Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The third and last section of the Book of Isaiah is the source of the first reading for this weekend.
This reading was composed when pious Jews easily could have become disillusioned and uncertain in their devotion to God. For decades, Jews exiled in Babylon, the capital and center of the once-powerful Babylonian Empire, longed to leave the pagan environment of this great city (coincidentally in present-day Iraq) and return to their own homeland.
At last, as ancient political fortunes changed, these Jews were allowed to go back to their ancestors’ homes. Upon returning, however, they found no “land flowing with milk and honey.” Life was hard. Difficulties were many. For so long, they had dreamed of leaving Babylon for security, order and peace in the Jewish land, yet they instead found destitution and misery. God had spared them, but for what?
Certainly, many were angry with God. Also, most probably, the author of this third section of Isaiah was one of several or even many prophets who reminded them that God’s work must be their own. God had freed them, but they had to create a society of justice and prosperity.
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans supplies the second reading. Written to the Christians of Rome about two generations after Jesus, Paul refers to their “sufferings.” They indeed suffered. The legal and political systems in the empire were against Christianity. Persecution was real and fearful.
The law aside, the culture of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. stood directly opposite the values of the Gospel.
The Apostle consoled and challenged the Roman Christians. He reminded them that sin ultimately enslaves humans, demeaning them and robbing them of freedom. Sin disorders creation itself, so creation “groans” in agony.
Jesus is the Redeemer. He gives true freedom to people. This freedom opens the way to peace and eternal life, despite any hostility or threat all around.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the last reading. It is the familiar parable of the farmer who sows seed in different places, some conducive to growth, others not. Similar passages occur in Mark and in Luke. It is in the Synoptic tradition.
A great crowd awaited Jesus. As are people everywhere, at any time, these people thirsted for the truth and insight that only God gives.
In all likelihood, everyone was a Galilean and therefore of rural backgrounds and circumstances. The imagery of a farmer, and the sowing of seed, was easily understood.
Agriculture often is a game of chance. It was all the more so when Jesus preached in Galilee. Hot days easily scorched seeds that fell on shallow soil. Birds and pests were everywhere. Weeds suddenly appeared. Here and there was good soil, able to receive the seeds and produce a yield.
The message is clear. God sows the seeds in our heart. We must be humble enough to receive God’s word.
As an aside, here again in the Gospels the disciples had privileged access to Jesus. They questioned the Lord about the technique of speaking in parables. Jesus explained that parables assist in understanding great mysteries. Jesus explained this parable. He prepared them for their future role.
A saint once said that Christians should pray as if salvation depended solely upon God and live as if salvation depended solely upon their own virtue.
The first step to being redeemed is to be humble enough to admit the need for God. The second step is to be humble enough to live according to God’s word, not by personal human instincts or hunches.
God sows the seed of faith and grace in our hearts, but we ourselves make ourselves fertile ground by repenting, reforming and willingly accepting God. This humble turning to God brings us life.
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