Sunday reflection: Matthew 13:1-23
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.”
Last year, we had some construction done at the house, and for a few months a dumpster sat on a patch of lawn next to the driveway. The dumpster got hauled off just in time for the first snows of the winter, but for some reason I expected that the grass would recover when spring came. Instead, it left a dead yellow rectangle that looked like a perpetual testament to the overly long construction project.
We put down fresh soil and seeded it with what was supposed to be a hardy strain of grass that would blend into the existing lawn, but only two things have happened since. The first is that the local birds had a banquet of seeds a la Morrissey, and we’ve grown a sparse but hardy crop of weeds. The next step is probably going to be sod, but I’m about as adept with that as I am with seeding the ground. I live in farm country, but if the nation’s food supply depended on the greenness of my thumbs, you’d all be in a lot of trouble.
Farming and gardening are not an easy business, a point which Jesus uses in his parable in Galilee. The people of this area would understand the difficulties and obstacles to successful farming — the ground itself, birds, weeds and thorns, and the weather. They did not flock to Jesus to gain instruction on farming, of course, but to learn and understand the word of God. Rather than teach on that directly in this parable, Jesus teaches on how difficult it is to have the word of God bear fruit in each person, using a parable that should allow them to unlock that understanding.
This follows a pattern in many of Jesus’ parables, and allegories in the Old Testament too — using nature to explain or illustrate the word of God. Creation sprang from God’s Word, and serves Him in a similar manner. We live in Creation, deriving our sustenance and practicing our stewardship of it. Seeds are, in a sense, a model of Creation, and a model of God’s word within us too, as Jesus uses them for this parable. Nature serves as a canvas for these parables, and also as a demonstration of the power and will of the Lord.
Our first reading from Isaiah 55 emphasizes that connection between nature and God’s word:
Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
When I think about the parable of the sower, I usually reflect on where I fall in Jesus’ assessment of the ground in which the seed is being sown. That is certainly part of the lesson that Jesus intends, which we know because the disciples don’t quite get Jesus’ purpose or meaning. Jesus takes the time to translate the parable into its explicit lesson for the benefit of the disciples, and for ours as well. This explanation of the parable, and of the use of parables in general, gives Gospel readers a key to understanding not just this parable but others from Jesus as well. Perhaps a good way to think about it is that this passage tills the soil of our hearts and allows us to receive the seeds of God’s word more fruitfully than if the explanation had never been provided at all.
Still, to focus completely on the ground is to miss the meaning of the seeds and their overall triumph. In Isaiah, the Lord says through the prophet that “my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” We see that unfold in the parable too; while some of the seeds end up failing because of the ground on which it falls, others inevitably find rich soil, and multiply as much as a hundredfold. The message of the parable is that the Lord’s will triumphs, and triumphs under the conditions He created in the first place — not because He overpowers, but because His word finds people’s hearts as a natural course, and people will choose to nurture Him in their hearts. Even when we see at times nothing but hard and thorny hearts that refuse to accept Him, we know that His word will keep finding root and growing a hundredfold each generation.
This tension will exist until the end of time and Jesus’ return, as Paul hints in his letter to the Romans. “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now,” Paul writes, “and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” For those who do open their hearts even in troubled times, we are not just serving for our own salvation. We are groaning on a mission to provide the next generation of seeds in order to serve God’s will and find others whose hearts are ready to sow the seeds of love. We do this knowing that while we groan, the victory has already been won, through Jesus Christ as the Word.
I only wish I could say the same thing about my lawn.
The front page image is a detail from “The Sower with the Setting Sun,” Vincent Van Gogh, 1888. On display at the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands. Via Wikiart.
“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.