Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Psalm 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43
The first reading is from the Book of Wisdom. It is also called “Wisdom of Solomon,” though Solomon had been dead more than eight centuries when the Book of Wisdom was composed. It was common practice at the time to attribute authorship to a famous figure of the past. Solomon, 961-922 B.C., was noted for his wisdom. We read in 1 Kings 4:30-31, “Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than all other men . . . .” (but not in his relations with women. See Sirach 47:19-21; 1 Kings 11:1-11). The approximate dates of composition of the book, 100-50 B.C. One of the book’s purposes was to make proud of their faith and traditions the large numbers of Jewish communities in Egypt.
In the first reading the author is speaking to God. Another purpose of the Book of Wisdom was an appeal to Jews in Egypt who had abandoned the faith of their ancestral God, replacing it with pagan religions, secular philosophies, or what today is called New Ageism. While the literary form of the passage is the author addressing God, the message is not to God but to the fallen away Jews in Egypt. So we have not so much a prayer, but rather apologetics, a defense of the Jewish faith. Thus the author defends the uniqueness or “onlyness” of God against the array of multiple Egyptian gods. He writes: “There is no god besides you who have the care of all . . . .” Another motive of the book is to defend God against accusations of unjust retribution or revenge, as the author continues, “You do not have to show that you have not unjustly condemned.” God is praised for his justice, fairness. Despite his absolute power, he judges with mercy. Apparently it was not uncommon then, (nor is it now), that some who attain power lapse into corruption and brutality. God’s justice with mercy, says the author, (now adopting a homiletic style), is intended to be an example to God’s children that the just person must be a kind person, and so that they are aware that God permits repentance for sins.
The Responsorial Psalm 86, responds to the Book of Wisdom’s praise of God’s mercy and kindness. The people’s response, “Lord, you are good and forgiving, abounding in kindness to all who call upon you.” The second reading continues a series of readings from the Letter to the Romans. The context of this reading is Paul’s discussion of life in the Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit. Earlier he had noted how all creation, including ourselves, is groaning as if in the pains of giving birth, as we await the completion of our adoption as children of God through our redemption, which here seems to be resurrection to glory. He adds that we await for this “redemption” with patience. Until our patience is rewarded, the Holy Spirit is with us. Paul notes that by our-selves we do not know how to pray, “but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groaning.” In other words, we can turn our prayers over to the Holy Spirit, who is with God, in God, and is God, to do our praying for us. How well this corresponds to the mission of the Paraclete Jesus promises in the Gospel of John. That our prayers are more effective when the Spirit prays for us is possible because God, who searches hearts, knows what his Spirit intends. Besides that, when the Spirit intercedes for us, his intercessory prayers are “according to God’s will.” Paul implies that our prayers may not always be according to God’s will.
Last Sunday’s gospel reading began a series taken from Matthew’s collection of parables. We encountered the parable of the sower whose seed-grain landed on various surfaces and was able or not to grow. Today we have three parables: the weeds sown in the wheat; the mustard seed; and the parable of the leaven (yeast). All three are homely examples of what happens or could happen in daily rural life. Jesus begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good wheat-seed in his field. At night an enemy sowed weeds among the sown wheat. Weeds and what sprouted and grew. What to do? Pull the weeds? No, too much collateral damage to the wheat. Let both grow until the harvest. At harvest time the weeds can be separated into sheaves and burned. The wheat will go into the granary. Matthew immediately adds the other two parables, but after them, the disciples of Jesus ask for an interpretation. Let’s take the interpretation first, as Matthew changes the simple parable of Jesus into an allegory — a form of literature in which the elements of the parable become symbols. The sower is Jesus. The field is the world. The good seed equals Christians. The sower of the weed-seed is the devil, and the weeds are “the children of the evil one.” The harvest is the last judgment. Jesus sends angels to harvest. They will separate good from bad. True to character, Matthew adopts some of his favorite hardline language, “They will throw all evildoers into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (an expression used six times by Matthew, only once by Luke).
The parable of the mustard seed compares the tiny size of a mustard seed to the size of the plant that grows out of the seed. The plant becomes so large that birds live in its branches. Matthew leaves us without interpretation. We may assume that Jesus added his usual closing, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” Meaning: Figure it out yourselves! Mustard is a very invasive plant, spreads quickly and easily. Since Jesus compares the mustard seed to the “kingdom of heaven,” let’s interpret the kingdom as the Church, and as an exhortation to hope. The Church began as a very small community. By the time of Matthew it had already spread in all directions. Matthew is aware that this parable is based on a parable in Daniel about a tree that becomes so great that animals find shade in it, birds nest in it, and all creatures are fed by its fruit. Therefore, the parable of the mustard seed expresses hope for Christianity to embrace all nations and peoples. The same interpretation can apply to the parable of the leaven. The yeast inserted into the dough leavens the whole batch of dough, as Christianity leavens the whole world.