Fifteenth Sunday In Ordinary Time
MATTHEW 13:1-23 (Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23)
In composing his gospel Matthew constructed five major discourses or sermons he attributes to Jesus. Matthew’s concern is to present Jesus as the new Moses based on Deuteronomy 18:15-18, where we find these words, “The Lord God will raise up a prophet like me. Listen to him!” The original “prophet like Moses” was Joshua, his successor. The ultimate “prophet like Moses,” and the ultimate Joshua is Jesus. Tradition assigns to Moses the first five books of the Old Testament. These books as a group are called “the Torah,” that is, the teaching. We Christians know this as the Pentateuch, that is, Five Scrolls. To Jesus as the new Moses the author of Matthew’s gospel therefore also assigns five scrolls or sermons to Jesus.
The first of the five discourses was the Sermon on the Mountain, chapters 5-7. As Moses brought God’s revelation from a mountain, so Jesus delivers to the new People of God his revelation from a mountain. Matthew’s second major discourse attributed to Jesus con-sists of the Missionary Instructions of chapter 10. This corresponds to some degree to the Book of Exodus, as the apostles are sent out on their first mission. In this Sunday’s liturgy we come to the third of the great discourses – the parable chapter. Jesus leaves the house (the home of Simon Peter, Andrew, and extended family) “and sat beside the sea.”
The traditional posture for a teacher was to be seated. But a teacher needs an audience, so Matthew adds, “And great crowds gathered around him, so that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.”
A parable, a word derived from the Greek verb to throw against each other, is a compari-son. It usually contains a single teaching or idea. The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke use the Greek word paarbole 48 times. Teaching by parable was a common form of teaching among scribes of Jesus’ time. A parable can be very brief, such as a proverb, or it can take the form of a longer story, like the story in the gospel reading of this Sunday. A farmer goes into the field to sow seed. Some of the seed fell on the path winding through the fields. Birds found the seed quickly and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground with only thin soil over the rocks. After the seed sprouted, the sun scorched it because it had no deep roots to draw moisture. Other seed fell among briers. When it sprouted, it was suffocated by the briers. Some seed fell on good soil and produced grain in various yields – 100%, 60%, 30%. The speaker of the parable did not always provide an explanation, but ended with a statement similar to the one with which Jesus ended this parable, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” Meaning: You figure it out.
Whether or not Jesus provided the explanation we have in Matthew’s gospel, we cannot know. The explanation may have evolved through repeated use of the parable for instruc-tion of the Christian community. But before the explanation Matthew inserts a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. They asked him why he speaks in parables. The answer seems strange indeed, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” The answer seems to refer to disciples of Jesu or, in Matthew’s time, to Christianity as a whole, as some kind of minority cult in which only the initiated share the genuine teaching, while outsiders are left ignorant. Matthew depicts Jesus quoting from Isaiah 6:9-10 to support the division between insiders and outsiders which includes a deliberate intention of leaving outsiders outside.
Matthew is writing his gospel in the eighties of the first century. Mark wrote about the year 70. Matthew copies widely from Mark but when he disagrees with Mark’s theology, he changes Mark’s text. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is portrayed as saying that he speaks in parables precisely so that outsiders will not understand him. Apparently this seems nonsensical to Matthew. Therefore he changes the whole tone of this devastating passage by changing Mark’s “so that they will not understand” to “because they do not understand.” While Mark teaches that Jesus speaks in parable to keep people from under-standing, Matthew’s Jesus spoke in parables because they did not understand. For him, the parables simplify Jesus’ teaching so that anyone could understand him. Why did Mark write such a devastating statement? This is the year of Matthew, Cycle A, so a defense of Mark must be left for the Marcan Year, Cycle B.
Jesus blesses his disciples, as Matthew blesses his Christian community, because they have the gospel proclaimed to them. Ancient prophets and good people desired this but did not attain it. The rest of this gospel reading is taken up with an explanation of the parable of the sower and the seed. In a parable there is usually one lesson. The lesson of this parable in the simple form in which Jesus must have spoken to his hearers was clear, “You be the good soil on which the Word can fall and prosper!” The explanation included in this reading extends the parable into an allegory – each element of the parable now represents some form of openness (or not) to the proclamation of the Good News. Every Christian who hears the parable hopes to be the good soil, “who hears the word, understands it, and bears fruit….”