Sunday reflection: Matthew 13:1–23

posted at 10:31 am on July 13, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussionPrevious Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 13:1–23:

On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them.

“But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

Why speak in parables? The Israelites were looking for another great prophet to lead them back into independence and restoration, even a Messiah on terms they could understand. They expected an new lawgiver, a new Moses or David, who would restore the kingdom under the Law of God. Prophets mostly delivered judgments directly. Isaiah, for instance, delivered a number of very direct warnings, such as condemnation of Israel’s attempts to ally with the Egyptians against the Assyrians rather than rely on the Lord to deliver them through love and fidelity. The language of these prophecies were flowery and sometimes analogical, but the lessons were usually very clear and explicit. Even John the Baptist followed this model, preaching baptism and repentance for the remission of sins as preparation for the kingdom of God.

Jesus, however, often uses parables to teach rather than prophecies to command, even sometimes with the twelve disciples. He later tells them in this passage that this is because the people themselves are currently so hard-hearted and steeped in sin that they will not comprehend a direct prophecy, quoting Isaiah. This parallels another use of parable from an earlier prophet: Nathan. In 2 Samuel 12:1-14, after David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband, Nathan traps David by using a parable about a rich man killing a poor man’s favorite lamb rather than be satisfied with his own. Only through the telling of this parable does David begin to understand the great sin and offense he has committed — and while that does not make the consequences of his sin disappear, that understanding leads David eventually back into the Lord’s favor.

This demonstrates the value of parables in working around our own egos and expectations. God slowly opens the hearts of the disciples to the truth of the Messiah and His mission, but even among them Jesus uses parables to help them understand it. For the rest of Israel, whose expectations of prophets and the Messiah are disconnected from what the Father has planned, a direct exegesis will be useless, or perhaps even counter-productive.

Instead, Jesus finds ways to connect his listeners to the familiar — farming, vineyards, weddings, fathers and sons, and so on.  Even David would have balked at the truth had Nathan just simply accused him directly. Instead, by telling a parable that appeals to David’s better nature as a just ruler, Nathan forces David to step out of himself and his own desires to see the truth, even one as painful as David’s crimes against Israel and the Lord.

Jesus tells us these parables to force us to step out of ourselves, too. We get wrapped up in our own identities and our desires that we begin to have difficulties in discerning sin and truth at all. Arguing with one’s teenage children gets to be like this, when both sides are issuing frontal attacks on the other’s positions, and both sides just dig in deeper and deeper. On more than one occasion, I know I found myself making arguments that I later couldn’t believe ever left my lips, but after a while my position and my concept of the world became more precious to me than reality. A good parable or two would have helped in those days, believe me.

This parable in particular shows what Jesus intends with this approach. He wants Israel to become rich soil for the Word, but that will only happen when the hearts of the Israelites soften their hearts to Him — and Jesus knows that now is not the time. The disciples will later scatter the seeds of faith in their apostolates, but Jesus is working the soil now. He tells parables that will resonate through the ages in order that hearts will become rich soil for the Word.

At the time of this passage, Jesus sees the seeds scattering on the roads where some people largely ignore his teachings, or perhaps mostly on rocky soil. This we saw in John 6:51-58 on the Feast of Corpus Christi, where the joy of the Gospel withers under the first clear understanding of what it means. Very few will be among those who are rich soil during the time of Jesus’ ministry, which Jesus knows. Jesus is forming the hearts of Israel in His own time, for a permanent harvest of salvation, which will come later and not in the blinding flash of that moment. His patience reflects the Scriptural patience that the Lord has always had with Israel and with His people, wherever they are and whatever they have done.

The parable of the sower and the Lord’s patience doesn’t just apply to that generation of Israelites, but to all of us, and all throughout our lives. I have gone through all four stages of ground in my life. I’ve left the Word on the path, I’ve accepted it with great joy only to compartmentalize and forget it, and I have allowed the cares of this world to take precedence over it. At times, I feel I am rich soil, but there are days in which I feel I have regressed into all of these stages at once. The beauty of this parable is that it gives us an easily understood measure to recognize our shortcomings, and a path to healing as well. We just need to open our hearts, drop our expectations and our preconceived notions, and return to prayer and the Word.

When we do that, our hearts become stronger and stronger ground for faith and fidelity. Even David understood that, and humbled himself to the Lord’s authority, an opportunity presented to him by the power of a parable. The Lord forgave and eventually blessed David for it, and He stands ready to do the same for us as soon as we open our hearts to His Word.


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As always, thanks Ed.

the_moll on July 13, 2014 at 11:01 AM

I had the opportunity to visit Chateaux Neff in Southeastern France last year to the home of the late Martha Roban. She was bed ridden for over fifty years. She couldn’t eat solid food or drink much more then a sip of water. The only food she had daily for fifty years was viaticum brought to her every day.

