15th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalm 65:10-14
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind.  That is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Responding to the Word of God
God continually proclaims His Word to mankind.  In the Old Testament, His prophets proclaimed the word of God to His people.  They planted His word like seeds in the hope of yielding an abundant harvest of faithful believers in those who heard the word with a receptive heart and came to belief demonstrated by their good deeds.  Then, at the climactic point in salvation history, God sent the Living Word, Jesus Christ.  He proclaimed the Gospel ("good news") of salvation, planting seeds of faith that flourished in receptive hearts, yielding a harvest of good deeds in His Kingdom of the Church together with the promise of eternal life. 

The First Reading, from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, is an invitation from the Lord to share in the goodness of God's word.  The prophet uses comparisons that were meaningful to an agrarian society in an arid climate to describe the power of the divine word of God and the salvation that it promises.  The prophet promised that the seeds of faith planted by God's word would not return to Him empty and barren.  His words will take root in receptive hearts and will flourish when nourished by the good deeds of those who hear the word and obey His commandments.   

The Responsorial Psalm continues the symbolic imagery of "seeds of faith."  The psalmist presents God as a divine farmer who controls the rain and the fertility of the earth.  The abundant rainfall causes the dried up furrows of the earth to soften and to be ready for a planting that yields a fruitful harvest.  The Fathers of the Church compared the way God nourishes the earth with rain to bring about an abundant harvest with the Gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ.  He is the Living Word of God come down from heaven to spiritually nourish the hearts of men and woman and to save mankind with the living water of baptism by water and the Spirit.  His word does not return to Him empty and barren but is nourished by the good deeds of those who hear the Word and obey His teachings.  We help to fulfill Christ's mission when the Word of God is put into practice in our lives. 

In the Second Reading, St. Paul writes that the work of Christ is not only to redeem mankind but to provide the means for the renewal of all Creation.  Paul reveals that all creation is "groaning" in its longing for the Second Coming of Christ and the promised transformation and glorification which will return creation to its original state.  The natural world suffers from disorder and chaos, but this is not the way God established the creation of the world when the Holy Spirit divided the waters of chaos and seven times pronounced all of creation "good."  The natural world was intended to be the home for man where he could live in perfect communion with his Creator.  This perfect communion between God, man, and nature is the re-created order Jesus promises to restore when He returns to create a new Heaven and earth.

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus tells the parable of the Seed and the Sower.  In His parable, the sower casts his seed in every direction and into every kind of soil condition, a common farming technique in which most, but not all, of the seed was expected to produce healthy plants.  It was a method of sowing seed that was similar to Jesus' teaching.  Jesus "broadcasts" God's message of salvation in every direction: to the receptive faithful, to those looking for entertainment by a Galilean rabbi who performs miracles, to skeptics, and to those who are hostile to His message. 

The focus of Jesus' parable is the harvest of souls for His eternal Kingdom. For those who accept the "word" of Jesus' Gospel of salvation, the seeds of faith take root in their receptive hearts, and they are known by the "fruit" of good works that bear testimony to their faith.  Although some bear more "fruit" than others, in each case their fruitful lives in service to Christ's Kingdom far exceeds expectations.  It is common to expect that a very good crop might yield about tenfold, but Jesus expects yields that are greater than average and even far beyond average.

Today, God's word is proclaimed to us in Sacred Scripture through the Liturgy of the Word at Mass and in the testimony of believers.  As in Jesus' day, people respond in different ways to the word of God.  Some people allow their sufferings to challenge their faith.  However, as St. Paul wrote in the Second Reading, the sufferings we endure in this life are nothing compared to the glory that God promises those of us who embrace His word and receive new life in the Spirit.   

The First Reading Isaiah 55:10-11
10 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, 11 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.

In verses 10-11, the prophet uses comparisons that were meaningful to an agrarian society in an arid climate to describe the power of the divine word of God and the salvation that it promises.  Like the rain and snow that come down from heaven to nourish the earth and make it fruitful so does the word of God come down from heaven to take root in fertile hearts.  God's divine word will not return to Him empty and barren; His word will take root and flourish, nourished by the good deeds of those who hear the word and obey His commandments, achieving the end for which I sent it.   

