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God's Word is Never Spoken in Vain

July 10, 2017
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
In verse 10 of today’s first reading from chapter 55 of the prophet Isaiah, we read: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater…” Rain may seem lost when it falls on a desert, but even still it fulfils some purpose of God. So too when the Gospel word falls on a hard heart, it sometimes brings about change in one’s life; if nothing else, it leaves people with no excuse.
Not only does Isaiah compare God’s Word to rain, he also compares it with snow – something else that is often underappreciated for what it really does. Snow’s main purpose is far greater than simply providing coating for ski hills, raw material for making snowmen, and necessary covering for snowmobile trails. Its main purpose, like that of rain, is to provide water and moisture for the earth so that plants and trees are able to live and grow.
Every time snow and rain come down, they always provide a very necessary ingredient: moisture for the germination and growth of seeds planted in the earth. They never cease to accomplish their purpose. In verse 11, we see that God’s Word, like the rain and snow that come down from heaven, always accomplishes its intended purpose: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” What faith, patience, and perseverance are required to accept this truth!
Patient endurance in steadfast expectation
In today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:18-23), Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to the believers. As it shares in the penalty of corruption brought about by sin, so also will it share in the benefits of redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God’s people (8:19-22). After patient endurance in steadfast expectation, the full harvest of the Spirit’s presence will be realized. On earth, believers enjoy the first fruits (i.e., the Spirit) as a guarantee of the total liberation of their bodies from the influence of the rebellious old self (8:23).
Understanding the meaning of “parable”
The word “parable” is used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew mashal, a designation covering a wide variety of literary forms such as axioms, proverbs, similitudes, and allegories. In the New Testament “parable” primarily designates stories that are illustrative comparisons between Christian truths and events of everyday life. Sometimes the event has a strange element that is quite different from usual experience (e.g., in Matthew 13:3 the enormous amount of dough in the parable of the yeast); this is meant to sharpen the curiosity of the hearer. As figurative speech, a parable demands reflection for understanding. To understand is a gift of God, granted to the disciples but not to the crowds. In Semitic fashion, both the disciples’ understanding and the crowd’s obtuseness are attributed to God. The question of human responsibility for the obtuseness is not dealt with, although it is asserted in Matthew 13:13.
Structure of Matthew’s Parable of the Sower
Let us take a closer look at the structure of Matthew’s sermon in parables (13:1-52), which is the structural centre of his Gospel. The parables offered by Matthew serve as a varied commentary on the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees in the two preceding chapters. The whole discourse in parables is the third great discourse of Jesus in Matthew’s account and constitutes the second part of the third major section of the Gospel. Matthew follows the Marcan outline (4:1-35) but includes only two of Mark’s parables. The other five are most likely drawn from the unknown “Q” source that Luke and Matthew share and from Matthew’s special collection of stories. In addition to the seven parables, the discourse gives the reason why Jesus uses this type of speech (13:10-15), declares the blessedness of those who understand his teaching (13:16-17), explains the parable of the sower (13:18-23), and of the weeds (13:36-43), and ends with a concluding statement to the disciples (13:51-52), comprising what could be considered an eighth parable.
Sowing with abandon
To Jesus’ Galilean listeners who were close to the earth, the image of sowing seeds (Matthew 13:1-23) was a very familiar one. Today’s parable is startling on several accounts. First of all it portrays a sower who is apparently careless. He scatters the seed with reckless abandon even in those areas where there is virtually no chance for growth. The first seed that falls on the path has no opportunity to grow. The second seed falls on rocky ground, grows quickly, and dies as quickly. The third seed falls among thorns and has its life submerged by a stronger force. Finally the fourth seed falls on good soil and produces fruit – to astonishing, unknown, and unthinkable proportions. The normal harvest in a good year might be sevenfold, but never thirty or sixty, much less one hundred! The life-bearing potential of the seed is beyond imagination! The final yield is earth shattering! In the end, the parable portrays the sower as lavish and extravagant rather than foolish and wasteful.
In the explanation of the parable (13:18-23) the emphasis is on the various types of soil on which the seed falls, i.e. on the dispositions with which the preaching of Jesus is received (cf. parallels in Mark 4:14-20; Luke 8:11-15). The second and third types particularly are explained in such a way as to support the view, held by many scholars, that the explanation is derived not from Jesus but from early Christian reflection upon apostasy from the faith that developed as a consequence of persecution and worldliness respectively. Others, however, hold that the explanation may indeed come from Jesus even though it matured in the light of later Christian experience. The four types of persons envisaged are: (1) those who never accept the word of the kingdom (Matthew 13:19); (2) those who believe for a while but fall away because of persecution (13:20-21); (3) those who believe, but in whom the word is choked by worldly anxiety and the seduction of riches (13:22); and (4) those who respond to the word and produce fruit abundantly (13:23).
In no other instance does Jesus take such great pain to explain a parable than in this one. Too often this parable has been used to emphasize what happens to the seed – carried away by the devil, dying from a lack of roots, choked by the cares and wealth and pleasures of this life. How often have we considered the lavishness and generosity of God – throwing the seed in every direction? Jesus’ explanation clearly shifts the accent from the seed (the word), which was the focus of the parable, to the person who hears it (the soil). In so doing, he brings to the fore God’s extravagant generosity with the word.
God’s Word shall be accomplished
However God wishes to dispense the Gospel, it shall be accomplished. His words are never spoken in vain, and never fail to produce the effect that he intends. Though it may seem that the Gospel often falls on barren rocks, or on arid sands; on extended plains where no vegetation is produced, or in the wilderness “where no human is,” where it seems vain in our view, we know that this is not so. The words of the Gospel often fall on hard and barren human hearts.
The message of Jesus is addressed to the proud, the senseless, the avaricious, and the unbelieving; it may seems to be spoken in vain, and to return void unto God. But it is not so. It is part of his provident design, which cannot but be accomplished. This is proof of the fullness of his mercy, in which God leaves people without excuse, and justifies himself. Or when presented apparently in vain, ultimately becomes successful, and brings sinners at last to abandon their sins, and to turn to God.
The Gospel is indeed often rejected and despised. It falls on the ears of people as the rain falls on hard rock, and there are, so to speak, large fields where the Gospel is preached that are as barren and unfruitful of any spiritual good as the extended desert is of vegetation. At times the Gospel seems to be preached to entire communities with as little effect as when the rains fall on vast, arid desert. In spite of some failure because of opposition and indifference, the message of Jesus about the coming of the kingdom will yield enormous success. Though the Gospel may not immediately produce all the good fruits and effects that we may desire, it will ultimately be successful in accordance with the full wish of the widest benevolence, until the whole world is filled with the knowledge and the love of God.
Allowing the Word to take root in our lives
This week, may the Word take root in our lives. If we allow it to penetrate beneath the surface, we will begin to find ourselves, and find the areas of ourselves which seemed lost or broken, abandoned or forgotten, “unplugged” or “turned off” to the transforming power of God. Together let us pray these words of St. Albert the Great:
Let me leave behind my old life, so that the seeds of your Word won’t be eaten up by the birds of frivolous thought, or choked out by the thorns of worry.
Give me a soft heart full of humility and joy, so that I will be good soil and bring forth fruit in patience.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; and Matthew 13:1-23.]
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