EZEKIEL 18:25-28. PHILIPPIANS 2:1-11 MATTHEW 21:28-32
In the gospel today, we see Jesus in open conflict with the chief priests and the elders. He was teaching in the temple when they publically challenged him. “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority.” Jesus stood up to them with a counter challenge. “I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things. Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or human origin?”
They couldn’t say that John’s baptism was from God because they didn’t accept John’s message. If they said he wasn’t from God the people would have turned on them because John was considered a prophet by the people. They tried to save face by an+swering, “We do not know.” So, Jesus didn’t answer their question either Instead, he went on the attack by asking their opinion on a situation.
“A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They didn’t hesitate to answer, “the first.” Then he publically clobbered them. “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom before you! When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet, even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe in him.”
Even though Jesus was in conflict with the religious leaders, he didn’t hate them. He was making “good trouble.” Yes, he was challenging them; but with the challenge came an invitation to experience a deeper life. The religious leaders were stuck meticulously following the letter of the law without attempting to discover the spiritual dynamic behind the law – love of God and neighbor.
There’s a great deal of tension in the story Jesus spun. He’s telling the religious leaders that their relationship with God is sterile. They’re expending their lives following laws that they
think will make them righteous before God. Jesus is telling them that’s not enough. They have to get their hands dirty. They have to work in the vineyard of the Lord. Today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians defines that challenging work.
“If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, and participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”
Thinking that meticulously following religious laws will guarantee a place in the kingdom of God is incorrect thinking. In his struggle with the religious leaders Jesus was trying to teach them that they must accept the messy challenge to love.
Jesus is inviting them, and us, to love – to live in harmony with one another – to be compassionate – to be humble and to consider the needs of others before our own. This is the work of the vineyard. This is the doorway to the kingdom of God.
ISAIAH 55:6-9. PHILIPPIANS 1:20C-24, 27A MATTHEW 20:1-16A
In the first reading today Isaiah tells us, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him when he is near.” This is a perfect one-sentence com- mentary on the Gospel passage.
Jesus is describing a familiar scene in this par- able of the workers in the vineyard. In late Septem- ber, during the grape harvest, landowners were al- ways desperate for workers. The grapes came to maturity shortly before the October rains. If the harvest wasn’t brought in before the rains began everything would be lost. Landowners would go to the marketplace to hire as many of the unemployed and migrant workers they could in order to get the harvest in as fast as possible.
Slaves and house servants were much better off than these day laborers because they could rely on their masters to feed them and care for their fami- lies. The day-laborers were on their own. They were the lowest paid in their society, about two dollars a day. Their existence was always precarious.
In the parable, the landowner went out at 6 am, 9 am, noon, 3 pm and 5 pm. The work day ended at 6 pm. At the end of the day the landowner gave each man the same pay, two dollars. He was very generous, but at the same time it seems unjust to pay the all the workers the same. What’s the teaching be- hind the parable?
The vineyard is ready for harvest. Within these grapes the kingdom awaits its manifestation – the wine of peace and harmony, of joy and love. God, the landowner, is inviting anyone and everyone to help collect the harvest, even if it’s only an hour.
As Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near.” God is reaching out to us every minute of every day to join his work force. Are you ready to help manifest the kingdom of God on earth?
My heavenly Father, I pray to you today to
heal and transform the suffering world we have created. I offer myself to you as a poor worker committed to gathering your harvest. May your new wine be put into new wineskins so that your kingdom may manifest itself in a new world where your will may reign as in heaven. Thank you for feeding me with your daily bread that I may remain strong as I labor to harvest your vineyard. And so it is. Amen.
ISAIAH 22:19-23. ROMANS 11:33-36 MATTHEW 16:33-36
he first scripture reading in the Sunday liturgy is chosen to compliment the Gospel passage. This week, it’s taken from the prophecy of Isaiah. It announces the downfall of Shebna, King Hezekiah’s comptroller. Isaiah tells him that he will soon be replaced by Eliakim. “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.”
Today’s Gospel recounts Simon’s profession of faith in Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because of his insight Jesus awarded him the keys to the kingdom of heaven and changed his name. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The two accounts use the image of keys. Peter is given the keys to the king
dom because he’s a man of faith and recognizes the truth about Jesus; he is the Christ. Shebna has the keys of the palace taken from him because he’s corrupt.
