Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 10, 2011 – St. John’s
During the Church year, the first biblical reading is chosen in function of the Gospel, while the second reading, usually from an epistle of St. Paul, offers the preacher another theme to consider. Today the Gospel parable of the sower is prepared by the lovely passage from the prophet Isaiah which compares God’s word to a seed watered by rain and nourished by the earth, a word that never returns empty to God but accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent. The relationship to the Gospel parable is obvious enough: the seed the sower sows is, Jesus explains, the word of God.
One scholar, however, the former Anglican bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, sees an even closer link between the two passages. The words of Isaiah are part of the promise that God held out to Israel while it was in exile. The word that went out from God was the promise that Israel would embark on a new Exodus, this time from Babylon, which would be followed by a restoration in Israel that would be like a return to Eden: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress, instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
For this scholar, Jesus’ parable evokes the memory of this promise. He is the one who is sowing the seed that is God’s unfailing word, and his announcement of the coming Kingdom proclaims that what God promised in Isaiah is being realized in his ministry and in his person. This may not be apparent because the seed needs to fall upon good soil in order to take root and to produce its abundant root. There were many in whom his word was not taking root, who did not recognize him and his message for what they were. But there were those who did so recognize them, and in them God’s word would be surely and abundantly fruitful.
It was not some general truth, then, that Jesus was trying to inculcate in the parable. He was talking about the ability of his hearers to recognize the moment in which they were living. He spoke in parables in order to press this question upon his hearers, to involve them existentially in the question. The others, he tells his disciples, look and look but never see, listen and listen but never hear, and in this they fulfill another prophecy of Isaiah. To the disciples, however, he can offer this blessing: “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see and did not see it, longed to hear what you hear and did not hear it.” What the prophets and holy people of the Old Testament could only hope to see in the future, the disciples of Jesus were now witnessing. Scholars cite a late Jewish text that had spoken in wistful terms of that blessed future when the Messiah would come: “Blessed shall be those born in those days, to see the good things of Israel, when God brings about the gathering of the tribes.” The hoped-for restoration of Israel was underway, Jesus was saying, and blessed were those who recognized it as it was happening.
The early Church seems to have adapted this parable to its own situation, and used it to explain why it was that the seed of the word so often did not take root in hearts and minds. This is what we find in the explanation offered of the details of the parable, with each of the kinds of soil explained in terms of people who either do not receive the word or abandon it at the first sign of difficulty or opposition. Even so, there are always people in whom the seed proves fruitful beyond all expectation.
Every generation of Christians since then lives under the challenge of the blessing that Jesus speaks today. The Apostle John described his own efforts in words that echo it: “What we have seen and heard we declare to you so that you may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship is with God and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” The apostles were sowing the word that Jesus himself had sowed, and posing the same challenge to those who heard them as he had to those who heard him. The Church in any generation is the result of that proclamation, as we are today; and everyone of us faces the challenge of deciding how deeply this blessed word will root itself in our hearts and minds. And that in turn will determine how successful we will ourselves be as we take up the task of sowing the same word in and to our world. We gather here in thanksgiving that God has blessed our eyes to see what they have seen and our ears to hear what they have heard. Now it is our turn to tell others what we have seen and heard so that they may have fellowship with us, in the communion of life we have been given to share with God and with his Son, Jesus Christ, to whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.