Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Response: Psalm 85:5-6, 9-10, 16-19; Second Reading: Romans 89:26-27; Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43

The first reading is an excerpt from an Old Testament Book called the Book of Wisdom or the Wisdom of Solomon. Though the book is attributed to King Solomon, who ruled the Israelites from 961-922 B. C., it was written about 50 B.C. There was a custom in ancient times to attribute a literary work to some noted historical figure of the past. The reason this was done for the Book of Wisdom was Solomon’s reputation for wisdom. There is the well-known example of Solomon’s decision to cut in half a baby in dispute between two women (1 Kings 3:16-34). We read in 1 Kings 4:29-31, “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond all measure… so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than all others.” Note the words, “surpassed . . . all the wisdom of Egypt.” One purpose of the Book of Wisdom was to demonstrate the superiority of Jewish wisdom over Egyptian wisdom. Solomon’s wisdom failed in his relationship with women (1 Kings 11:1-11; Sirach 47:19-21).

The author of the Book of Wisdom is anonymous. The location: probably Alexandria, Egypt. He is appealing to the Jews of Egypt, especially in view of the fact that prominent Jews had abandoned their ancestral faith, thus causing scandal. The reading we have before us is a monologue on two levels. The author is speaking to God in prayer, but the message or apologetics (defense of the Jewish faith) is intended for the Jewish communities of Egypt to be faithful to their traditions and take pride in them. One theme throughout the book is the superiority of the Jewish religion over the pagan religions and philosophies that were current in Egypt. Our reading begins with the basic profession of faithful Jews — that there is no God but the Lord, and that he is the only one who cares for all people. The power that sometimes makes human rulers cruel is, in God, the source of justice tempered by leniency. God’s power is only displayed against non-believers (the author’s threat to the apostates, the fallen-away). Despite God’s absolute power, he judges mercifully. He recalls the deeds of the Lord, referring to the mighty deeds of the Exodus in the 13th century B.C. These deeds gave hope to the Israelites that God would permit them to repent of their sins.

Psalm 86 responds directly to the theme of God’s forgiveness that runs throughout the first reading. The people’s response says it all, “Lord you are good and forgiving.” The psalm differs from the reading in that the reading deals with forgiveness for a whole people, while the psalm deals only with personal forgiveness for the psalmist or individual using the psalm as a prayer. Like some prayers in the Old Testament, as in the Our Father of the New Testament, the prayer begins with flattery of God, “You are good, forgiving, full of kindness.” Then the petition, “Listen, O Lord, to my prayer.” More flattery, then the prayer ends with a final petition: “Turn toward me and have pity on me. Give strength to me your servant.” Jesus himself taught us to pray like that.

Thus far in today’s liturgy, we have seen an emphasis on prayer. In our second reading, St. Paul continues that theme. He informs the Christians of Rome that we do not know how to pray as we should. Help is available: “The (Holy) Spirit himself intercedes (for us) with inexpressible groanings.” The groanings are, fortunately, inaudible to us. God, who searches hearts, knows and hears the Spirit’s groanings because the Spirit intercedes only as God intends.

Last Sunday’s gospel began a series from Matthew’s collection of parables into a discourse of Jesus, the third of five discourses attributed to him. We read and heard the parable of the sower, the seed, and its interpretation. Today we have three more parables: weeds sown into field already sown with wheat; the mustard seed; and the parable of leaven (yeast) mixed with a batch of dough. All three are homely examples, to which Jesus’ audience could relate. First, the kingdom of heaven (God’s rule in our lives or in the Church or in the world) is like a man who sowed good wheat-seed in a field. At night, an enemy came by and sowed weed-seed into the wheat. Wheat and weeds grew together. The owner of the field had slaves. They reported to him what had happened to his wheat field. Question: should they pull the weeds? No, if they do, they might dislodge the wheat. They were told to wait until harvest, collecting the weeds first into bundles for burning, but the wheat bundles (sheaves) go into the man’s barn. It is unlikely that Jesus gave an interpretation. That was not his style. As a simple parable, the lesson could be patience with fellow Christians. He usually wanted hearers to figure it out for themselves.

Not good enough for Matthew. He adds an allegorical interpretation under the form of the disciples asking Jesus for an explanation. His interpretation becomes an allegory about the last judgment – salvation and damnation. He ends with a favorite scary condemnation to punishment (six times in his gospel), “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Two parables remain in our gospel reading: the mustard seed and the leaven. In the first one, a man is the agent. In the second one, a woman. Matthew’s parable of the mustard seed is influenced by a parable in the Book of Daniel (4:11-12) about a tree becoming so great that animals find shade under it and birds nest in it. Spoken by Jesus, the parable of the mustard seed was encouragement and hope for his disciples. Matthew includes the parable for reflection on the tremendous growth in the Christian movement that was already occurring in his time (the 80s of the first century), spreading throughout the Roman Empire. Finally, the parable of the leaven (yeast). A woman puts a small quantity of yeast into a batch of dough and watches the dough expand into a large mass ready for baking. Jesus’ lesson here, too, was encouragement to his disciples. For Matthew, the Great Commission at the end of his gospel may be the best way to express his teaching in the parable of the leaven and dough. “Go, and make disciples of all nations . . . .” Christians are the leaven. The world is the dough. Go bake bread!