Both accounts initiate a time of change. Simon, the loyal disciple and man of faith, has his name changed to Peter designating the new role he is to play in the kingdom. Shebna, the corrupt and grandiose comptroller of the palace who colluded with the Assyrians against Judah, will be divested of his position. The keys will be taken from him and given to Eliakim, an honest, loyal and virtuous man.
Both passages deal with revelations. Peter is revealed as the future leader of the Church who is given the power to forgive sin. Shebna is revealed as a thief and a traitor and will have his power taken from him and given to another.
Both of these passages aren’t difficult to understand. Shebna is deeply corrupt and pays the price for his treachery. Peter is a good man and receives a good man’s reward, the keys to the kingdom of God.
I could reflect on Peter as the rock. I could reflect on the power Peter was given to forgive sins. I could reflect on the nature of Shebna’s corruption – grandiosity, thievery and treason. But I find that, since the beginning of the pandemic in March, I’ve been tending to look at the scriptures in a different way. I look at them through the lens of prophecy because I think we’re in a prophetic moment. Sometimes prophecy comes through the voice of an oracle like Isaiah. Sometimes it comes through the interpretation of events or reading the signs of the times.
No one can ignore the epidemic that has turned our entire world upside down. Millions of people have fallen sick and hundreds of thousands have died. The economic impact of the pandemic has been devastating and is deepening. So many people are hurting. So many are questioning why this is
At least two things are happening. The pandemic is revealing the dark truth of our socio-economic-political dysfunction. Our healthcare system is showing its systemic inequality. Our national economic safety nets, like unemployment compensation and social security help just enough to keep the poor, poor. The pandemic is calling us to renew and revamp our social and economic structures. It’s revealing the impotency of our politics. It’s calling out our corruption. It’s giving us a chance to change.
At the same time it’s revealing our primary strength: the tenacity and selflessness of good people everywhere. Think of the multitude of our heroic front-line workers, the doctors and nurses, the EMS workers, the personal attendants, the postal workers, the train and bus personnel, the cleaners and janitors, the delivery persons, the supermarket workers, the meat packers, the teachers. They’re the rock our society is built upon and yet, tragically, many of them are the lowest paid workers in the nation.
The scriptures today speak of keys. In one case the keys to a new world were awarded to the man who saw the truth. In the other case the keys were taken away from a corrupt man who feels himself above the truth.
Looking at this moment in our history as a prophetic moment, I see the pandemic as a catalyst calling us to change and reform our society. There has been too much suffering in the world. It’s not the world God created. It’s the world we created. We’re being challenged to open our eyes to the truth – to be brave and courageous and to take all the political, economic and social steps necessary to make the world a better place for every person. Only then can the keys to the kingdom of light and truth be offered to us. Only then can we be awarded the keys to “a new heaven and a new earth.”
ISAIAH 56:1, 6-7. ROMANS 11:13-15, 29-32. MATTHEW 15:21-28
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus leaves Palestine and withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. A Canaanite woman begins to follow him, calling out over and over again, “Have pity on me Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” It’s noteworthy that this
pagan woman is addressing him as the Messiah, the Son of David!
He ignores her, but she’s persistent! When the disciples ask Jesus to send her away he reminds them that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Having said that, he should have sent her away, but he didn’t. Instead, he
tells her that, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” This sounds so unlike Jesus to us. But the word Jesus uses for dogs is playful, not insulting. A better translation would be doggies, tiny lap dogs!
The woman picks up on his ironic joke. “Please Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall form the table of their masters.” Impressed by the depth of her faith, he instantly cures her daughter.
In this dark time of national populism when even Christians silently tolerate our government locking up brown children in cages because “they’re not one of us,” this passage is particularly poignant.
In the society Jesus lived in, the world was clearly divided, “them and us.” This divide was dictated and enforced by the religious leadership. It’s clear that Jesus didn’t follow these populist traditions so engrained in his society. He traveled outside of Palestine, cured many Gentiles and even praised the depth of their faith as witnessed in the passage today. He regularly suffered attacks from the religious right for his position. Eventually, they had him executed.
Today, let’s think about the “them and us” phenomenon tragically deteriorating the ideals on which our country was founded. This scene with Jesus and the Canaanite woman compels each of us to question to what extent I might have bought into the them-and-us dynamic? What must I do to permit Jesus to begin healing this situation? How can I be part of the remedy?
