Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-11; Response: Psalm 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14; Second Reading: Romans 8:18-23; Gospel: Matthew 13:1-23

The first reading is part of the concluding words of a collection of oracles from an unknown prophet called Second Isaiah. This collection is found in chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah. The date is approximately 540 B.C. The location is with the Judean exiles somewhere in the worn-out empire of Babylon (Iraq today). The Babylonians had begun exiling at least some upper classes of Judeans after they subjugated Jerusalem in 598 B.C. There was a second and main deportation of Judeans by Babylon in 587 (after the destruction of the temple), and a third in 582 B.C. About 540 B.C. the prophet Second Isaiah became active among the exiles with a promise that the Lord God would return them to their homeland. Either he got this message through a divine revelation or was keenly aware of the political situation - or both. The Persian Empire was on the march under Cyrus the Great about 540 B.C. He ended the Babylonian Empire. It was his policy, so it seems, to allow exiles within the empire to return to their homelands. And so it happened. The Edict of Return for the Judeans can be read in Ezra 1:1-4 and 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.

Second Isaiah’s oracles began with words of consolation to the exiles in Isaiah 40. In today’s second reading, we see the concluding message in Isaiah 55. The promises this prophet made throughout the collection of his oracles are confirmed in this reading: “As the snow and the rain come down from the sky and do not return to it until 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. It shall not return to me empty but will do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” Just in case his hearers have forgotten what the Lord promised, the prophet reminds them in poetic language. Though this was not included in our reading, it is worth hearing and seeing. They will joyfully leave their place of exile in safety. Mountains and hills will shout for joy. Trees will clap their hands. Unfriendly vegetation will change to friendly. All this, so says the prophet, will make the Lord famous forever. The exiles did go home, at least some of them did; but the situation was not as glorious as the prophet’s poetry. The selection of this reading was determined by its theme of the growth of seed, a theme also found in today’s gospel.

The selected verses of Psalm 65 perfectly respond to the first reading and also prepare for today’s gospel. The psalmist reminds us that the Lord visited, watered and enriched the land, preparing for the grain harvest. Showers broke up the clods and softened the ground. The harvest was rich, even the no-till fields and hills overflowed with grain. Due to the abundance of grain, fields and valleys overflow with flocks, shouting and singing for joy. More poetry and a little beyond reality!

The opening verse of the second reading is a source of consolation and a very tentative answer to a question that has always been asked but never satisfactorily answered. Why do good people suffer? The Book of Job tried to answer the question in 42 chapters and came up with a question: “Who are you to even ask God for an answer?” Here is Paul’s attempt at an answer: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing to be compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” Another notable idea from our second reading: all creation is undergoing labor pains waiting to be set free from the slavery of corruption and awaiting the glory it will share with us.

The gospel of this day begins the third of five major discourses of Jesus that Matthew arranged in his gospel. This discourse is a collection of parables — teaching stories. Today, we hear or see the parable of the sower and the seed. In Matthew’s presentation, Jesus speaks the parable, then ends it with the puzzling statement: “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” Meaning: Figure it out for yourselves. Matthew basically copied the parable out of Mark’s gospel. The parable is followed by a question from the disciples in both gospels. “Why do you speak to them (the crowds) in parables?”

In Mark’s version, Jesus responds that he does so to hide the meaning lest they understand, be converted and be forgiven. That makes little or no sense to Matthew, so he changes it to read that he speaks in parables because they do not see, nor hear, nor understand. In other words, he speaks to the crowds in simple stories so that they do understand his message. That is one possible interpretation. It does not solve the difficulty of the statement that knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (God’s sovereign rule) has been granted to the disciples but not to the crowds.

Was Jesus’ teaching only for the initiated? That seems to be Mark’s intention; it can be so understood in the context of the persecution of the Christians of Rome, for whom Mark wrote his gospel. The Christians of Rome lived in secrecy from the persecuting authorities. Their teaching about Jesus was only for the inner circle — the initiated Christians. That seems not to have been a problem in Matthew’s situation. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus scolds the disciples for not understanding this parable nor any other parables. Then, the Marcan Jesus gives an elaborate interpretation of the parable. In Mark, the disciples are usually depicted as slow learners. Matthew characteristically upgrades their IQ when he copies a story from Mark.

Another puzzling statement cries out for comment: “To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich. From anyone who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.” Is Matthew the tax collector speaking about the economy, as in the proverb, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer?” Even though the proverb is often true, in the context of Matthew’s parable chapter, it must have a different meaning. It values the privilege the disciples have in being taught privately by Jesus, and the privilege Christians have of becoming familiar with Jesus’ teaching. In the words of Jesus’ interpretation of this parable, those who are open to understanding the parables are the good soil, “who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit — thirty or sixty or one hundred percent.” Those who close themselves to understanding the parables end up with nothing.