In theological terms, a mystery is not something unknown and about which we can know little or nothing. Rather, in the realm of faith, a mystery is something we know because God has revealed it. This is important because of the question Jesus was asked by his disciples after telling the “large crowds” the Parable of the Sower: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” The Lord did not reply by saying, “I teach them in parables in order that they will better understand my message.” No! He says the opposite. He teaches them in parables so that his meaning is harder to for them to grasp.
Despite our understandable tendency to oversimplify Jesus’ parables, it would be foolish to assert his parables always served to make his teaching less clear. In context, the Parable of the Sower in Matthew’s Gospel has to do with Jesus distancing himself more and more from those Jews who refused to see that he is the one who fulfills the purpose for which they were chosen. It is safe to assume that the author of Matthew conceived of the large crowds as exclusively Jewish. In other words, these are the people who should’ve looked and seen; who should have heard and understood, but they did not. Only the small band of disciples, who were themselves Jews (Matthew is a Jewish Gospel written for a mostly Jewish Christian community), heard and understood, looked and saw. Contrary to the paintings we often see, which depict Jesus with a golden halo or surrounded by an aura of light, it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer during his public ministry that he was the Son of God in the flesh.
In our first reading from Isaiah, taken from a section of the book designated Deutero, or Second Isaiah, written during the Babylonian exile, we heard that God’s word accomplishes what God wants to achieve by speaking it. While this may sound like a trite bit of wisdom to us, such an assertion would’ve seemed dubious to many of the Jews to whom it was originally proclaimed. Why? Because they were exiles in Babylon, displaced from the land God promised them. No doubt to many of these exiles God’s purposes seemed to be frustrated, if not thwarted, by Israel’s conquest. In addition to taking much of the population of Judah into exile, the Babylonians also destroyed the first Temple, an event from which ancient Judaism never recovered.
Of course, what God set out to accomplish is accomplished in and through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. As with Israel’s exiles and his Son’s Incarnation, God’s purposes are accomplished in mysterious ways. By “mysterious,” I mean counter-intuitive and usually contrary to our preconceptions. God does not use the means of worldly power to accomplish his purposes. It is often the case that we hear and don’t understand, look and don’t see because we don’t hear and see what we expect or want. We are disheartened when God does not carry out our plans. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but God, as we the cliché has it, writes straight with crooked lines.
Our wanting to dictate to God both ends and means is not only true with regard to how God works in the world, but is especially true when it comes to how God works in our own lives. What today’s readings ask us to do is to examine our own hearts with respect to God’s word and ask ourselves, what kind of soil am I?
Looking at the four kinds of soil onto which the seed is sown, I want to focus on the second and third kinds because I believe these are most relevant to us. Too often we are content with an infantile faith. This is a faith that holds God is pleased with me when things in life are going my way. Conversely, this kind of immature faith also holds that when the going in life gets tough it is the result of God being displeased with me. Sooner or later someone who believes this will either mature in faith, which means realizing that God’s disposition towards her never changes, or, as is the case in the Parable of the Sower, lose faith altogether. We can be confident, to quote St Paul, “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). How can you know you are called according to God’s purpose? This is the call you received when you were baptized. God is faithful because God is love.
We can also become too wrapped up in things that can never satisfy us, spending all of time and energy trying to get ahead, taking one more vacation, purchasing one more luxury, etc. Living like this often creates heavy burdens, like debt, fatigue, the gradual disappointment of the law of diminishing returns, which refers to the point at which the level of satisfaction you derive from something is less than the amount of money, time, and energy you invest in it. This often leads to those afflictions so common to late modern life in Western societies: stress, anxiety, depression, even existential despair, which is life-threatening. Too often we refuse the invitation Jesus issued in last week’s Gospel, to find our rest in him. As with tribulations and persecutions, being overly concerned about or wrapped up in maintaining one’s own material well-being can cause someone who has heard and responded to “the word of the kingdom’ to fall away.
What leads to strong, well-rooted, well-nourished faith, or, stated differently, happiness and fulfillment? I think our second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans goes some distance towards answering this question. It is by experiencing life’s trials and tribulations, which the apostle likens to a woman experiencing labor pains. Experience is how we verify that what we believe is true. What Paul is pointing to in this passage is our rebirth in baptism. Baptism is our passage from the already to the not yet of God’s kingdom because it restores us to the state of original grace, which is characterized by communion. Therefore, Christians are people who strive to live the not yet of God’s reign, which will be fully established when Christ returns.
An effective way to test the soil of your soul is by meditating on the central paradox of being a Christian, of what it means to be someone who hears and understands, who looks and sees. In St Matthew’s Gospel, this is found a few chapters on from today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus tells us:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26)