Lord Jesus, Son of David, you healed the Roman Centurion’s slave, the Samaritan leper, the Gerasene demonic. You offered eternal life to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. I beg you to heal my heart and the heart of my country. Cleanse the stains of racism and privilege from my mind and heart and soul. Give me the strength to suffer as you suffered when you reached out to the foreigner and the outcast. Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.
1 KINGS 19:11-13A. ROMANS 9:1-5 MATTHEW 14:22-33
The fourteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which we conclude today, is perhaps the most emotionally charged chapter outside the Passion Narrative. Let me recap the progression of events beginning with the conclusion of chapter thirteen that ends with a sad and disturbing scene. Jesus is rejected by the people of his home town, Nazareth. They see his healings. They listen to his preaching. But because of their familiarity with Jesus and his family they were strangely put off by him. They asked, “where did this man get all this?” In fact, their lack of faith in him was so deep that “he did not work mighty deeds there.”
Chapter fourteen immediately picks up and intensifies the darkness. It begins with Herod’s “profession of faith” in Jesus. This may seem like a contradiction, but think of the times demons address Jesus as the Son of God. It often seems that the powers of darkness acknowledge Jesus before the people he’s teaching and even before his disciples. Herod had been hearing of the mighty powers that were at work in Jesus. He came to the conclusion that Jesus must be John the Baptist risen from the dead.
Matthew immediately reminds us of the events of John’s death. We all know the story. Herodias, Herod’s present wife and ex-wife of his brother Philip, had been plotting to murder John because he publically condemned her and her marriage to Herod. She had already managed to get him arrested and imprisoned. But her real opportunity for revenge came at a banquet celebrating Herod’s birthday. Everybody was there, his military leaders and members of his political inner circle. We could easily conclude that Herod and his guests were drunk by the time Salome, Herodias’ daughter, performed a dance for the guests. She “delighted Herod so much that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for.” Herodias took advantage of the situation and prompted her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Fearing political embarrassment Herod granted her request. After the banquet John’s disciples asked for his body so that they might give him a proper burial. They then went and informed Jesus of his execution. “When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
It is no accident that Matthew places the account of John’s death in the very same chapter in which he gives the account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. He’s clearly contrasting the love celebrated in the Eucharistic banquet of the kingdom of God with the depraved banquet in Herod’s earthly kingdom.
The account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish implies that the disciples have the same power to feed the multitude. By his command, “Give them some food yourselves,” he’s reminding them that he came to serve and not to be served. To be his disciples and to celebrate the Eucharistic meal they need to follow his example of self-giving.
After the crowd of five thousand had eaten their fill Jesus sent his disciples off in a boat to the other side of the lake. He retreated into solitude again. Meanwhile, a storm blew up catching the disciples a few miles off shore. Their boat was being tossed about by strong winds. The disciples feared for their lives.
It was the fourth watch of the night, between 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM. According to folk lore, it was the time when spirits and phantoms were returning to their graves after a night of wandering. Suddenly, they saw a figure walking on the water. They began to scream in horror – it was a dybbuk, a ghost!
A voice broke through the howling wind. “Take courage; it is I; do not be afraid.” Could it be Jesus? Peter challenged the spirit. “Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” Peter stepped out of the boat and miraculously stood on the water, but he gave into his fear and began to sink screaming out, “Lord, save me!” Without any hesitation Jesus reached out to him. The two of them stepped into the boat. The wind subsided. The storm passed. Everyone was safe.
Jesus’ comment to them was part admonition, part disappointment. He had entered the storm with them. He responded immediately to Peter’s plea for help. Yet, they still didn’t grasp who he was. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” There’s sadness in his question. The people of Nazareth had outright rejected him. In spite of the miracle of the loaves and fish the disciples had still not put their faith in him.
They continued crossing the lake and came to Gennesaret, a predominately Gentile area. Word got out that Jesus was there. People brought their sick to him to be healed. Their faith was great. They believed that if they merely touched the tassels on his cloak they would be healed. Matthew concludes the chapter by testifying that whoever did touch him was cured.
As I said in the introduction to this reflection there’s a great deal of sadness surrounding Jesus. He’s rejected by friends and family in Nazareth. He’s mourning the death of John the Baptist. He feels pity for the crowds when they come to him for healing. He’s saddened by the disciples’ lack of faith.
