The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 55:10-11 + Romans 8:18-23 + Matthew 13:1-23
If there’s one part of Sunday Mass that gets overlooked, it is the Gospel Acclamation. This sentence or two that’s sung before the Gospel Reading, in between the Alleluia being sung, is very brief. Because it occurs when people are still standing up and finding their place in the missalette, its words often escape our notice. But as a way to start reflecting upon today’s Gospel Reading, consider what today’s Gospel Acclamation declares.
“The seed is the word of God, Christ is the sower.”
That certainly helps us understand the parable that Jesus preaches in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus, through this parable, is describing Himself and His mission on earth. But at the same time, this Gospel Acclamation raises a question.
Since Jesus is God, and since God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why is Jesus such a bad farmer? According to the parable, on this occasion, his batting average was only .250. Jesus sowed seed on a path and it was eaten by birds, He sowed seed on rocky ground where the soil had no depth, and He sowed seed where there were thorns that choked what actually did grow. Only the last section grew to abundance.
So is Jesus a bad farmer? Our instincts, of course, tell us that the answer is “No. Jesus is not a bad farmer.” But if that’s the case, how do we explain the fact that Jesus’ labor as a sower failed three times more often than it succeeded?
The short answer is that this parable is not chiefly about the sower. The chief focus of this parable is the variety among the sections of soil where the seed is sown. This focus is apparent in the explanation that Jesus gives at the end of today’s Gospel passage. In the last five verses of the passage, Jesus does not spend any time describing either the sower or the seed. Instead, He explains what was wrong with those first three sections of soil, in contrast to the fourth.
So while it’s helpful to learn from the Gospel Acclamation that the “seed is the word of God,” and that “Christ is the sower”, we have to give our chief focus to what Jesus tells us about these four sections of soil.
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If we wanted to complete today’s Gospel Acclamation by identifying what exactly soil symbolizes in this parable, then we would acclaim: “The seed is the word of God, Christ is the sower, and the soil is the human heart.”
The soil is the human heart. Jesus alludes to this in His explanation of the first bad section of soil: “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.” That explanation builds upon what Jesus had said just a few moments earlier, when answering His disciples’ question about why Jesus spoke in parables. Jesus quoted the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who lamented: “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” [see Isaiah 6:10].
This is the center of today’s Gospel passage: not its center in the sense of its midpoint, but in the sense of being the essence of what Jesus wants you to take away from today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah answers not only the question of why Jesus preaches in parables. Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah also answers the question of whether Jesus is a bad farmer.
Why does Jesus sow seed on the impenetrable path, on rocky ground, and on ground covered with thorns? One way to reach the answer is to be clear about the difference between the human heart and physical soil. If physical soil is covered with thorns, studded with rocks, or hardened into a path, the physical soil cannot change the situation. But the human heart, into which Jesus sows the seed of God’s Word, is different.
Jesus sows the seed of God’s Word into human hearts that are inhospitable because the human persons who bear those hearts have made their hearts like that. But those same human persons, with the help of God’s grace, can clear away the thorns, dig up and haul off the rocks, and plow under the path so that their hearts will be capable of bearing abundant harvests.
To put it another way, Jesus sows seed on the impenetrable path, on rocky ground, and on ground covered with thorns because He loves each of us more than we love ourselves. We choose to be those persons described by the prophet Isaiah. We choose to be those persons who stop their ears, close their eyes, and refuse to understand with their hearts. But Jesus wants us to see, to hear, to understand, to be converted, and to be healed.
To put it yet another way, Jesus sows prodigally because He loves each of us more than we love ourselves. Jesus speaks to this point in His Sermon on the Mount:
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? … You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Matthew 5:44-46,48].
As God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good; as He sends rain upon the just and the unjust; so also He sows seed into hospitable and inhospitable hearts, hoping that the inhospitable will co-operate with His grace.
Without God’s grace, our hearts are the impenetrable path, the rocky soil, and the soil covered with thorns because we do not love as God loves. But strengthened by His grace, we can love as He loves. God gives us that grace through all of the sacraments, but especially through the Sacrament of Confession.
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Unfortunately, the Sacrament of Confession is often not appreciated fully. We know that through Confession, God forgives our sins. But it’s often overlooked that Confession confers other graces in addition to the grace of forgiveness.
The Catechism lists all the graces that God gives to the penitent in Confession. Yet maybe the most important among them is “an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle” [CCC 1496]. This grace especially is why we ought to make a sacramental confession at least once a month, even if we don’t have any mortal sins to confess, but only venial sins.
So the Catechism explains that one of the graces that God gives in Confession is “an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle”. But what is one of hardest parts of “the Christian battle” if not forgiving those who have hurt you? One of the graces that we receive through Confession strengthens us to forgive in a Christ-like manner those who have wronged us.
The person who devoutly receives the Sacrament of Confession receives along with absolution the grace that strengthens one to forgive others in the same way that Jesus forgave on the Cross. Too often, when we’re faced with the need to forgive someone, we choose to forgive, but only half-heartedly. But God wants us to forgive those who have wronged us not half-heartedly, but whole-heartedly: in fact, with the sort of love that Jesus gave from His Sacred Heart to those who crucified Him. The Sacrament of Confession strengthens us with that kind of love, so that we can show that kind of love to others. When we do this, our hearts become like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and are ready to bear God’s harvest one hundred-fold.