This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 13:1–23:
On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them.
“But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”
How many people would sit through murder mysteries if the real killer was revealed in the first five minutes? What about books that start with the ending and then go into everything that led up to it? A few of those examples exist, of course, and when they’re well done, they manage to keep us engaged for the long haul. Even those examples, however, usually have a few curveballs along the way, which transform what we first read into something entirely different with that context.
Today’s reading offers us one of the most famous of all Christ’s parables, The Parable of the Sower. There is much to glean from that, pardon the pun, but the long version of today’s reading asks an even more potent question and reveals more about our nature than perhaps the parable itself does. (Some may have only heard the short reading at Mass, which stops after “Whoever has ears ought to hear.) The disciples heard parables often enough to wonder why Jesus employed so many of them in his teaching, a question that has echoed in hearts ever since: why not just come out and speak the truth plainly?
Christ gives a direct answer to this question, one that speaks to preparation and capability for discernment in the audience. The disciples have been granted the grace to hear the Word directly, but not everyone has been so anointed. Jesus quotes Isaiah, whose words describe the human condition then and pretty much ever since. We are too often closed off to truth and love, and so wrapped up in ourselves, that hearing it plainly simply doesn’t work. To use the parable’s own terms, it’s just as useful to toss seeds on the path or rocky ground; it won’t take root.
What this does not address is the history of the Word in humanity. In the beginning, God lifted up Adam and Eve and embraced them in close communion to Himself. He only had one commandment, which was to obey Him — to follow His leadership on right and wrong, good and evil. He delivered that commandment in direct terms. And yet Adam and Eve desired to replace God with their own judgment on good and evil and become His equals, the original sin which remains a part of humanity to this very day.
When the Lord sent Moses to rescue the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, He went before them and performed miracles to complete the rescue. He then carved ten commandments on stone for them to follow — just ten, and in very direct terms. That didn’t exactly work either; before Moses could even come down from Sinai, the Israelites had molded the Golden Calf as an idol to replace the Lord.
Between then and Jesus’ ministry, there followed a constant succession of prophets who offered direct rebukes to the Israelites and later the Judeans. When they strayed from their mission to be a nation of priests to convert the world, the prophets routinely warned them of the Lord’s wrath and coming catastrophes. That didn’t work well either; they either ignored the prophets or chased them away, or worse.
Direct commands don’t work well with human beings, it turns out. Nor does that match what the Lord has in mind for our salvation. Of course the Lord could bend us to His will by command if He so chose, but that would not be love. It would be slavery, and a denial of the free will that makes us human. The Lord does not need or want servants forced into His service; He wants loving children who come to Him because that is what they want.
Thus, Christ leaves us the parables to teach us about the Father’s love for His children. This is the way to unlock human hearts, which Jesus understood only too well. People need to come to the truth on their own terms, in ways that allow us to truly integrate it into our beings. Jesus does not storm the doors of our will; He gently knocks and waits for us to gather the wisdom and will to open them ourselves.
Earlier today — yes, I went to an early-morning Mass — our priest offered a homily with a completely different focus, but he mentioned his favorite “go to” scripture, Revelation 3:20. It reads:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.
He also mentioned the painting “The Light of the World,” a detail of which is our front-page image. It depicts Christ knocking on the door, with a lantern in hand, waiting for an answer. The darkened door in the middle of a forest is covered in vines and weeds, but our pastor noted that the most significant feature of the painting is what is missing from it — a handle. The door can only be opened from the inside. This represents the human heart, and Christ’s gentle knock — which can be seen from the positioning of his hand — is what the parables are. They are the gentle knock on our hearts, and Christ awaits our decision to allow Him to enter and reveal the truths in that same personal communion Adam and Eve rejected.
This is the heart of the mysteries. We can only unlock them by unlocking our hearts and allowing the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. Once we do that, the meaning of all these parables unfold for us and teach us just how much God loves us. He loves us so much that He is willing to wait as long as it takes for us to answer that gentle knocking.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt, c. 1854. Currently on display in the side chapel at Keble College, Oxford, UK. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.