Today’s readings offer a chance to consider the different way words and ideas are put together in the Bible as ways to inform, teach, console and also to challenge. These are mostly not written like the topics treated in catechisms and theology classes. A lot of the Older Testament is in the form of Hebrew poetry, which was based on putting ideas in parallel. This is shown in the first reading and the psalm. There is story-telling of all kinds, and in the gospel we have Jesus’ use of ‘parables’. The difficulty of putting spiritual experiences into everyday words is seen in St Paul’s Letter.
This short reading is from the last short chapter of the anonymous prophet and great poet, often called ‘Second Isaiah’, whose words were collected as part the book which began with Isaiah of Jerusalem. The whole of Chapter 55 is full of assurances of God’s love and is good to read in times of discouragement or crisis. The comparison of God’s word to rain is simple on the surface, but in modern Ordinary Language Philosophy it is ‘performative’ – that is, the spoken or written word actually does something. (An example of how words can ‘perform’ or enact is making a marriage vow, which creates a new relationship recognised in law.) In the thinking of the Semitic world, a word is also more than something spoken orally. A word or a name has the weight of a ‘being’. (This is why there is a commandment against speaking God’s name wrongfully and in Hebrew the commandments are literally ‘Ten Words’.)
The message from Isaiah is one of reassurance: – God is at work in our lives, bringing spiritual growth and producing all that is good. We can trust in God’s faithfulness, even in times of what may seem more like ‘drought’ that life giving rain.
The psalm response has a similar theme of the growth of the earth’s plants seen as a blessing for human life. Its mood is one of joyful celebration of God’s care for all the earth, which poetically is said to sing in joy. That is a contrast to Paul’s perception that the earth ‘groans’ in pain!
The whole of chapter 8 is one of the richest in St Paul’s Letters, and one well worth returning to again and again. Today’s selection suggests a mystical experience of the Apostle that revealed the mysterious way God works through all creation as well as in human lives. As in most writing trying to describe experiences of the transcendent, Paul’s word are not always clear as he tries to explain what is hard to put into ordinary words. Paul knew that those trusting in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, would be confronted with the meaning of all forms of suffering and evil acts around them. But despite all pain, God promises the fullness of redemption and Jesus coming in glory to bring all together in a new creation in which the earth is included with humanity.
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 are thus described as the ‘first fruits’ – those of his time who accepted Christ’s words of salvation and showed that commitment 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 comparison with a woman in labour whose pain will be seen as ‘worth it’ as it results in new life. We are to take our present sufferings as also leading to a new life. In the midst of all difficulties we have hope that they are not to be compared with a glorious future.
Matthew 13:1-23 [or 1-9]
This is one of the Gospel’s chapters of Jesus’ teaching that Matthew groups as if one speech. This one echoes the series of parables in Mark 4. In Matthew’s arrangement, this story comes after Jesus experienced rejection from the leaders of the time and from 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 of one or two sentences. In today’s selection we see two different ways a parable can work. The first is a simple story, almost always based on experiences of everyday life at that time. This is followed by a more elaborate or allegorical 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 been different agricultural practices at that time. Instead, I would say that Jesus and his listeners knew the normal practices of farming and immediately recognise that the sower behaves in a most unusual fashion, in fact it looks foolish! In a place where rain was unreliable and the harvest uncertain, great care would be taken in the planting. The listeners would have been surprised, and then amused, at the carelessness of this farmer, who scatters the seed everywhere beyond the ploughed fields, in places where it can’t possibly take root and grow to harvest time. A parable like this often ends with a startling conclusion, one that overturns expectation. (Compare the ‘good Samaritan’ the despised outsider helping when the elite passed by the suffering. An ending that overturns expectations.) In this parable, the listeners were likely to think the point would be a lesson about carelessness. Instead Jesus says that despite all the seeming carelessness there is a huge harvest, well beyond normal expectation. The puzzled hearer is invited to reflect more deeply on what that means.
Then the point of the parable then becomes how unexpectedly God acts, lavishly sending his love everywhere reaching out to all the people, however unworthy or even wicked, who ignore or reject him. In telling this simple story and inviting everyone to think about it, 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!’ There is an option for the Mass reading to end here. If it does, the congregation will be like the first listeners who are invited to see Jesus as one who offers himself freely to everyone.
The longer version relates a dialogue with the disciples. They are puzzled that Jesus speaks in stories that are tricky to understand. They do not see that the parables are a way to get attention from those who otherwise would not listen to a ‘lecture’. Jesus’ answer has left some commentators also puzzled as his words seem to indicate Jesus does not intend the listeners to understand, despite having just called on all who hear 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 so that they don’t get that God is trying to reach them. But it is not God’s real intent that they miss it. It is a form of ironic speech, that makes the result be seen as what was desired. The last words too are heavily ironic: if all had listened and turned to God they would have been healed, for God always wants to heal. I hear in it the pain Jesus felt from rejection. Matthew, writing after so many Jews of his time had rejected Christ, sees how the words of the earlier prophet had proved true in Jesus’ time. Looking around at the world today, they seem equally true for our time. God’s message is there, whether anyone ‘hears’ – that is, accepts it – is their decision.
Matthew concludes with 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 when Jesus comes in that role.
The combination of the readings may meet today’s listeners in in varying ways, according to their needs. First, there is reassurance of God’s loving intent and the power he offers to bring growth and health. There can be a challenge to be ‘good soil’, taking in God’s word and acting on it. Then from Paul, have hope that despite all the damage humans have done to the planet, God’s intended future is one of freedom and glory for people, and for the earth as well.