Responsorial Psalm 65:10-14
Response: "The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest."

10 You have visited the land and watered it; greatly have you enriched it.  God's watercourses are filled; you have prepared the grain.
Response:
11 Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows, breaking up its clods, softening it with showers, blessing its yield.
Response:
12 You have crowned the year with your bounty and your paths overflow with a rich harvest; 13 the untilled meadows overflow with it, and rejoicing clothes the hills.
Response:
14 The fields are garmented with flocks and the valleys blanketed with grain.  They shout and sing for joy.
Response:

This Psalm is entitled: "For the leader. A psalm of David: a song."  The Psalm begins with a hymn declaring that the God of Israel takes care of the earth.  Then, the psalmist lists the reasons why we should praise God.  Verses 11-14 appear to be a description of the agricultural year beginning with the fall rains that soften the hard sun-dried soil (verses 10-11).   The psalmist presents God as the divine farmer who controls the rain and the fertility of the earth.  The abundant rainfall causes the dried up furrows of the earth to soften and to be ready for a planting that yields a fruitful harvest (verses 12-14). 

The Fathers of the Church compared the way God nourished the earth with rain to bring about an abundant harvest with the Living Word of God come down from heaven to spiritually nourish the hearts of men and woman, Jesus Christ.  He is the eternal Word of the Father who comes down from heaven to save mankind with the living water of Baptism by water and the Spirit.  His word does not return to Him empty and barren.  The good deeds of the faithful who hear the Word and obey His teachings nourish the Word that takes root among the men and women of every generation.  Put into practice, the Word of God fulfills His purpose for the good of mankind.  However, when not put into practice, the hearts of men and women can wither and remain barren like the parched earth without water. 

The Second Reading Romans 8:18-23 ~ The Christian Destiny of Glory
"18 In my estimation, all that we suffer in the present time is nothing in comparison with the glory which is destined to be disclosed for us, 19 for the whole creation is waiting with eagerness for the children of God to be revealed.  20 It was not for its own purposes that creation had frustration imposed on it, but for the purposes of him who imposed it—21 with the intention that the whole creation itself might be freed from its slavery to corruption and brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God.  22 We are well aware that the whole creation, until this time, has been groaning in labor pains. 23 And not only that: we too, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we are groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our bodies to be set free. 

After the Fall of Adam and Eve, both humanity and creation became enslaved by sin. The introduction of sin into the world, with its byproduct of decay and death, destroyed the harmony God had originally established with man and all of creation.  The natural world, created as a home for man, came to share in the fallen destiny of mankind but also in the promise of redemption.  St. Paul assures us that all that we suffer in the present time is nothing in comparison with the glory which is destined to be disclosed for us, 19 for the whole creation is waiting with eagerness for the children of God to be revealed.

The redeeming work of Christ is not only to redeem mankind but to provide the means for the renewal of all of Creation.  All Creation is anticipating the fulfillment of God's plan for salvation history (see CCC# 1042-1050; 2 Pt 3:13; Rev 21:1-5).  At the end of time as we know it, Christ will return, and He will establish His Kingdom in its fullness "on earth as it is in Heaven" (the Lord's Prayer).  God has promised that the earth, all living beings, and the entire cosmos will be renewed and transformed and the just will reign with Christ forever.  The righteous will be glorified in body and soul just as the material world will be renewed and transformed (1 Cor 15:28).  In this new creation, God will establish His dwelling among men (Rev 21:5).  All humanity, the visible cosmos, and the earth are destined for a transformation and returned to the state in which God first created it.  As St. Irenaeus wrote at the end of the second century, "so that the world itself resorted to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just..." At that time, all creation will share in the glorification of Jesus Christ (see CCC # 1047). 