The chapter also presents contrasts. Herod’s diabolical banquet is set against the scene of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, an icon of the Eucharistic meal in the kingdom of God.
The rejection Jesus experienced from the people of Nazareth is contrasted with the deep faith of the Gentiles in Gennesaret.
The storm at sea focuses this chapter. Jesus suffered in this life not only on the cross but through the rejection of friends, relatives, political and religious figures and even his disciples. His suffering, rather than separating him from the world, created a bond with the suffering human family. There will be ups and downs. There will be storms, sometimes terrifying storms, but he will walk with us. He’ll reach out his hand to each of us. We should never be afraid to cry out in faith, “Save me, Lord!” Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to walk on the water with him.
1 KINGS 3:5, 7-12
We’re concluding our reading of the 13 th chapter of Matthew’s gospel today which consists of a string of seven parables each imaging the kingdom of God. This week we’re reflecting on the last three in the series. Let’s get right into them.
1. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and
goes out and sells all that he has and buys that field.” It has been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of lounging on the beach. But I remember, from the olden days, seeing beach combers wandering along the beach with electronic metal detectors. They were looking for things like lost wedding rings or gold ear rings – anything of value.
Well, in Palestine, at the time of Jesus, it was not unheard of that someone found a real treasure buried in a field. Palestine was in itself an unimportant country on the coast of the Mediterranean. Because of its geography it suffered, but survived, countless invasions.
The powerful countries of the north and the west like Assyria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt frequently engaged in wars among themselves and other smaller countries. The main roads that connected these countries snaked through Palestine. So, it was common for families to flee the advancing armies with the hope of returning after the armies marched through. Families would sometime bury their valuables before fleeing. Sadly, some of them never returned. Like today’s beach combers there were always people who wandered around looking for a dent in the soil that might signal a buried treasure. From this common phenomenon Jesus spun his parable.
(Focus Thought) Many of us carry the hope of discovering a treasure and, with it, a new life. Are you searching for a treasure, temporal or spiritual?
What do you think about letting go of everything you value in order to buy the field with the buried treasure? What are your thoughts and feelings about letting go of the things you value?
2. “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that pearl.”
In the Roman Empire, and throughout the Middle East, pearls were highly valued because of their delicate beauty. They came from the sea which was considered the source of all life and therefore had a mystical quality. Pearls aren’t like gold or silver that’s mined from the earth and must go through a series of processes to become the valued coin or the piece of jewelry. A pearl is beauty itself.
(Focus Thought) Are you searching for a deeper meaning to your life? What is the pearl that, if you possessed it, would put your soul to rest? Take special note of your feelings as you think about the meaning of this parable.
3. The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into baskets. What is bad they will throw away.
Hmmmm. This sound a little bit like last week’s parable of the wheat and the weeds. They grew together only to be separated at harvest time. Here the image is more aggressive. Fisherman cast their nets when they see the water moving, bubbling in a way, because a school of fish is swimming just below the surface. With strength and precision, the nets are cast over the school and immediately yanked back to the boats to catch as many fish as possible. After the haul, the catch is separated. The fish are kept. What’s unwanted is thrown back into the sea.
(Focus Thought) Have you ever experienced the excitement of hope? I’m thinking of a song from West Side Story that poetically catches that excitement: Something’s Coming. “Could be, who knows? There’s something due any day I will know right away soon as it shows. It many come cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose. Who knows?” What are you hoping for? What’s just under the surface? You can almost see it. You can almost reach out and touch it.
You’re not sure what it is – but you know – it’s there. Don’t be afraid to think about this. It can bring up feeling. Don’t be afraid of thoughts that seem illogical or off the topic. Respect every thought and feeling. Don’t be afraid to cast the net out onto the unknown.
Matthew concludes this chapter of parables with an important maxim. “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”
Through the Focus Thoughts we’ve been looking inside ourselves. These parables are symbolic maps meant to guide us as we travel the inner path. Our fears, hopes, dreams and even our style of living are the things that can inhibit or help our spiritual development. This is what Jesus refers to as “the old.” When we recognize them, we can be more prepared to begin a new way of living – a spirit-filled way of living. This is the foundation of new life in the kingdom of heaven.
