you yourself deigned to become the very soil which roots and the food which nourishes, making your humiliation the very grounds of the possibility of eternal happiness in communion with You, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.