Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23
The first reading is an excerpt from the concluding chapter of the second part of the Book of Isaiah. This part is known as Second Isaiah. It consists of chapters 40-55. The oracles of this otherwise unknown prophet were assembled by editors into one scroll with oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem, chapters 1-39, who lived two centuries before Second Isaiah. Chapters 40-55 are also known as The Book of Consolation because the book begins with the consoling words, “Be comforted! Be comforted, My People, says your God. Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity has been pardoned.” What warfare? What iniquity? The people of the Kingdom of Judah had been in exile in Babylon since the early 6th century B.C. When Persia under Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon about 540 B.C., he issued an edict allowing exiles to return home and rebuild their cities and temples. Second Isaiah came upon the scene in exile at the time of the Persian conquest of Babylon. He was not only a prophet inspired by God but also a keen observer of political history and events. The domestic and foreign policy of King Cyrus (Koresh) was known well enough to give Second Isaiah the impetus to proclaim freedom and return of exiles including those of the former Kingdom of Judah. That is why he begins with a proclamation of consolation.
The prophet meanders through what we call 54 chapters, giving us some of the most beautiful poetry and quotable passages in the whole Bible. All the while he was unknowingly providing material for the composition of Georg Friedrich Handel’s The Messiah, many centuries later. As he comes into what we call chapter 55, he opens with some strong cheerleading, then proclaims the Lord’s confirmation of his promise of freedom for the exiles. The words of this confirmation became another soaring passage of future triumph. “As rain and snow come down from the heavens and do not return there, till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the sower and bread to thee eater, so shall my word (my promise) be that goes forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which I sent it.” (A sidebar: This oracle is a theological foundation for the Gospel of John, when “my word” of Second Isaiah becomes “my Word” in the gospel. Jesus is the “Word made flesh” who came to do his Father’s will just as the word of promise in the prophet’s oracle would not return empty but accomplish that for which it was sent.) Apart from that enlightening glance into John’s gospel, why was this oracle of 540 B.C. selected as today’s first reading? Connection between first reading and gospel reading is sometimes tenuous, but today it seems to be in, “seed to the sower” and “my word,” corresponding to “The sower went out to sow his seed,” and “the word of the kingdom” in the gospel reading.
The Responsorial Psalm 65 clearly responds to the first reading and the parable of the sower in the gospel. The Psalm speaks of watering the land, preparing grain, drenching furrows, breaking up clods, softening the land with showers, rich harvest and a big party at the end as “They shout and sing for joy.” The second reading is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the context he is comparing the spiritual with the unspiritual, or life in the Spirit with life in sin. The latter leads to death, the former to life. Those who have the Holy Spirit and live accordingly become sons and daughters of God. Therefore, as our reading begins, “I think that what we suffer in this life cannot be compared to the glory, as yet unrevealed, which is waiting for us.” Along with us, says Paul, all creation, (note environmentalists!), is groaning in labor pains along with us to be set free from the slavery of corruption and the glory prepared for it, that is, for creation.
The gospel reading begins a chapter of parables, stories Jesus uses to teach. First, the parable of the sower. He scatters seed by throwing it onto the land by hand. The method is primitive, so the seed falls onto all kinds of surfaces, receptive or unreceptive to growth, development, and production of grain. Jesus’ only comment at first: “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” Meaning: Figure it out for yourselves! The disciples do not like riddles. They don’t want to think! They ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. A strange answer: Because it is not given to everyone to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God. Is the knowledge of God’s plans therefore only for an exclusive inner circle? Matthew is talking about the initiated, the baptized. They are ready to receive instruction, outsiders not yet. Even more confusing, “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.” Has Jesus (or Matthew) lapsed into comment on economic conditions? Probably not, but for those not privileged to live the lifestyle of wealth, the saying attributed to Jesus seems to reflect reality. “The rich get richer. The poor get poorer.”
But Matthew’s Jesus is speaking of spiritual realities. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary nails it. “. . . if you open yourself in faith and hope to God’s revelation of his plan of salvation, you can make rapid progress in understanding that plan. If you close yourself to it, you can lose the offer,” page 656. Matthew has been more or less using the Gospel of Mark as a pattern. He seems however to become troubled by Mark’s statement attributed to Jesus, that he speaks to the crowds in parables “so that they may indeed see, but not grasp, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they turn again and be forgiven.” In other words, according to Mark’s gospel Jesus spoke in parables so that they would not understand him. Let us recall that Mark wrote in response to a horrendous persecution of Christians at Rome. They lived in secrecy. Matthew writes fifteen or years later when the Church has grown Roman Empire-wide. He knows that hiding instruction from the public does not work nor does it need to. So he changes the statement, “I speak to them in parables because seeing they do not see, hearing they do not hear, etc.” In other words, he taught in parable (stories) so that they could understand. That makes sense!