ISAIAH 55:1-3 . ROMANS 8:35, 37-39. MATTHEW 14:13-21
I’m beginning to write this reflection at 3:30 PM on July 27th. I’ve just spent the last three hours watch- ing U.S. Representative John Lewis being brought to Washington, D.C. to lie in state at the Capitol, the first black legislator to receive this honor. I watched the well-choreographed procession to the rotunda. I listened to the speeches and prayers during the ceremony. Those who spoke were politically correct and said good and positive things about him. It was John Lewis himself, however, who ignited the fire of the Spirit on the Capitol today. The audience sat quietly, deeply respectful and at time tear-filled as they listened to a recording of Representative Lewis’ 2014 commencement speech to the graduates of Emory University.
He spoke about his life. He spoke about leaving his little rural town with his parents when he was four years old to visit Troy, Montgomery, Tuskegee and Birmingham. He read signs: white man, colored man, white woman, colored woman, white man waiting, colored man waiting. He later asked his parents, “why?” They answered the four-year old. “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get into trouble.”
He continued. In 1955, when he was fifteen, listening to the radio, he heard about a woman named Rosa Parks, and the words of a man named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1957 he met Rosa Parks. In 1958 he met Dr. King. What he saw in them in- spired him “to get in trouble – good trouble, necessary trouble.” He took the torch from them and bravely set the direction of his life. At the conclusion of his story, he challenged the graduates. “Keep your eyes on the prize!”
As I began reading the three scripture passages for this Sunday I could hear John Lewis’ voice speaking in each one. First was Isaiah’s call. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat. Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!” Isaiah is telling us that God’s arms are open, embracing everyone to the Promised Land – black, white, brown, Asian, Indige- nous, straight, gay, rich, poor.
Representative Lewis interpreted the prophecy in this way. “We all live in the same house and it doesn’t matter if we’re black or white. Find a way to create the beloved community, the beloved world, a world of peace, a world that will recognize the dignity of all human kind.” This is God’s promised land. “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
The Gospel passage begins, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a de- serted place by himself.” This matter- of-fact sentence has so much to teach us. Don’t ever think that Jesus wasn’t gripped by fear. Don’t think he never carried the weight of sadness and mourning. Don’t think that Jesus was never challenged by doubt. In spite of all the challenges and hostil- ity he faced, he never gave up. He continued the work of the kingdom. He never lost sight of the promised land. When the crowds interrupted his silent mourning, he cured those among them who were sick. He sat them down and fed them with five loaves and two fish because his love was powerful enough to do that. Jesus never lost sight of the prize
his colleague, Timothy. Paul was humble enough to use himself as an example of dedication to the principles Jesus manifested in his life and preaching. Today, the day Represen- tative John Lewis lies in state at the Capitol, is a most appropriate day to listen to Saint Paul’s message to his co-worker. John Lewis heard the message of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he witnessed their fidelity to the Gospel. He accepted the torch they extended to him. Today he extends the torch to anyone who is courageous enough to accept it. I’m concluding today’s reflection with Saint Paul’s exhortation to Timothy. It spoke to John Lewis. May it speak to us.
“I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self- control. So, do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. Take as your norm the sound words you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us”
(Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14)
WISDOM 12:13, 16-19 ROMANS 8:26-27 MATTHEW 13:24-30
Today we’re thinking about the kingdom of heaven, the central theme of Jesus’ ministry. Sometimes, as in the passage we’re reading today, Jesus spins a parable that delivers an impression of the kingdom.
What makes the kingdom difficult to describe is that it’s not just a concept; it’s also, and primarily, an experience. As we walk the Christian journey, the kingdom will intersect our lives. Sometimes it may come as a flash of lucidity but a definition may allude us. Sometimes it may not be a thought at all, but a feeling – a deep, downin-the-heart experience that’s difficult to describe.
I wish I could share with you a precise definition of the kingdom, but I can’t. What I can do, however, is focus the images Jesus uses to describe it. From that point on, I will leave it to you to form your own idea of the kingdom.
There are three images of the kingdom in the gospel today. The first is a field of wheat that has lots of weeds. In the story the landowner declares that an enemy has planted these weeds. He can’t pull the weeds up because he’ll pull the wheat up along with it. So, he’ll let them grow together and separate them at harvest time. (Focus thought) There’s tension built into the story; an enemy has planted the weeds. It seems there’s opposition to the flourishing of the kingdom. What does this image teach us about the dynamics of the kingdom?
The second image is that of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree. (Focus thought) What power is hidden in that tiny seed that transforms it into a tree? Does that power manifest the energy of the kingdom in our midst? How?
The third image is a lump of yeast that mixes with flour. (Focus thought) When yeast is mixed into flour, there is no longer yeast nor flour – combined, they become dough. What can this teach us about the kingdom?
These little parables are meant to be pondered and prayed over. Let your heart guide your thoughts. Feel free to let your mind wander about with these images. All kind of ideas might surface. Respect them. As you reflect don’t ignore your feelings; they’re connected to the heart. We want our reflections to be thoughtful and personal – heartfelt. The Spirit works through the heart as well as the intellect. While reflecting, keep in mind what Jesus taught us: “The kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:21)
ISAIAH 55:10-11. ROMANS 8:18-23 MATTHEW 13:1-17
The gospel passage presented for our reflection today is long and, frankly, confusing in several ways. At one and the same time Jesus is giving one message to the disciples and another to the crowd. In addition, an interpretation of the parable is tacked on to the passage. It isn’t Jesus’ interpretation. It may be Matthew’s or a later editor. Here’s the outline of the entire passage.
1. Jesus sat in a boat while a crowd gathered along the shore to listen to him. He spun a parable for them – the parable of the sower.
2. Afterwards, the disciples asked him why he taught with parables. He answered them by quoting a passage from the prophet Isaiah.
3. Jesus then commended the disciples for being able to understand his teaching.
4. The last part of the passage is an editor’s interpretation of the parable.
I’m going to focus on parts one, two and three. I won’t address part four. You can read it on your own. It’s a perfectly fine interpretation. Traditionally, a rabbi never interpreted his parables. He simply told the story and left it for his disciples to ponder and interpret personally. This interpretation is perhaps Matthew’s , but more likely, someone who later edited Matthew’s gospel. Let’s move on and re-read the parable.
A crowd was following Jesus. He led them to the shore of the lake and got into a small boat that was moored just a few feet off shore. He sat down, taking the position that a rabbi would take as his disciples sat around him on the ground. When everyone sat down he told them a parable.
He used an image that everyone could relate to, a farmer planting seeds. There were two methods of sowing seeds in his day. A farmer would strap a bag of seeds over his shoulder, fill his hand with seeds and cast them over the ground as he walked along the paths between the furrows. Or the farmer would strap the bag of seeds onto the hind end of a donkey and make holes on either side of the bag. As he led the animal along the path the seeds would spill out into the furrows that were on either side of the narrow walkway.
The parable describes what might happen to the seeds. “Some seed fell on the path and birds came and ate it up.” Fields always had paths that ran through them. The sower, and anyone wanting to cross the field, would walk along these paths. They were hard from the traffic. The seed that fell onto these paths had no chance of taking root because the ground was too hard, and so they were destined to become lunch for the birds.
“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.” Much of the ground in Palestine consisted of shallow earth over a shelf of limestone. This was what Jesus meant by “rocky ground.” The seeds would spring up quickly, but because of the shallow earth, but they wouldn’t develop the necessary root system to catch any moister. They’d spring up but wither away quickly in the arid climate.
“Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.” Here Jesus is referring to weeds. Anyone who has ever tended a garden knows the stubborn strength of weeds. They seem indestructible and will choke to death everything around them.
“But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Finally – some seed made it! That’s the parable. I’m going to move on to the rest of the passage now. I’ll backtrack after we’ve looked at part two and three of the passage.
A simple question asked by the disciples generated a profound answer from Jesus. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Don’t interpret Jesus’ answer in a harsh way, though it may seem harsh. He quoted a very frustrated prophet Isaiah. “You shall 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.”
It’s not difficult to apply the imagery of the parable to Isaiah’s statement. Ears are meant to hear a message. Eyes are meant to see what lies ahead. Sadly, so many don’t hear God’s personal invitation. Many don’t see the pathway God laid out for them. Many miss the opportunity to be healed by God – to receive a new heart from God – a new life.
Jesus ended this simple teaching moment with Fourth of July fireworks the big booming, weeping willow-like fireworks. He spoke directly to the hearts of his disciples. He confided a secret to them. Many aren’t ready yet to hear what I have to say. Many aren’t ready for healing and transformation. “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears because you hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
The parable of the sower was meant for the people who couldn’t see or hear. It was telling then that if they convert, turn the direction of their lives toward God, they would reap a wonderful harvest: “a hundred, sixty or thirty-fold.” Jesus was teaching his disciples that they who have hear what he taught, and understood his actions, have actually peered into the heart of God In Jesus they have seen and experienced God’s love. From now on, they’re the seed that was planted in fertile soil. He guarantees them a magnificent harvest – a new life flowing from the heart of God. This is the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth.
ZECHARIAH 9:9-10. ROMANS 8:9-11 MATTHEW 11:25-30
In this Sunday’s Gospel we read one of Jesus most popular sayings.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give your rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” It’s a loving invitation on one level, and a challenge on another. Let’s take a good look at this beloved saying because its message is so important.
To properly understand the depth of his invitation, we need to take his statement very personally. Jesus is reaching out with profound compassion and empathy to anyone who might listen to him. He sees our inner restlessness and our deeply felt unhappiness. He offers us healing. But we need to prepare ourselves in order to hear his message and accept the healing by questioning ourselves at the deepest level. How might I describe my unhappiness? What’s that inner restlessness that’s continually churning within me blocking my peace of heart, my inner peace?
Let’s turn to today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans to assist us in our inner reflection. He writes, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Be careful here, however. This passage has been misinterpreted often.
Many ascetics throughout the history of Christianity have taken this to mean that anything that has to do with bodily pleasure couldn’t possibly come from God but could come only from the evil one. As a result, a cult of mortification, penance, self- flagellation, and the condemnation of human sexuality have stubbornly persisted in Christianity and has enthroned an image of a wrathful god in Christian spirituality. We want to avoid this type of thinking as we ponder St. Paul’s teaching.
The best definition for “flesh” that I’ve come across is this: “Flesh recoils from anything that might cause us to be anything less than the center of the universe.” This is what St. John refers to as “the world” in his Gospel. It’s whatever distracts us from the love of God. Self-centeredness is, perhaps, the clearest definition of “flesh” or “the world.”
St. Paul is teaching that “flesh,” our stubborn self-centeredness, doesn’t reward us with a deeper experience of life. Rather, it detaches us from the love of others, and leads to the destruction of our sacred and God-given humanity. He calls that death.
The challenge St. Paul places before us is to live a Spirit-filled life that puts “to death the deeds of the body,” self-centeredness. A Spirit-filled life frees us to reach out, to love. This is life to its fullest. Jesus is offering the same challenge in his teaching. It’s part of his invitation, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
When we recognize that deep inside we feel weighted down, burdened, unsettled, not truly content – incomplete, we have to assess our basic motivation, our modus operandi. Am I expending all my energy on trying to be happy? Has securing power and fame not been successful in helping me feel whole and complete? Has financial security not made me happy? Has sculpting the perfect body for myself not made me feel any better about myself? Have my family, friendships and relationships never really brought me contentment of heart. Do I ever wonder why I’m here on planet earth?
Jesus is inviting us to live differently. He’s promising us “rest” from these inner burdens that weigh down our souls. His promise isn’t a free gift though. We have to work for it. We have to challenge our thoughts and actions and begin to live differently. “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” We have to study Jesus. We have to look at his life and listen attentively to his teaching. He tells us so clearly, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it!” We have to come to the realization that self-centeredness is our original sin. It isolates us from God, the people around us and ourselves. It bars us from paradise.
Jesus could not have been any clearer in directing us to a new way of living than when he gave us the new commandment. “Love one another as I have loved you.” This isn’t romantic, feel-good love. This is sacrificial love the opposite of self-centeredness. His commandment goes on to clarify what he means by love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
I believe we’re living in a very special, Spirit-filled time. The powerful illusions we’ve worshipped, wealth, security, prestige, health – all have been challenged by a virus – one hundred twenty-eight thousand deaths and forty million unemployed in the United States. But the Spirit has liberated his gifts throughout this time. The Spirit has been guiding us through the darkness with the light of love. Many of us are putting our lives on the line by caring for one another. Our health-care professionals and essential workers have been willing to lay down their lives for the greater good.
That virus has uncovered terrible inequalities and injustice in our society and our culture. The voice of prophecy is being heard, once again. We’re being challenged to judge our way of thinking about each other. We’re being challenged to rebuild our society. We’re being challenged to care for one another. We’re being challenged to lay down our lives for one another. We’re being challenged to love. May the day come soon when we all hear the voice of Jesus saying to us, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”