Jul 15, 2017

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: "Making it fertile and fruitful"

"Whoever has ears ought to hear"

Is 55: 1-10
Rm 8: 18-23
Mt 13: 1-23

There is a familiar saying that I think we’ve all realized at times: “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”  That’s not a riddle or a phrase meant to confuse but rather a truth we all “know.”  I distinctly remember being reminded of this early in the Seminary by one professor who gently but firmly reminded us that we were not theologians but rather “students of theology.” If we come to any classroom or even a career after many years feeling overly confident about our abilities and knowledge, we may severely find ourselves at a disadvantage.  If we can say, “I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know,” then I think our Gospel this Sunday provides us a fertile opportunity for growth. It’s not only good advice for education but also perhaps even better for our Christian life in the Spirit.

So we hear today a very familiar parable of Jesus about birds, sun, weeds, and rich dark soil which produces an abundant harvest.  Along the Sea of Galilee, from a boat floating a short distance from the shore, Jesus teaches a very eager crowd gathered to hang on his every word. But, we really don’t know who was there or what exactly they were hoping for: another miraculous healing? More bread and fish? Maybe some were suspicious of his teaching and were there to catch him on it – as happened other times. Or are they really there to listen to what Jesus has to say?

What does he teach them?  He teaches with a very common method using somewhat poetic imagery in an intriguing story.   This a about a rather wasteful farmer who simply scatters seed in all directions as he walks along,  That “sower” could only hope that some of that seed would grow somewhere but likely is aware that the birds are hungry, the day is hot, and well weeds have a mind of their own.  This wasn’t the fertile plains of the Midwest or the seeming rich soil of this beautiful valley we live in where it seems you stick anything in the ground and it grows.

The land of ancient Israel was a tough place to grow crops generally.  Although the area around the Sea of Galilee was more fertile than the rocky desert south, many people still looked to that Lake on which Jesus was boating to make their living. It calls the listeners to stop and think or maybe some simply laid back and admitted that Jesus’ agricultural advice was perceptive.

As in all the parables of Jesus, they challenge us to interpretation and reflection.  The mysteries of the Kingdom of God which Jesus uncovered, and the work of God’s grace in our lives, is at play here.  The deeper truths of faith and growth cannot be simply put forward for the crowd would not understand. So parables offer concrete images that aid us. And the key to understanding may be that key phrase Jesus uses at the end of the parable which causes us to pause: “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.”  It’s a kind of other way to say, “Listen so that you may understand.” Hear what? How much do I realize I don’t know and how open am I to learning more?

The reaction of the disciples may be a surprise. After the parable is preached they pull Jesus aside when they have a chance and essentially admit, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” In other words, they admit as well, “We don’t get it either. These stories and riddles may confuse them." While Jesus does remind the disciples that they are fortunate to understand and hear what the crowds don't comprehend, still he recognizes their openness to receive more.  They are blessed to see and hear the inner mind of Jesus in a way the crowds do not, but the full mysteries are yet to be absorbed. So, here is where the seed planted can grow.  They readily admit, “We don’t know this – we don’t fully understand.” So, their soil is neither rocky nor ready to become bird food! The seed of curiosity and a receptive heart has been planted in their now prepared soil.

Open and receptive, they seek to understand and Jesus further explains the meaning of his images in the story. Like the rich soil which produced an excessively abundant harvest, anyone whose heart is open with ears eager to hear is the kind of ground we need to bring before the Lord.  “The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.”

What Jesus implies in this and other parables is that God gives his grace liberally to everyone without distinction.  As the parable implies, and Jesus teaches the same in other places, God spreads his seeds of faith and love far and wide. The problem is not with God but with our soil at times.

Do I find that the responsibilities of this world have become so oppressive that my faith is simply an afterthought?  Have I stubbornly become accustomed to certain prejudices I carry or am I so attached to my own self-interests that I feel I have a “know it all” attitude?  I often smile at people who come across as more Catholic than the Pope!

Maybe I find I am too attached to certain addictions or behavior that I know is choking off my spiritual growth. Or maybe I can be like the disciples who readily admitted their own ignorance and came to the Lord with an open and receptive mind.  Our first reading from Isaiah this Sunday provides some confidence that the parable of Jesus this Sunday is to be taken seriously.

Isaiah also uses earthy images of rain and snow and fertile ground along with seeds that grow.  He speaks of God’s word, his grace, the word of Christ himself who is the true Word of God as not being deterred.  No matter what soil is found, God’s intention will not be stifled. He will continue to sow the seeds of his grace that all might come to know him.  But in the end, it really is up to us to cooperate with this divine sower.

What makes anything grow well?  We need to do more than just plant a seed or a bulb in the ground as we hope for the best.  It takes a combination of factors and great effort and patience:  proper soil, the right amount of moisture, enough sunshine, maybe some good food for the plant and the result is often success.  If anyone of those factors is limited or too much, the crop is poor.  I think Jesus implies the same in the parable.

The story is about faith and our own reception of the Gospel message.  For those who hear the word of God preached and live it out convincingly, the harvest of a rich community of faith is produced.  For those who simply put no effort into the seed of faith they have received, the growth will be poor if at all.  In the end, we are all sowers and preachers of the Word.  St. Dominic saw this truth as he essentially commented that the whole Church preached the Gospel when the whole Church lived the Gospel.  The Gospel is not only spoken it must also be lived.  That is where the rich and fertile soil is found.

So, how much do you think you know?  How open and receptive is our soil to allow for further growth?  What do you still hunger for or have you become bird food or withered in the sun? So, read the Bible, pray, learn about your Catholic faith, do good for others and your soil will be ready.

In gathering for the Eucharist, we must come before this divine sower who is searching for receptive soil.  Here we hear his Word, we receive his Body and Blood and we feed our personal soil to keep it fertile but also to use what we do know to not only hear the Gospel but to live it. 

“Lord, I still don’t get it all.”  Are you ready to learn more?  

O God, who show the light of your truth
to those who go astray, 
so that they may return to the right path, 
give all who for the faith they profess
are accounted Christians
the grace to reject whatever is contrary
to the name of Christ
and to strive after all that does it honor. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God. for ever and ever. 

(Opening Prayer (Collect) of Mass)