Scripture notes – 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – 23rd July 2017

Today’s readings vary in theme, opening with a ‘Wisdom’ reflection addressed to God and praising his compassion. In a short paragraph from St Paul we have a vision of how the Holy Spirit works in our prayer, while the long Gospel reading collects a number of Jesus’ parables on the Kingdom of God.

The readings are available online here.

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
This book, known to us only in the Greek version, was probably written in the last half of the century before Christ somewhere in the Roman Empire outside Jerusalem. (It may be omitted in Protestant Bibles which accept only the Hebrew canon.) While clearly in the Jewish Wisdom tradition like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, it blends this with current Greek ideas. The author is unknown, and follows the old tradition of attributing all Wisdom books to Solomon. This passage is addressed to God – I would put the ‘You’ with a capital to make that clear. It is part of a longer section reflecting on God’s nature and activity, here emphasising the idea that God’s power is not oppressive but is combined with mercy. From that he draws a lesson for how we are to behave with other humans in a similarly kind and loving manner.

Psalm 85/86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16
This psalm has a number of theme common in the Old Testament, the summary of God as ‘faithfulness and compassion’ became a sort of refrain. The form of the psalm is a prayer in need, basing the psalmist’s trust in God as merciful and forgiving. The second set of verses, speaking of ‘all nations’, looks toward the image of the mustard tree in the gospel.

Romans 8:26:27
This short reading follows on from last week’s, and is also like a ‘mystical vision’ of St Paul rather than a logical explanation. Chapter 8 of the Letter is about living in the Holy Spirit and the power it brings into our lives. Paul often urges prayer, but here he recognizes limitations we may feel. The translations of the Greek are not exact The lines, ‘cannot choose words’ – this is more accurately ‘we cannot pray as we ought’. The idea of the Spirit, who ‘intercedes in sighs too deep for words’ is left out, I don’t understand why unless the Jerusalem Bible editors thought it is not smooth in English. The word ‘sighs’ as in other translations is ‘groanings’. This word as it used in the New Testament indicates a deep emotion in prayer, and is striking for the idea that the Holy Spirit shares our deepest feelings.

Faced with a complex situation in our lives or in the world around us, we may be upset but see no solution so that we do not know even what to ask for. The comfort Paul offers is that this does not matter: by the Spirit we are drawn deeply into the long-term providence of God who not only sees the final end in his Kingdom of love, but who is here and now with us in our confusion and suffering. The Spirit’s prayer within us thus unites us with God’s loving and compassionate will.

Mathew 13:24-43, or 13:24-30
We hear more from the chapter of parables. The first one of the weeds sown among the wheat is found only in Matthew, as is the explanation at the end of the reading. The two parts are separated by parables which are also found in Mark and Luke. Matthew also adds a second note on why Jesus used parables to teach, finding a quotation from the Old Testament to show how Christ followed the practice of the prophets. (The quotation is from Psalm 78/79:2 and this raises a question about Matthew using his standard formula of ‘fulfilment’ says ‘the prophet’. In the manuscripts the psalm is attributed to ‘Asaph’ and in the books of Chronicles, Asaph is called a prophet, so Matthew may have considered that as fitting his quotation.)

There is a strong link between these parables, all which aim to show what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, and stressing that growth may come slowly and therefore this calls for patience. This is most clear in the two shared comparisons. The size of the mustard seed was proverbial, and in the fertile soil of Galilee the plant could reach up to six feet. Our translation calls it ‘the largest of shrubs’ although the Greek is the usual word for ‘tree’. There is often a striking exaggeration in parables, which helps the audience appreciate the story through a bit of humour. Jesus in calling the smaller shrub a ‘tree’ could have made the point in that way. It tells us that the final result is surprisingly abundant and well worth waiting for.

The various Bible commentaries point to a place in the book of Daniel 4:12, 21, where Nebuchadnezzar has a dream in which the empire of that time is pictured as a tree sheltering many birds – which is interpreted as the nations of the world at that time. Those listening to Jesus, who knew the scriptures, would get the hint that the Kingdom of Heaven will be offered to the whole world. This is subtle, and the purpose of the parable in its simple form might just be to offer assurance to the disciples that in time the teaching they themselves have accepted and are to proclaim, will spread out far into the borders of the empire of their own time and – as we know now – to continents unknown to them at that time

A similar lesson of slow growth from small beginnings comes in the parable of the leaven. Here there is an obvious exaggeration in the amount of flour, which ‘was enough to feed a small village’ (R. T. France) rather than a ‘homely loaf’ for a family. The custom then, like today’s popular ‘sour dough’ bread, was to save a small amount of naturally fermented dough and mix it with flour and water in which the live yeast would grow into and expand the whole mixture. Again, this is a process that requires patience while the leaven works through all the dough.

Matthew’s parable of the weeds (‘darnel’ in our translation) gets a lengthy explanation in France’s commentary, including the botanical name of the darnel – Lolium temulentum. It is a type of rye grass that in early stages does resemble wheat, but later with black stems and small heads of poisonous grain, can be identified as something to get rid of. There was a Roman law against sowing this weed in an enemy’s field, so the listeners would not have found this odd. The point of the parable in its simplicity may have been to encourage the early Christians who were upset by problem people in their communities. There is often throughout history, the same temptation to want to belong to a completely ‘pure’ religious group, and to get rid of any who disagree as well as those who are troublesome or embarrassing. Patience is again needed to understand that God will deal with them in God’s own time – made explicit in the fuller explanation as the ‘last days’.

The burning of the darnel after the harvest may suggest to some ‘the fires of hell’ as commonly thought of. Yet in the Old Testament, fire was often a symbol of purification – ‘as gold is refined in a furnace’ is a common comparison. So it would fit the Catholic belief in ‘Purgatory’ as a cleansing from the remaining effects of sinfulness before coming into the full radiance of God’s presence. This works with the reminder of forgiveness in the Wisdom reading: God is always ready to forgive those who turn to him, no matter how terrible their sin has been.

As with last week’s parable explanation, the final verses probably represent the adaptation of the early Church. There are a number of expressions that are typical of Matthew in his writing – like ‘the end of the age’ – which might mean he composed the explanation, or he may just have edited the tradition he was familiar with.

Joan Griffith

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