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Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 12, 2017
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 16, 2017
First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-11
Responsorial Psalm 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14
Second Reading: Romans 8:18-23
Gospel: Matthew 13:1-23
It was popular among early Church writers, particularly the Fathers of the Church, to see Scripture as allegory. Some of this came from the desire to show how everything in the New Testament was somehow pre-figured in the Hebrew Scriptures. (So, for example, the story of Jonah was seen as an allegory for the death and resurrection of Jesus.) Besides doing an obvious disservice to the Hebrew Scriptures, it seems that such allegorizing also does a disservice to the events of the gospels, since it often took some bending and imagination to fit the gospel story into a story of previous times. It also ran the risk of completely distorting both stories to make one fit into the other.
We have a good example of allegorizing in the gospel today, as Matthew has Jesus "explaining himself" to his disciples. But to claim that the seed means one thing in one context and another thing in another context obscures what was probably Jesus' original intent on telling the parable. This can be seen especially when it is paired with the first reading from Isaiah, upon which Jesus' parable builds. Allegorizing also brings Matthew perilously close to early Christian Gnosticism by claiming that there are some who receive more enlightenment than others, and that Jesus had a "secret wisdom" that was reserved for only a few. 
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah builds upon something that was easily observable: the rain and snow coming down, watering the earth, and then returning to the heavens to repeat the cycle. The Lord reveals through Isaiah that God's word works in exactly the same way. It's natural. It does what it is supposed to do.  It's something that can be counted on. Just as natural as the seasons is God's word in the world. (If we wished to further the comparison, however, we could point to the fact that, with many of the droughts throughout the world, there is also the possibility that human intervention can thwart the work of God. Human beings have that ability to get in God's way, and make it harder for God to do the work that God had in mind. Sin can hamper the flowering of God's kingdom.)
But the experience of the people of Isaiah's time would be that harvests happen. There is a rhythm to life that can be counted on. What is sown at one time is harvested at another.
Jesus uses the same image of seedtime and harvest, but adds to it the idea that it is precisely against all odds that the harvest is overwhelming. Despite the seed that falls along the path, and the seed that's eaten by the birds of the sky; despite the seed that falls on scant soil, and the seed that falls among thorns, there is still this amazing, bountiful harvest. Against all odds, the seed produces one hundred-sixty-or-thirtyfold.  The point of Jesus' story is the "against all odds" part.
Jesus uses this parable not to reveal the kingdom to just some of the people. He uses it because it reveals the kingdom to all of the people. Parables, far from being allegories, are examples that are taken from everyday life.  They are things that can be immediately seen and known. Every farmer, in hearing Jesus' parable, would instantly know what he is talking about. He would know from experience the difficulty of farming in the Middle East.  But he would also know the bountiful harvest that occurs "against all odds." It's the cycle of life that Jesus is pointing to, just as it was the cycle of life that Isaiah describes in the first reading.
This means that kingdom of God is not something that comes from the outside; it grows from within. It happens naturally; and, in this particular parable, it happens against all odds. The kingdom is not something that drops in out of the sky, but which happens naturally on the earth as God's word bears fruit abundantly.
The parable that Jesus tells in the gospel today was meant to encourage Matthew's community, as they awaited a coming of Christ which was apparently not imminent. It was meant to encourage a community that was experiencing the difficulty of living the Christian life in a world that seemed not to support the flowering of that life. It reminded the people of Matthew's community that the kingdom always occurs "against all odds."
The "explanation" that Jesus gives in the second part of the gospel is an explanation that is not needed when it comes to parables. Parables are self-explanatory. However, the further explanation might be considered what could be called a "first century homily" on a story that Jesus told. It pointed to what people were experiencing in the early Church: Although the seeds of the kingdom were sown in peoples' hearts, the presence of sin can hinder its development; or it might have no depth of soil and so withers after a time in the face of hardships; or it might be choked off by the distractions of life and never bear fruit. Those are situations that Matthew's community was no doubt encountering. It's how they read the original parable of Jesus in light of their own time.
We, too, must read the original parable of Jesus in light of our own time. We must look at the things that interrupt the cycle of seed-time and harvest as we confront the assaults on our environment. We must look at the things that make it more difficult for the word of God to flourish in our society, and the ways that we ourselves make that more difficult. 
But we must not lose sight of the point of Jesus' parable: that against all odds, there will be a bountiful harvest which cannot be thwarted by those things which would try to choke it off. For as Isaiah has told us: "Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come 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."
Adjunct Professor of Word and Worship