by Dan Loch
All three readings for this Sunday speak of life and creation. Isaiah draws an image of the earth being watered and becoming fruitful. Paul speaks of creation groaning in giving birth. And Jesus uses the image of sowing seeds as a way of speaking about his mission. Isaiah’s rain of God’s Word, Paul’s groaning of creation in rebirth, and Jesus’ farmer casting seed everywhere are images of the prodigious generosity of God.
The people of biblical times knew well the revelation of God in and through the natural world. So, in the First Reading Isaiah teaches about the effectiveness of the word of God through the metaphor of rain. In the Second Reading, Paul claims that redemption will include a rebirth of all of creation. In the Gospel, Jesus’ parables are rooted in stories about nature. The readings from Isaiah and Matthew provide a mirror held up to me, to see in them the reflection of my own response to God’s word.
Matthew’s Gospel from his Chapter 13 starts his telling of Jesus’ parables. The whole chapter consist of parables and they are central to Matthew’s Gospel. As usual, the parable comes directly from ordinary, everyday life in ancient Israel. In ancient times farmers used “broadcasting” of seed. Rather than making a furrow and planting seeds deliberately in the ground, then covering them with soil, the farmer would walk along with a sack of seeds, take a handful and simply throw the seeds around. The seed would fall wherever.
The sower knows that each seed that falls on good soil will bear a yield many times more than itself: a hundredfold, 60 or 30. The yield from the seed in good soil greatly outweighs the losses and they really don’t matter. Jesus scatters his message in a similarly casual way. For many who hear him the word suffers the fate of the seed that is lost. But when it really strikes home and finds a welcome, the “yield” — hundredfold, 60, 30 — more than compensates for the losses.
A parable aims to make a single short point or issue a single focused challenge. The aim is not so much to teach a moral lesson as to radically change the way the hearers see things — to show them another way to understand things. Parables can be understood at different levels. At the literal level, the parable of the sower can heard as a story about sowing seed and the lesson might be to be careful where you throw the seed when sowing. At another level, parables have a metaphoric or symbolic meaning, which in this parable Jesus explains to his disciples. Then there is a further, interpretive level of a parable: What has that story got to say to me here and now? Note the distinction between looking and seeing and between hearing and listening and understanding. Reminds me of Yogi Berra’s advice to young batters, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
I always get a kick out of the part where Jesus praises/blesses the disciples for being in the know, yet He walks them through the parable step by step, — because they had no clue! Reminds me of when Florence would leave AA pamphlets around the house and I’d think, “What the heck is this doing here?” Or when I asked in AA, “How do I stop drinking?” and always got the answer, “You stop drinking.”
The Gospel of Matthew was written when the early Christian community had been thrown out of the Jewish synagogues. They were troubled and discouraged that other Jews could not accept the message of Jesus as they had. This parable, and Jesus’ blessing of the disciples, comforted and encouraged the early Christian community. Although they were frustrated, they were being told — through this story — that not everyone is ready to hear the message that they had heard and accepted.
Sometimes this parable is called “The Parable of the Soils.” The “word of the kingdom” falls on people who are at various stages of readiness to receive it. What Jesus suggests to his disciples – and to us – is that “good soil” can’t always be predicted. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to sow the word only in people who are receptive. Rather, he wants them – and us – to scatter the word everywhere and to rejoice when it does find good soil and yields a rich harvest.
God’s word is sown in many forms: Scripture, the liturgy, the sacraments, the living tradition of the Church and of our parish, the miracles of creation and nature, even my everyday behavior. The readings for this Sunday call me to self-examination: What kind of soil am I? What kind of sower am I? How receptive am I to God’s word?