There are on-going debates among philosophers over some basic questions many people face in simpler ways: If God is loving and all-powerful, how can there be so much evil in the world? If God controls everything, what responsibility do humans have for their own behaviour? J. P. Meier says, ‘No attempt is ever made in the bible to reconcile systematically the two poles of the grace/free will paradox.’ Instead the Bible is full of stories and poetry that give us glimpses of how God interacts with humans. We have examples in today’s readings.
This short reading is from the anonymous prophet, often called ‘Second Isaiah’, who preached at a later time than Isaiah of Jerusalem, authority for the first 39 chapters of the text as it is in our Bibles. In the usual poetic style of this second writer, we have a rain image which starts from what would have been familiar at that time for people who lived close to farms and were dependent on weather. As is typical of this prophet, here ‘God’s ‘word’ is less a ‘message’ and more of an event.
The whole of chapter 55 is full of assurances of God’s love and it is worth taking time to read, especially in times of discouragement or crisis. Our selection emphasises God’s caring intent in the power of controlling nature. The verses today would have been known to Jesus and familiar to the first listeners when he takes up the ‘sowing’.
The psalm response also draws from the same theme of the growth of the earth’s plants seen as a blessing for human life. Its mood is one of joy and celebration of God’s care for all.
This chapter is one of the richest in St Paul’s Letter, and our selection suggests a mystical experience of the mysterious way God works through all creation as well as with human life. As in most writing trying to describe experiences of the transcendent, Paul’s logic is not always clear. There are ‘mysteries’ or paradoxes that are hard to grasp. Paul has recognized that for those believing in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, there are questions about why they have to live through difficult or dangerous times before they see the fullness of their redemption and God coming in glory. The words ‘first fruits’ is an image from the Old Testament sacrifice practices. These were the first of the harvested crops which were offered in the Temple to God as a sign that acknowledged God as the giver of all growth. Christians of his time were the first who accepted Christ’s words of salvation and so he calls them ‘fruits’ for showing salvation in their lives. While human suffering is obvious to us now as it was then for the Romans, Paul also sees in the non-human world the same evidence of pain from a lack of perfection. He uses a popular comparison with a woman in labour whose pain will seen as ‘worth it’ as it results in new life. For Paul the new kind of life will be a whole new creation in which the physical world has a part along with the spiritual.
Matthew 13:1-23 [or 1-9]
For three weeks our Gospel selections will be taken from the third of the ‘discourses’ or collections of Jesus’ teaching that Matthew groups together. This one seems based on the chapter of parables in Mark 4. Matthew has made some subtle changes which bring out his interpretation. Mark has his short stories close to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as an opening to his teaching. In Matthew’s arrangement, this story comes after Jesus experienced rejection from many – from the leaders of the time to even some in his own family.
The Greek word, which is the root of our ‘parable’ was used to translate the Hebrew word mashal which has a variety of meanings, from the longer stories we today call parables down to short images and even riddles. In the gospels the range of meaning is smaller but includes dramas like Luke’s parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’ and short comparisons like Matthew 13:52 of a householder with treasures old and new. In today’s selection we see two different ways a parable can work. In the opening is the simple story that was probably what Jesus preached to the crowd in Galilee. (The liturgy allows the preacher to stop after this one.) The fuller form is a more elaborate or allegoric explanation when the story changes from the emphasis on the sower to focus on the seeds.
My interpretation of the simple form differs from other commentators. Most try to figure out why the sower spreads the seeds so widely and suggest there must have have been different agricultural practices at that time. Instead, I see the normal practice of farming but it is the sower who acts in a most unusual fashion, even foolishly! In a place where rain was unreliable, and the harvest amounts uncertain, great care would be taken in the planting. I think the first listeners would have been surprised, even amused, at the carelessness of this farmer, who scatters the seed everywhere even beyond the ploughed fields where it won’t take root and grow to harvest time. So the shock that a parable often brings, comes when such carelessness leads to some impossibly large harvests. The puzzled hearer is invited to reflect more deeply on what that means.
Then the point of the parable is how God acts, lavishly sending his love, reaching out to all the people – even the most uncaring, the wicked and those who refuse to hear him. This is not the usual view (then and now) that it is not just good and worthy people who will be rewarded as they expect. Instead the opening of God’s Kingdom is also to the most sinful. Other parables of Jesus in the gospels show this same great generosity of God, his continued willingness to save.
In telling this simple story and inviting everyone to think about this, Jesus subtly identifies himself with this kind of God. Despite how many have rejected him, Jesus has not given up, but calls to all the crowd: ‘Listen, all who have ears!’ This has a sense of urgency: ‘I am offering you something you need to attend to!’ If our mass reading stops here, we will be like the first listeners who are invited to see Jesus as one who offers himself freely to everyone.
The longer version brings in a dialogue with the disciples. They are puzzled that Jesus speaks in stories that are tricky to understand. Jesus’ answer has left commentators also puzzled as his words seem to indicate he does not intend the listeners to understand, despite having just called on them to appreciate the parable! Mark alludes to the wording in Isaiah but Matthew, as is his practice, quotes it extensively. It is the condition of the people whose hearts have ‘grown dull’ or unresponsive that hides the call from them, rather than God’s intent that they not respond. The last words I take as heavily ironic: if all had listened and turned to God they would have been healed, for God always wants to heal. Matthew, writing after so many Jews of his time had rejected Christ, sees how the words of the earlier prophet had proved true not only for Jesus’ time but also in his own days.
Matthew at this point puts in words not found in Mark, but in Luke in another context: Jesus speaks a blessing on those who do listen along with a reminder of how many generations had longed for the Messiah and would have rejoiced in his presence.
Commentators agree that the last section, which comes as an explanation of the short parable, makes a change in emphasis away from the sower to the seeds, showing the different kinds of responses that had been made. It is generally agreed that this is an adaptation made by the early church based on behaviour they would have observed among their contemporaries. It shows something of the thinking of that first generation: for them Jesus words and teachings have applications in the present, and are not just historical incidents.
We also may see in the scriptures ideas that speak to our own needs and experiences. If I look at this explanation, I see the same variations in the church and the world around me. More than that – if I look at myself over a lifetime, I have pretty much acted as the ‘seeds’ do. I have moments of enthusiasm and happiness, as at the beginning of Lent or after the great feasts. Afterwards I get ‘choked’ by the cares and distractions of what is around me, as well as the pleasures to be had from self-indulgence, and I too ‘fall away’. Yet the promise remains as a call not to give up. When I do listen, I can trust God to bring my life to fulfilment.