Sunday, July 16, 2017
The parable of the seed
1. Opening prayer
Prayer is also the willingness to listen; it is the suitable time for meeting with God. Today, the Sunday of the ‘sower’, we would like to open our hearts to listen to the word of Jesus using the words of St. John Chrysostom that we too may become docile and willing listeners of the saving Word: «Grant, Lord, that I may listen attentively and remember constantly your teaching, that I may put it into practice forcefully and courageously, despising riches and avoiding the worries of a worldly life… Grant me your strength and that I may meditate on your words putting down deep roots and purifying me of all worldly perils» (St. John Chrysostom, A Commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew 44:3-4).
a) the context:
Matthew places the parable of the seed along with the events of the preceding chapters 11 and 12 where he mentions the kingdom of God that suffers violence. The theme of our parable, as also of the whole of the discourse in parables in chapter 13, is the kingdom of God.
The “house” whence Jesus leaves is the house where he lived in Capharnaum and where he is once more with his disciples (v.1: That same day, Jesus left the house) and his leaving is connected with the going out of the sower (v.3: a sower went out to sow). His “leaving” has as its physical or concrete berth the shore of the lake (v.1: he got into a boat and sat there); this moment recalls the time when Jesus had called his disciples (4,18), but, the sea is a place of passage to the pagan peoples, thus, it represents the border between Israel and the pagan world. The background of the discourse in parables is, then, the lake of Genesareth, called a “sea” according to the people. His leaving attracts the crowds. And while Jesus is sitting by the shore of the sea, he is surprised by the crowds coming to him, and is obliged to get into a boat. This boat becomes the chair of his teaching. Jesus turns to his listeners and “told them many things in parables” that is in a manner different from teaching or proclaiming.
b) The Text:
1 That same day, Jesus left the house and sat by the lakeside, 2 but such large crowds gathered round him that he got into a boat and sat there. The people all stood on the shore, 3 and he told them many things in parables. He said, 'Listen, a sower went out to sow. 4 As he sowed, some seeds fell on the edge of the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Others fell on patches of rock where they found little soil and sprang up at once, because there was no depth of earth; 6 but as soon as the sun came up they were scorched and, not having any roots, they withered away. 7 Others fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Others fell on rich soil and produced their crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Anyone who has ears should listen!'
10 Then the disciples went up to him and asked, 'Why do you talk to them in parables?' 11 In answer, he said, 'Because to you is granted to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not granted. 12 Anyone who has will be given more and will have more than enough; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has. 13 The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. 14 So in their case what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled: Listen and listen, but never understand! Look and look, but never perceive! 15 This people's heart has grown coarse, their ears dulled, they have shut their eyes tight to avoid using their eyes to see, their ears to hear, their heart to understand, changing their ways and being healed by me. 16 'But blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear! 17 In truth I tell you, many prophets and upright people longed to see what you see, and never saw it; to hear what you hear, and never heard it.
18 'So pay attention to the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom without understanding, the Evil One comes and carries off what was sown in his heart: this is the seed sown on the edge of the path. 20 The seed sown on patches of rock is someone who hears the word and welcomes it at once with joy. 21 But such a person has no root deep down and does not last; should some trial come, or some persecution on account of the word, at once he falls away. 22 The seed sown in thorns is someone who hears the word, but the worry of the world and the lure of riches choke the word and so it produces nothing. 23 And the seed sown in rich soil is someone who hears the word and understands it; this is the one who yields a harvest and produces now a hundredfold, now sixty, now thirty.'
3. A moment of prayerful silence
In our busy way of acting, which leads to exterior concerns, we feel the need to stop and calm down in silence… at such a time we become receptive of the fire of the Word…
4. Interpreting the text
a) The action of the sower:
The parable speaks of a sower, not of a peasant, and his activity is marked by the contrast between the loss of the seeds (13, 4-7) and the abundant fruit (13, 8). Furthermore, we need to note the difference between the wealth of the description of those who lose the seeds and the concise form of the abundant fruit. But the number of failed and disappointing experiences represented by the various forms of loss of seeds (on the edge of the path…on patches of rock... among thorns...) is contrasted with the great harvest that makes us forget the negative experiences of the losses. Again, in the parable there is the time difference between the initial phase of the sowing and the end phase which coincides with the fruit of the harvest. If in the various attempts at sowing there is no fruit, such lack brings to mind the Kingdom of God at the time of the great harvest. Jesus, the sower, sows the word of the kingdom (13,19) which makes present the lordship of God over the world, over people and that bears the final fruit. The parable has such persuasive force as to bring the listener to trust in the works of Jesus, which, while marked by failure or disappointment, will finally succeed.
b) Apart, Jesus communicates to the disciples the reason for speaking in parables (13,10-17):
After telling the parable and before his explanation (13,18-23) the disciples go up to Jesus (the verb “to go up to” expresses the intimate relationship with Jesus) and put an explicit question to him, they cannot see why Jesus speaks to the crowds in parables (v.10: Why do you talk to them in parables?). The reply to their question is in v.13: «...The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding». It is as if to say: the crowds neither perceive nor understand. Jesus does not mean to force them to understand. Indeed until now Jesus has spoken and acted clearly, but the crowds have not understood; but, as the time has come for him to go on revealing his message in all its radical nature – namely understanding – he has recourse to the language of parables, which although more obscure may stimulate the crowds to think more, to reflect on the obstacles that prevent their understanding of the teachings of Jesus. This seems like a repetition of the times of Isaiah, when the people were closed to the message of God (Is 6,9-10), and as such a situation of refusal foreseen by biblical tradition repeats itself in the crowds that “see-listen” but do not understand.
