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 discussion. Previous 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.