15TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-9
The third and last section of the Book of Isaiah is the source of the first reading for this weekend.
This reading was composed when pious Jews easily could have become disillusioned and uncertain in their devotion to God. For decades Jews exiled in Babylon, the capital and center of the once powerful Babylonian Empire, longed to leave the pagan environment of this great city, in present-day Iraq, and return to their own homeland.
At last, as ancient political fortunes changed, these Jews were allowed to go back to their ancestors’ homes. Upon returning, however, they found no “land flowing with milk and honey.” Life was hard. Difficulties were many. For so long they had dreamt of leaving Babylon for security, order and peace in the Jewish land, yet they instead found destitution and misery. God had spared them, but for what?
Certainly many were angry with God. Also most probably the author of this third section of Isaiah was one of several, or even many, prophets who reminded them that God’s work must be their own. God had freed them, but they had to create a society of justice and prosperity.
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans supplies the second reading. Written to the Christians of Rome about two generations after Jesus, Paul refers to their “sufferings.” The legal and political systems in the empire were turning against Christianity. It was a time on the very threshold of persecution.
The law aside, the culture of the Roman Empire in the first century stood directly opposite the values of the Gospel.
The Apostle consoled and challenged the Roman Christians. He reminded them that sin ultimately enslaves humans, demeaning them and robbing them of freedom. Sin disorders creation itself, so creation “groans” in agony.
Jesus is the Redeemer. He gives true freedom to people. This freedom opens the way to peace and eternal life, despite any hostility or chaos all around.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the last reading. It is the familiar parable of the farmer who sows seed in different places, some conducive to growth, others not. Similar passages occur in Mark and in Luke. It is in the Synoptic tradition.
A great crowd awaited Jesus. As are people everywhere at any time, these people thirsted for the truth and insight that only God gives.
Almost certainly, everyone was a Galilean, and therefore of rural backgrounds and circumstances. The imagery of a farmer, and the sowing of seed, was easily understood.
Agriculture still often is a game of chance. It was all the more so when Jesus preached in Galilee. Hot days easily scorched seeds that fell on shallow soil. Birds and pests were everywhere. Weeds suddenly appeared. Here and there was good soil, able to receive the seeds and produce a yield.
The message is clear. God sows the seeds in our heart. We must be humble enough to receive God’s word. As an aside, here again in the Gospels the disciples had privileged access to Jesus. They question the Lord about the technique of speaking in parables. Jesus explains that parables assist in understanding great mysteries. Jesus explains this parable. He prepares them for their future role.
A saint once said that Christians should pray as if salvation depended solely upon God and live as if salvation depended solely upon their own virtue.
The first step to being redeemed is to be humble enough to admit the need for God. The second step is to be humble enough to live according to God’s word, not by personal human instincts or hunches.
We all are in the story of this parable. We may rely only upon ourselves. If so, we are not truly free. Humble turning to God alone frees us, alone produces reward.