She died in 1973 , many of the people who live in that village today knew about her and her extraordinary story and yet they live like most Frenchmen,a life devoid of faith.

Faith is a gift from God,some will unfortunately never accept it.

celtic warrior on July 13, 2014 at 11:18 AM

He later tells them in this passage that this is because the people themselves are currently so hard-hearted and steeped in sin that they will not comprehend a direct prophecy

“Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.

Doesn’t sound like the same explanation, to me.

The Rogue Tomato on July 13, 2014 at 11:29 AM

Ed,
I found being a Christian much easier or possibly my seeds were in better soil when I was younger. The passing of time, and the more people that depend on me seems to erroded away a lot of the top soil of my faith.

Your post has nudged me that a good fertilizing and tilling to break up the hard soil good on my faith is in order. Thank you!

portlandon on July 13, 2014 at 11:31 AM

I think Jesus also used these parables to ‘hide’ some hard truths from outside listeners. He knew his life was limited on earth and had to be secretive when necessary (remember how he told his disciples to keep quiet about his identity?). Parables were perfect for explaining these truths in words which would not cause him to be in trouble with the authorities. So, throughout his ministry, parables ruled, up until he was betrayed.

TeaTrekkie on July 13, 2014 at 12:17 PM

So, throughout his ministry, parables ruled, up until he was betrayed.

One exception was the Sermon on the Mount, with the Beatitudes. Those were direct teachings to the multitudes.

Ed Morrissey on July 13, 2014 at 12:24 PM

My favorite takeaway from this parable:

The Father is unutterably lavish with the seed; over and over again He sows, even when human sense would call it foolish and pointless. God doesn’t begrudge the broadcasting.

No matter how stony the ground or hard the heart, God grants us the opportunity countless times. And just like a weed growing in an asphalt parking lot, it only takes the tiniest crack and God’s grace will send down roots and bring forth growth.

Just a tiny crack, too small for human eyes.

Dolce Far Niente on July 13, 2014 at 12:56 PM

I’ve had one of those horrible times
You know what I mean…
So here I sat this late night
And turned on my screen.

I come to see all my HA friends
Who know just what to say
To make me laugh and cry
And so my troubles fade away.

My HA friends you’re always here
And though we’ve never met
I know our times are special
We think alike and care.

We really haven’t been friends that long
And in this special time it seems
We shared so many things already
Our hopes, our fears, our dreams.

We come from different walks of life
And we share a common bond
And it’s time to say that of all of you
I’ve grown so very fond…

Thank you HA friends for being here
Whenever I’ve needed some cheer
I know you’re always here,
You all make HA so special!

Take Care and God Bless You All!!

{{Pass this on}} Thank You!!

***POP***

Scrumpy on July 13, 2014 at 5:19 AM

Schadenfreude on July 13, 2014 at 1:05 PM

One exception was the Sermon on the Mount, with the Beatitudes. Those were direct teachings to the multitudes.

Ed Morrissey on July 13, 2014 at 12:24 PM

Whoops, forgot about that. Thanks for the reminder.

TeaTrekkie on July 13, 2014 at 1:37 PM

“The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away.”

.
Not much has changed in 2000 yrs.
lotsa rocky ground out there today.

FlaMurph on July 13, 2014 at 2:04 PM

Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.

When Jesus offended many of his followers by saying they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, this is what he had to say about why they walked away:

John 6:65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”

People hear and understand when God grants them the ability to hear and understand.

Deut 29:2 Now Moses called all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land— 3 the great trials which your eyes have seen, the signs, and those great wonders. 4 Yet the Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day.

Romans 10:17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing [comes] by the word of God.

Or, as I like to put it, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes when God says so.”

The Rogue Tomato on July 13, 2014 at 2:32 PM

Worldly stories with Heavenly consequences……

crosshugger on July 13, 2014 at 4:25 PM

We walk a fine line between saint and sinner but thanks be to God that He can use a inner like me.

crosshugger on July 13, 2014 at 4:29 PM

He later tells them in this passage that this is because the people themselves are currently so hard-hearted and steeped in sin that they will not comprehend a direct prophecy

“Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.

Doesn’t sound like the same explanation, to me.

The Rogue Tomato on July 13, 2014 at 11:29 AM

The first could be an explanation of the second, an answer to the question “why.”

Axe on July 13, 2014 at 4:53 PM

*or, “How is that?”

Axe on July 13, 2014 at 4:55 PM

Jesus tells us these parables to force us to step out of ourselves, too. We get wrapped up in our own identities and our desires that we begin to have difficulties in discerning sin and truth at all. Arguing with one’s teenage children gets to be like this, when both sides are issuing frontal attacks on the other’s positions, and both sides just dig in deeper and deeper. On more than one occasion, I know I found myself making arguments that I later couldn’t believe ever left my lips, but after a while my position and my concept of the world became more precious to me than reality. A good parable or two would have helped in those days, believe me.

