Scripture and the Liturgy

Cultivating the Seed: 15th Week of OT

Ordinary Time focuses on the growth of the Church.  I would prefer we called it “Extraordinary Time,” because there is nothing ordinary about the Second Person of the Divinity becoming en-fleshed in our presence through the Sacrament.

Be that as it may, the Readings for this Lord’s Day are clearly united by the motif of sowing the seed of God’s Word.

1. The First Reading (Isa 55:10-11) is one of the earliest passages in Scripture where an explicit analogy is drawn between the natural cycles of agriculture and the fertility of God’s Word:

Reading 1 Is 55:10-11

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.

Isaiah chapters 40-55, often called “Second Isaiah,” demonstrate perhaps a greater continuity of theme and literary idiom than any other major section of the book.  These chapters can be repetitious, and the reader will find the same theological claims repeated frequently with only small variations in phrasing.  The argument of these sixteen chapters can be summarized as follows:  There are “good tidings” for the people Zion: they should forget the “former things,” because the LORD their God, their Redeemer, is doing a “new thing” for them.  He has redeemed them and will lead them back to Zion from all the places they are exiled in a “new exodus” along a “highway” that he will create for them.  Zion, whom God has born from the womb, will be gloriously restored, adorned like a bride prepared for presentation to her husband, the LORD.  Although she was previously barren, bride-Zion will suddenly find herself to be the mother of numerous children.  Zion and all Israel may have confidence that all these things will come to pass, because the LORD their God is the creator of all things, unlike any other gods, and has proved his power by foretelling the course of history and then fulfilling his predictions.  The Word of the LORD is effective and unfailingly brings about whatever it declares.  (In contrast, it is futile to worship idols, which have no power, but are only the work of men’s hands.)  God’s plan of redemption for Israel and Zion will be carried out in a particular way by the “servant of the LORD,” who embodies Israel, yet has a mission to restore Israel and call the nations to the LORD, as well.

         The lengthy discourse of comfort to Zion (chs. 40-55) concludes with an invitation for the thirsty and poor to come to a meal provided free of charge by the LORD, a meal that will enable them to enter into the Davidic covenant, experiencing in some way the blessings of David (Isa 55:1-3).  Now is the opportune time to seek the LORD and accept his invitation (55:4-9).  The LORD’s promises are sure, for his word accomplishes its purposes (55:10-11); his people shall go forth from their captivity in a joyful new exodus (55:12-13).

         Our First Reading is the part of this conclusion that affirms the efficacy of God’s Word.  This is a great comfort to God’s people: How can we know that God’s good promises will come to pass?  “Look,” says the Lord, “The words I speak are as effective as the rain that falls from heaven. Just as rain cannot fall on the desert without creating a bloom of wildflowers, so my word cannot go forth without changing the world.”

         This is a great comfort to believers who live in this world full of evil, confusion, and unfaithfulness.  What is to keep us from despairing in the midst of our daily struggles in a world that rewards evil and punishes good, that publicizes filth and promulgates it everywhere, where there seems to be no hope for the salvation our children and grandchildren in the sea of vice that is “modern culture”?  God’s Word still stands as an effective beacon.  It can change hearts and whole societies.  This should lead us to study it, meditate on it, memorize it.  It is the only “Good News” in a world of fake news and propaganda.

P.  The Responsorial (Psalm 65) is a hymn of praise to God for the goodness of creation, particularly the seasonal rains which bring abundant food to the people of Israel:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14:

R. (Lk 8:8) The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
R. The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows,
breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
R. The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
R. The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.
R. The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

Psalm 65 is a Zion psalm, a song giving thanks to God for the blessing of Jerusalem/Zion, the holy city and capital of the people of God.  Book II of the Psalter (41–72) has a concentration of important Zion psalms, as in some ways this book reflects the glory of David and his great city, especially the final Psalm of this book, which glorifies the golden reign of Solomon.

         The natural environment envisioned appears to be the hill country of Judea, which surrounds Jerusalem.  The Church’s placement of this text in combination with the other readings clearly encourages the perception of a spiritual sense in this text: ultimately the gift of water from God is the Holy Spirit which waters the seed of the Word in the soil of our hearts, bearing fruit for eternal life.  The Church is the New Jerusalem and its environs, a “fertile land” that responds in grateful fruitfulness to the downpour of the Spirit.

2.  The Second Reading is a striking passage from Romans whose full implications are usually ignored:

Reading 2 Rom 8:18-23

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 first fruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

St. Paul asserts that there is a real and not just metaphorical connection between the children of God and the creation itself.  All things in creation tend toward decay, a principle related to the concept of entropy.  In Christ, the child of God has been set free from the inevitability of decay.  Not only do we participate in eternal life, but our bodies themselves will one day be restored and transformed.  St. Paul anticipates that this same principle will at last be applied to the creation itself: “the creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption.”  So the resurrection of the children of God is the first step in the transformation of the cosmos. 

St. Paul’s use of the term “firstfruits of the Spirit” is particularly striking.  The Feast of Firstfruits was part of the ancient Jewish liturgical calendar:

Lev. 23:9   And the LORD said to Moses,  10 “Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land which I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest;  11 and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, that you may find acceptance; on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it.

The “morrow after the Sabbath” was the day after Saturday, that is, Sunday.  Which Sunday?  The Sunday after Passover.  Therefore, by one way of reckoning, Our Lord rose from the dead on the Feast of Firstfruits, which, as St. Thomas would say, seems fitting.  St. Paul was doubtless aware of this fact, and for his Jewish readers it would add “punch” to his description of believers as “the firstfruits of the Spirit.”

A good co-text to Romans 8:18-23 is John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  The Christian is conformed to the Seed of the Word.  Just as Christ the Word came to earth, and was planted in the ground through death, but rose as the Firstfruits on the third day, so the Christian, too, will finally be “planted” but will rise again.  This applies also in a spiritual sense to our daily lives as Christians, which involve countless contradictions, frustrations, humiliations, sufferings, and even persecutions—some at the hands of fellow members or even leaders of the visible church.  All these little “deaths” we must accept in order to become the soil that brings forth “a hundred, sixty, or thirtyfold.”

G. Finally, the Gospel is the Parable of the Sower, Matt 13:1-23:

“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 know this parable and its interpretation very well, so only a few comments are in order. 

First, observe that, while we cannot apply strict mathematical percentages to this parable, it does clearly suggest that only a minority of those who receive the Word are going to become fruitful through it.  This is an important reminder in our efforts at evangelism and apostolic work.  Sometimes the problem is not with our presentation or technique—there are simply those who do not want to receive the word for whatever reason. 

I had a friend in seminary who was convinced that when his Christian rock band achieved the right “sound,” they would convert his whole generation. 

It doesn’t work like that.  We can and should seek effective means of outreach, but there is not some “trick” that is going to cause a majority of our contemporaries to receive the Gospel.  Our Lord was able to perform miracles in plain sight to confirm his preaching, and still did not convert the majority of his contemporary Israelites.

This is not an excuse for laxity in outreach—which is a major problem in the American Catholic Church.  However, it is a reminder to keep our expectations realistic.  Laboring in the fields of the Lord is a lot like actual farming, which does not have many shortcuts and requires a lot of continual hard work.

The majority of those of us in the pews this Sunday do not need to worry about being the “seed on the path” or the “seed on the shallow soil.”  If we were that kind of seed, we probably wouldn’t still be coming to Mass to hear this Gospel proclaimed.

No, the majority of us need to watch out for the third soil: “Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.”

This is where so many church-goers end up.  It is not that they “die”—if you look at Jesus’ explanation, the seed among thorns does not die, it just becomes “unfruitful.”  In the same way, so many of us show up for worship each week, but in our private lives are living a cleaned-up version of the same rat race the rest of the culture has bought into.  We want our ranch-style in the suburbs with 2.5 kids and a two-stall garage just like the Jones’s, except we vote pro-life.  Where is the personal apostolate?  Are we doing anything to bring others to eternal life?  Where is evidence that we are living this life with the Next Life in view?

If there is no spiritual fruitfulness in our life—if others are not coming to Christ or getting closer to him through our witness and our lives—then we have to make an examination of conscience concerning whether we are actually living as disciples of Jesus. In the explanation of the parable, Jesus focuses on two specific things that choke the Word of God in our lives and prevent it from being fruitful. 