Compared to the crowd, the disciples hold a privileged position (13,11). Jesus shows this in the first part of his reply when he distinguishes between those included and those excluded from knowing the kingdom. The knowledge of the mysteries of God – that is God’s plan – is possible through the intervention of God and not through one’s own human efforts. The disciples are presented as those who understand Jesus’ parable not because they are more intelligent, but because it is he himself who explains his words to them.
The lack of understanding on the part of the crowds is the cause of his speaking in parables: they do not understand Jesus, thus they show clearly their obstinate incomprehension or better their inability to discern. The disciples, on the other hand, are declared blessed because they can see and listen.
c) The explanation of the parable (13,18-23):
After Jesus expressed his reasons for speaking in parables, he showed the fate of the word of the Kingdom in each of his listeners. Although there are four kinds of soil listed, there are only two types of listeners compared: those who listen to the Word and do not understand it (13,19) and those who listen to the Word and understand (13, 23). It is interesting to note that Matthew, in contrast with Mark, tells the story in the singular. It is the personal commitment that is the benchmark of real listening and true understanding. The first category of listeners shows that they listen to the Word (19), but do not understand it. Understanding the Word here is not to be understood on the intellectual level but on the wisdom level. It is necessary to enter into its deep and saving meaning. In the second (13, 20-21) the Word is heard and welcomed with joy. Such a welcome (lack of roots) becomes unstable when the initial enthusiasm wears out, perhaps because of experiences of suffering and persecution inevitable in every journey of faithful listening to God.
The third possibility evokes material preoccupations that can choke the Word (13, 22). Finally the positive result: the seed lost in the threefold soil is compensated by the fruitful result. Briefly, the parable brings out three aspects of the act of active and persevering faith: listening, understanding and bearing fruit.
5. Meditation for ecclesial practice
- What can the parable say to the Church of today? Which soil does our ecclesial community represent? On the personal level, what interior availability and understanding do we manifest in our listening of the Word?
- Is it not true that the dangers Jesus pointed out to his disciples concerning the welcoming of the Word are relevant to us too? For instance, fickleness before difficulties, negligence, anxiety for the future, daily worries?
- The disciples were capable of asking Jesus, of questioning him about their worries and difficulties. On your journey of faith to the Word of God, to whom do you address your questions? The replies that Jesus communicates to us in our intimate and personal relationship with him, depend on the sort of question we ask.
- The figure of the sower recalls that of the Church in its commitment to evangelisation: to know how to communicate in a new way the person of Jesus and the values of the Gospel. The Church has to stand out for the authoritative character of its teaching, for its outspokenness and for the force of its actions. Today we need to be confident, eager and tireless evangelisers. Every ecclesial community is urged by the parable of the sower not to be selective of persons or social contexts for the proclamation of the Gospel; we must have a broad vision and dedicate ourselves, even in what seem to be impossible situations, to communicating the Gospel. Every pastoral action of evangelisation experiences a first moment of ephemeral enthusiasm, which, however, may be followed by a cold reaction and opposition. Pastoral attempts are comparable to the threefold attempt of the sower, in the end they are rewarded by the threefold harvest. It is certain that the word of Jesus buds and bears fruit in hearts open to his action, but we must not cease from shaking our sluggishness, our indecision and the hardness of hearing of many believers.
6. Psalm 65 (64)
You visit the earth and make it fruitful,
you fill it with riches;
the river of God brims over with water,
you provide the grain.
To that end
you water its furrows abundantly,
level its ridges,
soften it with showers and bless its shoots.
You crown the year with your generosity,
richness seeps from your tracks,
the pastures of the desert grow moist,
the hillsides are wrapped in joy,
the meadows are covered with flocks,
the valleys clothed with wheat;
they shout and sing for joy.
7. Closing prayer
Lord, your parable of the sower concerns each one of us, the ways of our lives, the hardness of daily life, the difficulties and the moments of softness that are part of our interior scene. We are all, from time to time, sometimes path, rocks and thorns; but also good, fertile soil. Deliver us from the temptation of negative forces that try to eliminate the force of your Word. Strengthen our will when passing and changing emotions render the seduction of your Word less efficacious. Help us to keep the joy that our meeting with your Word creates in our hearts. Strengthen our hearts so that in times of tribulation we may not feel defenceless and thus exposed to discouragement. Grant us the strength to stand up to the obstacles we place to your Word when the worries of the world come or when we are deceived by the mirage of money, seduced by pleasure or by the vanity of appearances. Make us good soil, welcoming persons, capable of rendering our service to your Word. Amen!