Something like this lies behind the genesis of Aesop’s Fables, and why they remained important to the world for so many years.
Now, they are not being taught to our children (except on “Sprouts” from time to time!) and they certainly are not being recited to or internalized by our political class.
Once Christianity has been driven from the public square, they won’t be hearing Christ’s parables either.
Which may be part of the Adversary’s plan.

AesopFan on July 13, 2014 at 5:17 PM

Which may be part of the Adversary’s plan.

AesopFan on July 13, 2014 at 5:17 PM

The thing is, it doesn’t matter what the Adversary has “planned” any more than it matters what we plan. I already knows who wins in the end. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

If I could bet on it, I’d bet on the sure thing: God.

Kraken on July 13, 2014 at 6:23 PM

Our priest started today by talking about the sower who would even bother to sow on rocky, or thorny ground. In a time when seed would have been precious, who would waste seed, by planting anywhere but the most fertile soil.

But, if you’re an infinite God, with limitless gifts, you can afford to sow everywhere, where even we, hard of heart and short on wisdom, can enjoy his love, endless and everlasting.

massrighty on July 13, 2014 at 6:33 PM

Ed: We just need to open our hearts, drop our expectations and our preconceived notions, and return to prayer and the Word.

When we do that, our hearts become stronger and stronger ground for faith and fidelity.

Amen. So true. So important.

Thanks and God bless.

Elisa on July 13, 2014 at 7:01 PM

Great ruminations on the reading, Ed, thanks.

whatcat on July 13, 2014 at 7:17 PM

We walk a fine line between saint and sinner but thanks be to God that He can use a inner like me.

crosshugger on July 13, 2014 at 4:29 PM

Paul called himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) and he was used mightily by God! God needs all of us sinners, even in the smallest of ways, to spread the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus.

Thanks again, Ed, for this feature. It is always edifying … and I know I need God’s Word every day to keep me going.

wutzupdak on July 13, 2014 at 10:34 PM

Very nice!

JellyToast on July 13, 2014 at 10:58 PM

Mark 12:29-31 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

Matthew 9:37 Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few;

Luke 10:2 Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.

Who among us will go out into the highways and hedges to lead the lost to Christ? Do you think the great commission was meant only for the clergy? We often talk about giving our life to Christ as if we’ve actually done it, or are doing it. I exhort you Christians to outreach into your communities on a regular basis and carry the Gospel to those who would hear it. There will always be those who are stony ground to your sowing, and those whose faith does not endure, but God has done all the heavy lifting. You just need to deliver the message.

Immolate on July 14, 2014 at 10:31 AM

Matthew 9:37 Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few;

.

Luke 10:2 Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.

.
Who among us will go out into the highways and hedges to lead the lost to Christ? Do you think the great commission was meant only for the clergy? We often talk about giving our life to Christ as if we’ve actually done it, or are doing it. I exhort you Christians to outreach into your communities on a regular basis and carry the Gospel to those who would hear it. There will always be those who are stony ground to your sowing, and those whose faith does not endure, but God has done all the heavy lifting. You just need to deliver the message.

Immolate on July 14, 2014 at 10:31 AM

.
Dittos … * (multiplied by infinity) *
.
It is (brace yourself) … PREDOMINANTLY … the responsibility of ALL PERSONS CALLING THEMSELVES CHRISTIAN BELIEVERS to to the work of EVANGELISM.

The offices of the five-fold ministry [Eph 4:11-16] are predominantly to minister to the Church … or in other words, to those who are already believers.
.
Ministry (evangelism) to the rest of the world, is to be done by ALL of us . . . . . or it ain’t happening.

listens2glenn on July 14, 2014 at 12:21 PM

The different soils represent the possible conditions of the hearts of those who hear. They believe, believe for a time but fail, or don’t believe at all, but it has nothing to do with a literal farmer carelessly wasting literal seed.

S.P. Link on July 13, 2014 at 10:08 PM

No farmer expects all of the seed he or she sows to germinate. But unsown seed will never germinate in any place healthful to it.

When you sow seeds by casting them — as the old sowers used to do, you cannot choose the ground said seed will fall upon, no matter how well you have prepared the land. You can increase the possibility of germination, but you cannot guarantee it. Jesus lists all of the things needed for a seed to properly germinate — good soil, good pest control, and good weather with the right amount of water and sun.

There is nothing he says that a good farmer will not want to assure so that his crop will be plentiful.

But again

unclesmrgol on July 14, 2014 at 4:34 PM