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Speaking in Parables

The readings for Sunday, July 16, 2017, Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; and Matthew 13:1-23.

This Gospel selection begins a series of three Sundays on the 13th chapter of Matthew. This chapter is the third of the five great sermons of Jesus which Matthew constructs from oral and written tradition for the catechetical needs of his Christian Community. Matthew begins, “On that day Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea.” The “house” is the home of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew and their extended family. This home was located in Capernaum, on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee. This was Jesus’ “home’ and headquarters during his ministry in the province of Galilee. By this time Jesus was drawing large crowds. He needed a place from which he could address the crowd. Therefore he got into a boat, but the crowd stood along the shore. A standard form of teaching among the scribes was through parables. A parable can be a short or long story or simply a saying that makes comparisons and teaches a lesson. So Matthew writes, “And he spoke to them at length in parables.”

The parable of the sower and seed follows. We have to imagine a primitive way of sowing grain. The fields were small, perhaps surrounded by stone walls, with briers, weeds, and foot paths along the walls. Stones were collected from the field and piled up on the side. Thus the parable speaks of seeds falling on a path, others on rocky ground, still others among thorns. It was a very inefficient way of farming. Some seeds did land on rich soil and produced a crop (“fruit”), depending on the fertility of the soil — 30%, 60%, 100%. Jesus often ended parables with these or similar words, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” What this statement means: “Go, figure out the meaning for yourself.” Parables were often intended as a kind of puzzle to prompt hearers to solve the puzzle and apply it to themselves.

Before Matthew interprets the parable, he creates a sidebar. The disciples of Jesus want to know why he speaks to the people in parables (puzzles?). The Matthean Jesus gives a rather confusing answer, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.” A probable meaning in the context of Matthew: The privilege of understanding these mysteries has been given only to disciples, that is, to Christians. This saying may recall from last Sunday’s Gospel, how Jesus thanks his Father for hiding these things from the learned and the philosophers, “and revealing them to the little ones.” We have a remnant of this thought in the release of catechumens from the liturgy before the Creed. They have not been initiated into the mysteries.

Another confusing statement: “To anyone who has, more will be given, and he will grow rich. From anyone who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.” Sounds like “The rich get richer, while the poor get poorer,” or capitalism gone wild. But the Gospels are not a blueprint for economic theories. A possible solution: If a disciple, with even a little faith, opens herself to be taught to understand God’s plans for salvation, her faith will grow ever deeper. In contrast, a disciple with little faith who closes the door to being taught a deeper understanding of God’s plans, that disciple (Christian) can lose even the little faith she has.

Next Matthew gives another reason why Jesus spoke in parables (at least from Matthew’s point of view): “This is why I speak in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” This saying seems to contradict the earlier statement about revealing the mysteries only to the insiders. All the more so, because Matthew copies this saying from the Gospel of Mark, but with a significant change. Mark wrote that Jesus spoke in parables in order that the people who heard them would not understand. This may not have made sense to Matthew, so he changes Mark’s “in order that they would not understand” to “because they did not understand.” Thus Matthew now is saying that Jesus spoke in parables because that was the only way people would get it.

Finally Jesus blesses his own disciples because they have the privilege of hearing and seeing him. Such a sentiment is echoed in 1 John 1:1-2, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen, looked upon and touched with our hands, the word of life….” Think Eucharist here, and we have almost the same privilege! An explanation of the parable of the sower follows, and this must be left to the homilist or the individual reader.

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