The greatest concentration of parables, seven in all, in the Gospel of Matthew is in Chapter 13, the third of Matthew’s five major discourses. St. Matthew writes to the Jewish Christian community. His purpose in writing is to portray Jesus as the new Moses; consequently, he makes a point of telling us that Jesus assumes the posture of the teacher when he is preaching – he sits. In imitation of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures which forms the Jewish Law, Matthew scatters five such teaching moments or discourses throughout his Gospel and intersperses them with stories of healings and encounters with the Israelites. We will be reading from this chapter for the next three Sundays.
The first of the parables is the familiar story of a farmer who is scattering, or to use the technical term, broadcasting the seeds over his farmland. In your Bible, you will find that a title has been assigned to this parable; namely, the parable of the Sower. However, this parable could just as easily be called the Parable of the Seed, the Parable of the Soil, or the Parable of the Harvest depending upon what interpretation you assign to the lesson Jesus is teaching. Unlike most of the parables, Jesus actually tells us what this one means. Only one other parable in all of the Gospels is interpreted for us.
If we look at this as the Parable of the Sower, then we must admit that Jesus (God) is a sower that is indiscriminate, profligate or prodigal in the way he sows. He spreads the seed even where he knows that it will not produce a crop. From this we learn that God is inclusive, that he gives everyone the opportunity to hear, that the Word is shared even with those who are not regarded as “good soil.” For Matthew’s community of Jewish Christians, this viewpoint would recommend the inclusion of the all people, even the Gentiles.
If we look at this as the Parable of the Seed, then we have a meditation on the effectiveness of God’s Word. (This is obviously the focus of those who composed the lectionary since this parable is linked with the passage from Isaiah about God’s Word.) God’s Word is effective in that it does produce a crop even though some of the seed fell on unproductive ground. For Matthew’s community, this viewpoint encourages them to continue spreading God’s Word even though the results may not look good at this point.
If we look at this as the Parable of the Harvest, then we have a discourse on “our expectations.” It presents us with an eschatological viewpoint. Palestinians would have considered a “ten-fold” harvest as a good harvest; they would never “expect” it to be more. However, here the harvest is thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. This consideration leaves the community overwhelmed with the inconceivable abundance of God’s graciousness manifest in the end-times. This is clearly the work of God, far beyond what is possible in human efforts. A peasant farmer who has labored against adversity hears in this story the good news of God’s loving providence. Given the fact that Jesus encountered so much opposition from the Jewish authorities, this perspective also tells us that Jesus is confident that the Kingdom of God will triumph in the end.
Finally, if we look at this as the Parable of the Soil, we leave with an exhortation toward self-examination. If we are honest about it, we see in ourselves at different times in our lives all of the different kinds of soil. We are told that we need to cull out all the impediments to the Word so that it can bear good fruit. For Matthew’s community, it also addresses the question why all Israel has not embraced Jesus as the Messiah.
As we listen to the parable today, we might do well to consider how the parable fits our situation in life in the here and now. Which of these interpretations is the perspective that I need to hear today? One can know all there is to know about Scripture scholarship and interpretation; if the Scripture does not lead one to conversion of life, all that knowledge is for naught. Studying the Scriptures is a worthwhile endeavor only if it leads to conversion. Jesus came to call sinners, to reconcile us to God and to one another. So we have to ask ourselves today where we fit into this parable. Jesus challenges us to do just that when he says: “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
The Seed is God’s Word. The prophet Isaiah challenges us to listen to that Word and adds a warning to that challenge: “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.” God does not share the Word with us in vain. It will either lead to our salvation or our condemnation. If we listen and heed the message, we will hear Good News – God desires to live in our midst and with us forever. If we hear but do not pay heed, we will reap disaster. Much has been given to us. Much will be expected of us.
The Word of God, contained in both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, is the story of God’s attempts to interact with us. Like a family gathered around the table to celebrate a joyful occasion, so the Church invites us to hear the telling of that interaction and God’s promises to all of us. So when God promises that the Word shall not return void but will achieve its end, that promise is as real for us as it was for the people at the time of Isaiah.
What is that promise? St. Paul sets out the promise for us in his Letter to the Romans. Through Jesus we, indeed all of creation, will be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. Yes, we live in a world that is seemingly steeped in corruption of every kind imaginable. Creation groans with the burden of the suffering brought on by that corruption. However, the glory that will be revealed to us at the end of time.
As we approach the altar today to eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ, that food and drink nourishes the Word of God that is planted in us. It is like the rain that softens the earth and helps the seed to sprout and grow. Christ’s Body and Blood make the Word of God grow in our lives. It is food for our journey to the day of the great harvest.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator