Lectionary commentary: sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary time, year A



READINGS

A reading from the book of Wisdom, 12:13. 16-19

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 86:5-6. 9-10. 15-16. R/. v.5

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 8:26- 27

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 13:24-43



Our Lectionary today takes us to chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel and there we are introduced for the first time to stories that he calls “parables”. The Greek word παραβολē (parabolē, parable) means “a comparison”, a story that is meant to throw light on some issue”. As used in our Gospels the word can mean any kind of metaphor that points to the meaning of something. While there are no parables in the Gospel of John, Mark, Matthew, and Luke offer many and, by and large, they have the same function in all three Gospels. They are meant to disclose the ways of God in the world. They disclose God’s objectives and the processes by which those objectives will be achieved.

While each parable makes an aspect of God’s intentions clear, overall the parables point in the same direction. They point to the destiny of humanity. They sign-post the future to which all creation is destined to reach in God’s good time.

So parables cannot be deconstructed or decoded into a splattering of directions. They point to a single destination. That is why parables are difficult. Great minds have dissected parables but the thing about parables is that they resist any kind of nit-picking. The parables all point in one direction but they enlighten every situation and in every generation because they ask those who listen to them to process their situation in the light of the direction indicated by each and every parable. Indeed, each parable seeks to subvert our illusions, upset our certainties, and destroy our pet projects. . Parables never start in churches, in convents, in presbyteries. They are secular stories: a sower went out to sow, a headstrong son went whoring; a Samaritan picked up a guy in a ditch. The next minute you are hit with an unimaginable demand, a burden of responsibility, a divine chain around your neck. Whether it s a one-liner or a long story, a parable has an insidious determination to upset you. Parables always set out to enlist you to do something that will disturb the even tenor of your way, as the poet said. But, in plain language, that means parables are a pain in the neck.



A reading from the book of Wisdom, 12:13. 16-19

There is not any god besides you,
Who cares for all things,
To whom you should have to prove
that you have not judged unjustly;
For your strength is the source of righteousness,
and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
For you show your strength when people
doubt the completeness of your power,
and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.
You are sovereign in strength
but you judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us;
for you have power to act whenever you choose.

The word of the Lord.

There are a number of books in the Hebrew Bible that are classified as Wisdom Literature. Three books, Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are included in the Jewish list of books and by churches of the Reformation. Catholic and Orthodox traditions include other books in this category, namely Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon.

Throughout the Middle East, from Egypt to ancient Mesopotamia, there was for many centuries, a tradition of reflection on “the meaning of life”, to use an expression that covers a wide area of speculation. There were books in praise of wisdom, books of proverbs that handed on traditional wisdom, books of instruction for princes and those employed in public administration, piles of advice on how to bring up your kids, and how husbands and wives negotiate the vocation of loving. Throughout the Bible, in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, one can detect the influence of this kind of human reflection. The thirst for human knowledge, for investigation into life’s great questions, fills these books. We can make a general judgement on this literature: humanity, not God, is at the centre of things. Basically one can say that Wisdom Literature in the Bible is at the crossroads where the meaning of life and the existence and purposes of God meet face to face.

Today’s first reading is taken from a book entitled The Wisdom of Solomon, though (apart from pinching the name to sell more copies?) it has nothing to do with King Solomon. It was written in Greek (not Hebrew) in Alexandria in Egypt, probably only a matter of a few years before the time of Jesus. Though it fits into the Greek culture that permeated much of the Middle East after the exploits of Alexander the Great, the Wisdom of Solomon reflects the concerns of Jewish culture and Jewish faith.

The book opens with a long meditation on the blessings of immortality, entirely a gift of God and the fate of the wicked when they come before the judgement seat of God. Chapters 11 to 19 deal with plagues that visit the enemies of God’s people. Our reading today reflects on the Saviour God who came to rescue the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt. The God who comes to rescue is a God who comes to see to it that God’s justice is being done. Though God is all-powerful, God’s power comes as mercy, mildness, and forbearance. As the Gospel today proclaims, there is hope for the flowers. Astonishingly, there is hope for the weeds, too.



Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 86:5-6. 9-10. 15-16. R/. v.5

R/. For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving!

For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.
Give ear, O Lord to my prayer;
listen to my plea for grace. R/.

All the nations you have made shall come
and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;

you alone are God. R/.

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love
and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me
. R/.

Psalm 86 is a begging prayer. It asks God to listen, to preserve, to save, to be gracious, to forgive, above all, to embrace with steadfast love, the love that endures forever. Such prayer is rooted in God’s own words spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai in the very same breath that God issued what we call the Ten Commandments:

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands …

Exodus 34:6

All the nations of the world will come to know this God. All humanity will experience the Presence of God, the only God to whom prayer may be made. The final lines of this great prayer spell out the identity of the God to whom prayer is made. The Lord God merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and faithful to promises made. All who call upon the Lord know who it is to whom they pray.



A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 8:26- 27

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

The word of the Lord.


The Father’s gardener is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is responsible for empowering people to be what God has in mind when they are conceived into the human family. The Spirit walks the way, ensuring that we walk in the sure and certain conviction that the way of Jesus is the pathway to God. The Holy Spirit keeps us aware that Jesus is the model for what we are called to be. As St. Paul tells us today,

… the Spirit helps us in our weakness.

The very first Christian document to be written and to become part of the collection of writings we call the New Testament was Paul’s First Letter to Thessalonians. In his opening sentences he assures his brothers and sisters that they are loved by God, that they have received the gospel of good news. But, as he tells us elsewhere, we are “vessels of clay” (II Corinthians 2:7). However, we are safeguarded by the power of the Holy Spirit and so we live “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (I Thessalonians 1:6).

We don’t know how to pray or what to pray for? Don’t worry. The Holy Spirit will take weak prayers to God, trimming and editing them into perfection. The Holy Spirit helps our weakness. Remember Paul is writing to Jewish people who have joined the Jesus movement and to new Christians who have come to God from paganism and are not familiar with the Jewish tradition of praying. So even if in doubt or ignorance, or even in dark moments, the Holy Spirit will hear our groanings and give them a depth and integrity that, as Paul suggests, prays God’s future into our present. Mary may have left Martha to do all the serving. For Paul, the Holy Spirit is in the kitchen of prayer before we get there, making sure that all that is done there is according to God’s recipe.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 13:24-43

[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds? ’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this. ’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them? ’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn. ’”


He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”


He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”


All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden
since the foundation of the world.

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good
seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law- breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Today’s Gospel reading offers three parables told by Jesus to the crowds, followed by an explanation of the weed parable. But this explanation is given in the house and to the select group identified as disciples. The difference between the audiences and between the locations needs attention but first we must deal with the weeds.


Tares, darnel, weeds

The Authorised Version of the English Bible of 1611, otherwise known as the King James Version, has tares sown by an enemy in the field of wheat. The Jerusalem Bible and the New Revised Jerusalem Bible opt for darnel. The Revised Standard Version, a child of the AV, opts for weeds and many modern translations follow its example. If you have an extensive vocabulary for something it usually means you have a problem. Think of all the words we have for “death”, many of them euphemisms that keep the subject at arms length. I like the phrase “tare and tret”. Do away with tare and you are left with the tret.


Weeds

A weed is a flower nobody loves. Gardeners who speak up for weeds are regarded as subversive elements in the tribe that digs and delves. Weed killers can be hired from supermarkets and even from garden centres: satisfaction guaranteed. But according to Jesus, God loves weeds.

God is the only horticulturist who tolerates weeds, the only one who waters with mercy and holds off the fire. In God’s garden, to be sure, there is hope for the flowers. But there is hope for the tares, too. Just remember what Jesus, the one entrusted with the care of God’s garden, declared to be the Master’s policy when it comes to garden management:

For [your Father in heaven] makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

See Matthew 5:44-45

For Chelsea flower people, there is an extra warning:

If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?

Matthew 5:46

There may very well be a fiery furnace. There may be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But if God declares in the matter of weeds that Jesus people must love their enemies, then God must do the same. To change the metaphor, if God’s policy is to be believed, there cannot be one law for the rich and another law for the poor, one law for the flowers and another for the tares.


Mustard seed

What Matthew’s text names as “the kingdom of God”, other writers in the New Testament speak of “the kingdom of God”. Matthew, as was the practice among his Jewish brothers and sisters, avoided using the word “God” and especially the word YHWH. The two phrases refer to the same reality.

While specialists insist that the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds, it is pretty small. The point is that when sown in God’s field it grows into the largest than all the other plants in the garden. It is a very caring plant, providing a home for birds of the air that may be in search of a family home for their vulnerable young.


Leaven

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven. In the parable of Jesus it is the woman of the house who is given responsibility for God’s flour. Through her ministry, the whole batch turns out well.


The Kingdom of Heaven

Many parables in Matthew are introduced by a routine formula:

The kingdom of heave is like …

The word kingdomoccurs 54 times in Matthew’s Gospel, most often in the phrase ”the kingdom of heaven”. In the four Gospels the word occurs 124 times. But in Paul, Mark, Luke, and John the phrase is ”the kingdom of God”.

Every day we pray the meaning of the phrase, thanks to St. Matthew. The “Our Father” we pray takes us to the heart of the matter:

Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.

Matthew 6:10

The word “kingdom” in this phrase does not refer to a place. It does not refer to heaven. If I type it this way, hopefully things will become clear.

Thy kingdom come = thy will be done on earth.

The hope of the prayer is that the will of God be done on earth according to God’s prescription. We pray that everything that God intends and hopes for the full wellbeing of humanity may be done on earth. God demands that all creation conforms to all that God intends. That will happen. The destiny of creation will be accomplished when creation conforms perfectly to God’s creative intention. According to our prayer, we need daily bread, we need forgiveness; we humans need to be strengthened to face and overcome the testing that threatens our resolve to conform to God’s will. Above all, we need to be delivered from all that is evil so that we may be totally transformed into God’s glory.

All the kingdom parables reveal what God’s intention and how that intention makes its way against all that is evil, all that resists the godly purpose that brought creation into being. The mythological story in the opening chapter of our Bible declares that everything that was brought into being was very good. The Genesis story imagines that creation is destined to be brought to that “very good” expressed in the story. The imaginative story tells that “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good”. What the story imagines is not the beginning of creation but its destiny. When God brings creation to its destined perfection, then it will be “very good” because it will be filled with the goodness of God.

We learn from the mustard seed parable that the creation of humanity’s perfection is a slow business. But it will happen.What we learn from the leaven is that the gradual work of leavening the world into obedience is a quiet and hidden business. It takes time for the leaven to coax the dough into wholesome bread. Speaking to the heart is always a work of tender patience.

In the business of tare and tret, of weed and grain, what we learn is that the owner who sowed good seed, only to be confronted with the destructive weeds sown by an enemy, will overcome the enemy’s doing. Sinners will be given time to grow into holiness. Nothing can prevent the advent of harvest time. The angels will come and reap what God has sown. On that day the righteous will shine.

Christians need to realise that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is not the Church. The Church is not the seed in the world that brings creation to magnificent glory. The kingdom is God’s business. It is God’s will that will be done on earth. The Church is a servant, even a slave, commissioned to assist in proclaiming the Presence of God as a creative visitation of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. The Church must not think it has collared the market on what is God’s unique determination to see humanity safely home.


Prophecy and Parables

This little paragraph (13:34-35) serves as a transition between the sermon delivered from the prow of the boat to a private discussion in the house with disciples.

Jesus uses a sentence from Psalm 78:2, though with a great degree of liberty, to explain why he spoke to the crowds only in parables. The impression given is that parables are meant to conceal and not to reveal. The words of the psalm are,

I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.

Psalm 78:2

Obviously the text of the psalm points to the clarity of God’s words. Matthew alters the text to infer the obscurity of God’s words addressed to the crowds. But that is not the impression given by the whole of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus constantly proclaims his message to the crowds. But it is noticeable that when Jesus came to the Mount of Olives “most of the crowds” spread their cloaks” as Jesus rode on the donkey (Matthew 21:8). “A great crowd with swords and clubs” came to Gethsemane to affect the arrest. It is the crowds who choose Barabbas and who shouted “Let him be crucified”. Yet the very last sentences of the Gospel insist that the gospel of God must be preached to all the nations, a task given to just eleven disciples who went to meet Jesus on the other mountain.

The quotation may have attracted Matthew because it speaks of parables and Matthew can insert the quotation as another instance of Jesus fulfilling words spoken by the prophets since Jesus, like them, went about teaching in parables. Of course, one might point out that “the prophet” did not speak the quotation. However, Matthew regarded the whole of the Bible of the Jewish people as everywhere containing the utterances of God. If it is a mistake, you keen readers can point to Matthew 27:9 where he makes the same mistake.

Throughout the rest of Matthew’s Gospel we will meet many more parables. Most of them begin with a reference to “the kingdom of heaven”. While the parables in Matthew’s Gospel have not achieved the fame of those in the Gospel according to Luke, they speak of the final victory of God over all that resists God’s determination to embrace humanity into an eternity of peace. Taken all in all, the parables of Jesus told in Matthew’s Gospel point to a future that belongs to God.


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.