First reading: Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalm: Psalm 64(65)
Second reading: Romans 8:18-23
Gospel: Matthew 13:1-23
Link to readings.
Today and the next two Sundays the Gospels are taken from Matthew 13: the “parable” chapter of the gospel. Heading the list is the great parable of the Sower, which with its long allegorical interpretation (vv. 18-23) and the intervening material (vv. 9-17) makes for a very long Gospel reading indeed (13:1-23).
Preachers who do attempt the longer text will have to cope with the rather difficult sayings that come between the parable and its interpretation. In Matthew they are a reflection upon that bulk of Israel that has not responded positively to the word of Jesus. The early Church took consolation in the sense that at least this bitter disappointment had been foreseen in Scripture and so was somehow part of the mysterious plan of God.
Personally, I would be inclined to take the shorter option and simply read the parable in itself (vv. 1-8). There are riches there which are inevitably rather swamped by the allegorical interpretation, which takes the parable in a more moralizing direction.
The difference between a parable proper and an allegory is that a parable tends to make a single sharp point or issue a finely focused challenge. The aim is not so much to teach a moral lesson as to radically change the way the hearers see things—to show them “another world”. An allegory, on the other hand, takes single items in the parable one by one and relates them to life situations in a morally uplifting way. So, in today’s Gospel the concluding, allegorical explanation takes what happens to the seed in each of the four cases and relates it to various circumstances that can either threaten or—or in the case of the last—foster the growth of the word in the hearts of believers. Most people can see some resonance in their lives to the situations described in respect to the seed—which doubtless explains why the parable, understood in this way, has been so prominent in Christian teaching and spiritual counsel.
Originally, however, the parable as Jesus told it (vv. 1-8) may have gone in another direction. Fundamentally, it seems designed to counter discouragement. Some of Jesus’ followers and close disciples may have been showing signs of disappointment that his message was not receiving acceptance on a wider and more enthusiastic scale. If Jesus really were the messenger of God, shouldn’t there be more evident success than this!
As usual, the parable moves directly from ordinary, everyday life, in this case agricultural practice in Palestine. The sower scatters the seed around in a casual, even “wild” fashion. By no means all of it lands in good soil. Quite a bit could land in the three situations—on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns—where it suffers the fate described. Isn’t this all rather wasteful? Not at all! The sower knows that each seed that falls on good soil will bear a yield many times in excess of itself: a hundredfold, sixty or thirty. The yield from the seed in good soil so vastly outweighs the losses as to render them of no account at all. He can afford to be casual and wild.
Jesus scatters his message in a similarly casual way. In the case of many who hear him the word suffers the fate of the seed that is lost. But when it really strikes home and finds a welcome, the corresponding “yield”—hundredfold, sixty, thirty—more than compensates for all the loss.
The parable is about the generosity and prodigality of God. In the face of so much opposition and growing indifference from the crowds, Jesus does not lose confidence in the worthwhileness of his message. When the word finds a generous response in the human heart, there is no limit to the riches of God’s love and grace that can be channelled through such persons more widely into the world.
So the disciples—and, following them, teachers, preachers, catechists, and all concerned with the proclamation of the word and its understanding—should not lose heart. As the very brief First Reading (Isa 55:10-11) insists, the word that goes forth from God’s mouth does not return empty; it does not come back without succeeding in what it was sent to do.
Where the Second Reading (Rom 8:18-23) might fit in to all this is as an expression of hope: hope not just for the eventual salvation of human beings but a hope that the non-human created world, with its necessary connection to our own bodily existence, might somehow share in that salvation as well. This is in fact one of the few passages in the New Testament where the fate of the world—what Pope Francis calls “Our Common Home” in his encyclical Laudato Sí?—seems also to be in view.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media