First, “worldly anxiety.”  In Greek this is hē merimnē tou aiōnas, literally “anxiety of the age,” but the meaning would be clearer in English if we said, “the anxiety of this present age,” that is, the worries associated with this passing life.  And oh, don’t we have many things to be worried and anxious about: the climate, nuclear proliferation, rogue states, elections, censorship of Christians, soft and hard persecutions, wars, epidemics, the stock market, rampant drug use, crime, and on and on goes the list.  Anxiety can choke the Gospel in our lives by making us fearful, and thus unable to preach the Good News.  What if someone knocked on your door and said, “I’ve got the greatest news for you that you’ll ever hear!”, but his face was worried and his legs were shaking in fear.  Wouldn’t you want to ask, “If you have such Good News, why aren’t you happy yourself?  Why are you shaking in fear?”  This is true of ourselves, when our neighbors and co-workers hear us constantly discussing the news pessimistically, foretelling woes and disasters to come, always expressing worry and consternation.  Where is the light of the Good News in that?  That is why, earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, in his fundamental sermon that provides the framework for his whole message (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus included a long section on not worrying:

Matt. 6:25-34  “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on … And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? … Therefore do not be anxious … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

I’m very sympathetic to those who suffer anxiety conditions, and such things can be very complicated and involve body chemistry issues, etc.  Some require therapy.  Nonetheless, the basic issue is that worry involves a defect of faith.  God forgives, and can forgive us this defect, but we should struggle against it and make a stronger act of faith, and pray for more faith.  Moreover, to worry, so far as it depends on our will, is actually an act of disobedience.  “Not to worry” is a direct command of Jesus.  When we worry, we are outside his will, in the territory of disobedience.  Of course, much of our worry is involuntary, and we would gladly be rid of it if we could, therefore it is not a sin, but a failing or weakness.  Nonetheless, let us use the means to overcome: prayer, meditation on Scripture, the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconcilation, and spiritual direction.  Perhaps also therapy or the reading of books by authors who are both holy and competent in the field of psychology.  We want to be rid of this impediment that will keep us from spiritual fruitfulness.

Secondly, Jesus mentions, “the lure of riches,” or more literally, “the deceitfulness of riches,” hē apatē tou ploutou. The word apatē has the sense of something that is deceptive in the sense of having a superficial or apparent attractiveness that turns out to be illusory or false.  Jesus also teaches about this in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matt. 6:19   “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, wheremoth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  

Jesus clearly says, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” But in Western countries—at least at the moment—the great threat to spiritual growth among Christians is the constant allure of a culture of comfort and ease.  We become more worried about our 401K than about life forever. Entertainment, food, vacations, hobbies, and many other pleasures are so cheap relative to our earning power that it is easy to justify self-indulgence with slogans like, “God wants us to be happy!” and “I deserve it!”  Well, actually, none of us “deserve it”—what we really “deserve” is hell, but God has offered us salvation.  And yes, “God wants us to be happy,” but our happiness is not to be found in possessions and physical pleasures—these are fleeting and end up leaving us empty and unsatisfied after a momentary “high.” 

How many of us Christians lose sight of the fact that our lives are called, first of all, to be witnesses of the Good News!  We become absorbed in making money, watching sports, eating good food, or pursuing hobbies, and expect to be saved because we have avoided some of the more obvious sins: “I’ve never shot anybody!”  This is not the lifestyle of a disciple of Christ. 

Let us pray in this Mass that we may become “weeded” soil: soil emptied of all the passions and lusts that would compete with the Word of God bearing fruit in our lives.  Let us pray to bear fruit a hundredfold!

4 comments

  1. Thank you. As I was reading I thought I’ve heard this before but the explanation gives me a reason to look at my life and see what I NEED to change.

  2. Dr. Bergsma, could you comment on Matthew 13:1-2? More specifically, I recall you once mentioning how Jesus sitting in the boat on the sea, while the crowds gathered around him to hear the word of God, referred to the verse of a psalm which says something to the extent that the Lord alone has the power to teach while seated on the waters. I was just wondering if you could point me to the Old Testament text you might have been referring to, if my memory serves me correctly. Thanks a lot!

    1. It’s a reference to Psalm 29:10, “The LORD sits enthroned upon the waters,” but the reference is much clearer in Mark’s parallel Mark 4:1, where it says literally “he embarked on a boat and sat in the sea.” Matthew’s phrasing doesn’t highlight the connection as dramatically.

Leave a Reply to Robbie Simon Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: