July 12, 2020
by Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Creighton University Theology Department - Emeritus
click here for photo and information about the writer

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 103

Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalm 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23 or 13:1-9

Praying Ordinary Time

Weekly Guide for Daily Prayer

Parenting Our Adult Children


We hear what we are prepared to hear. In this season of the spreading COVID-19 virus, when I am locked down with fellow elders, wondering what God wants of me, I discover that I have been prepared to hear this Sunday’s gospel -- and Isaiah, too -- in new ways. The setting begins with Jesus leaving a lake-side house, addressing crowds from a boat in “parables.” It is not clear, at first, what the sample parable is supposed to mean. Jesus speaks of seeds carried off by birds, scorched by the sun, choked by thorns, but then some of them take root in deep soil, yielding abundantly. What Palestinian peasants were to make of that, beyond the dramatic contrast between a series of unpromising beginnings and the abundant harvest, is hard to imagine. That catches some of my own puzzlement, as I imagine myself sequestered with fellow aging disciples and Jesus, contemplating the chaos (social, spiritual, economic, political, and ecological) that confronts us here and now.

The them-versus-us talk (crowd-outside versus us-inside) echoes my sense of being among disciples of Jesus (that is, privileged learners sitting at the feet of our Teacher Jesus) fits with being part of a group of privileged “companions of Jesus” (first called ‘Jesuits’ by our enemies) and echoes my feeling that I’m old enough to know better but I’m still full of questions for my Master. How does being quarantined in the house prepare me to prepare for resuming my call to continue Jesus’ mission if and when some kind of new normal follows? The disciples (collectively!) ask Jesus why he addresses the crowds in parables (a rather indirect way of asking, ‘What are you really getting at with all this farming talk?’).
Suddenly all my usual thoughts about this familiar parable of the Sower fall away, when Jesus says, “You already know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; it has not yet been given to them.” Then Jesus quotes Isaiah 6 to the effect that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in those outsiders:

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, hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts and be converted and I heal them.

Then comes an unexpected zinger, found not in Isaiah but only here in Matthew and in Jesus’ prayer in Luke 10:23-24,

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 hear what you hear but did not hear it.

It has become standard for some scholars to summarize this application of Isaiah 6 to mean that Jesus “punishes with parables.” What I heard in my prayer today is something else: that Jesus, imitating the indirect question of his disciples, is not so much condemning the outsiders but challenging the “insider” disciples. Having seen and known Jesus they were indeed blessed, but they had not been converted and been healed and so had not produced fruit because they still lacked interior understanding. They had not “taken it to heart.” This comports with what we hear about the disciples five other times in this gospel -- that they understand Jesus but have little faith when it comes to acting on that knowledge.

The composers of the Lectionary have done us a great service by including for this Sunday another passage from Isaiah, indeed a parable, Isaiah 55:11-12. Those two verses are a complete parable illustrating the prior four verses, 7-10, which are a call to for God’s people to change their ways: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” Then comes today’s reading,

For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not remain there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats,

So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it.

What better news could come to a group of puzzled, frightened, disciples self-quarantined with their prophetic Teacher, who has just informed us that we have already been given what we need for understanding, conversion, healing, and fruitful collaboration in Jesus’ mission? All we need is to wake up to who and what we have in Jesus our risen Lord and to ask our questions straight on. God help us.  

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