JULY 16TH, 2017: FIFTHTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Thus says the LORD:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return 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;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
Brothers and sisters:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing
compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
For creation awaits with eager expectation
the revelation of the children of God;
for creation was made subject to futility,
not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,
in hope that creation itself
would be set free from slavery to corruption
and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
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."
We often forget that the oracles of individual prophets which have been collected into the books bearing their names weren’t transcribed in the order in which the original prophets chronologically delivered them. The prophecies have been artificially – and carefully - arranged by the prophet’s disciples who actually collected and “published” them, often years or generations after their mentor’s death. By that time, events had frequently taken place which altered the way those followers both looked at and presented the prophet’s words.
Even today we still engage in such “up-to-date” alterations. Perusing the classic movie channels, I can’t help but notice when the actress Nancy Davis appears in pre-1952 movies, the credits almost always list her as “Nancy Raegan,” a name she didn’t have until after her 1952 marriage to the future president. On the other hand, Jane Wyman – Ronald Raegan’s first wife who wasn’t fortunate to become the country’s First Lady - is always listed as “Jane Wyman,” no matter in what movie she appears!
After his martyrdom, Deutero-Isaiah’s followers not only saved his consoling statement about the power of Yahweh’s word, they deliberately placed it at the chapter 55 end of their collection of his prophecies. Though the Babylonian Exile had ended around 530 BCE and they were finally permitted to return to the Promised Land, much of what their mentor had assured them would happened had still not seen the light of day. Those longed-for events continued to be buried in the words the prophet had proclaimed. Yet they, like he, were convinced once Yahweh’s words had been spoken it was only a matter of time before they would take effect. “For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth . . . so shall my (Yahweh’s) word be that goes forth from my mouth . . . .” Eventually it will “achieve the end for which (Yahweh) sent it.”
Placing this oracle at the end of their collection makes it both a sign of their faith in Yahweh’s word, and a reminder that God’s disciples are committed to this faith thing for the long run. The years of water that passed unfulfilled under their life’s bridge had convinced them of that latter reality. They couldn’t have better summarized their experience of waiting.
Jesus’ first followers had parallel experiences. In today’s second reading, for instance, our earliest Christian biblical author, Paul, shares some of his insights about waiting “for the redemption of our bodies.” The Apostle is convinced it’s not enough that we’ve personally been transformed by our dying and rising with Jesus, we want the whole world to undergo the same metamorphosis. It’s no accident his letter to the Romans is one of his last writings. Paul’s been waiting for a long time. No wonder he states his belief “. . . that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.” It certainly hasn’t been a peaceful wait.
Our gospel pericope provides us with a classic example of an “original” parable of Jesus (verses 1-9) which has later been “allegorized” by the early Christian community and applied to a situation the historical Jesus never encountered - people giving up the faith (verses 18-23). The historical Jesus seems to have originally told this story to those who accused him of wasting his time preaching God’s kingdom. Though they point out almost no one will ever follow through on what he’s teaching, he has no plans to stop. He’s convinced the few who actually do carry out his words will produce “a hundred, or sixty or thirtyfold.”
The wait for God’s word to be fulfilled is always worth it, no matter what’s happening in our lives.