In Romans 8:22, Paul reveals that all of creation is longing, "groaning" for the return of Christ and the promised transformation and glorification which will return creation to its original state.  Paul compares this "groaning" to the labor pains of a woman in childbirth.  Creation was not intended to be a place of chaos and disorder (see Gen 2:4-6 and 3:16-19).  Perhaps this is a new way to look at the "groaning" of the world in natural disasters like hurricanes which also bring the "groaning" of suffering to mankind.  The natural world suffers from disorder and chaos.  The condition of disorder and chaos is not the way God first set out the creation of the world when the Holy Spirit divided the waters of chaos (Gen 1:2) and seven times pronounced all of creation "good" in Genesis 1:4, 10, 13, 18, 21, 25, and 31.  God intended the natural world as a home for man where he could live in perfect communion with his Creator. 

23 And not only that: we too, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we are groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our bodies to be set free. 
In Romans 8:23, Paul writes that we are also "groaning."  The "firstfruits of the Spirit" refers to the first generation of Christians who experienced rebirth through the Holy Spirit in Christian Baptism.  Paul's point is that all of us who belong to Christ long for union with the Most Holy Trinity in our final redemption and the hope of living the glory of the beatific vision.  We also look forward to the promise of our second resurrection when we receive our glorified bodies (our first resurrection was in our Baptism).  This great hope is almost too much to be able to comprehend in our limited natural state, but it is God the Holy Spirit who helps us, prays with us, and intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings (Rom 8:26) to receive this final and eternal gift.  Every child who truly loves his family longs to be at home with his family.  Our "family" is the Most Holy Trinity, and our spirits long to be at home in Heaven to fulfill the destiny for which God created us.

The Gospel of Matthew 13:1-23 ~ The Parable of the Seed and the Sower
1 On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea.  2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore.  3 And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: "A sower went out to sow.  4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up.  5 Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.  It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, 6 and when the sun rose it was scorched and it withered for lack of roots.  7 Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.  8 But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.  9 Whoever has ears ought to hear."10 The disciples approached him and said, "Why do you speak to them in parables?"  11 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.  12 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.  13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because 'they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.'  14 Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: 'You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see.  15 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 heart and be converted and I heal them.' 16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.  18 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." 18 "Hear then the parable of the sower.  19 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.  20 The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.  21 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.  22 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.  23 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."

Chapter 13 signals a turning point in Jesus' ministry when He begins to speak in parables.  In this third great discourse in St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus teaches seven parables.  He gives the reason why He is teaching in parables as well as an explanation for two parables that His disciples found difficult to understand.  The Greek word for "parable" is parabole.  In the usual sense in Greek literature, a parabole presents a comparison to inspire deeper thought.  The Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament uses the word parabole to translate the Hebrew word masal.  In the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, masal is the designation given to a variety of literary forms including allegories, axioms, proverbs and similitudes (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, "Parable," page 146).  In the New Testament, parables are primarily stories that are meant to illustrate a certain truth.  Jesus uses parables that are comparisons between the truths of His teachings and the events of everyday life.  His first parable of the seven parables is the Seed and the Sower.  Jesus' discourse on the Seed and the Sower consists of three parts:

  1. The Parable of the Seed and the Sower (verses 1-9)
  2. Why Jesus teaches in parables (verses 10-17)
  3. The Parable of the Seed and the Sower explained (verses 18-23)

Matthew 13:1-9 ~ The Parable of the Seed and the Sower
1 On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea.  2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore.  3 And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: "A sower went out to sow.  4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up.  5 Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.  It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, 6 and when the sun rose it was scorched and it withered for lack of roots.  7 Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.  8 But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.  9 Whoever has ears ought to hear."
The location is probably St. Peter's house in Capernaum.  Jesus coming out of the house and sitting by the sea is the signal that He is ready to teach.  Such a large crowd assembles that Jesus relocates to one of Peter's boats.  The boat is positioned just off the shoreline to give the crowd the best advantage to both see and hear Jesus speak.  Like the prophets of old, He begins to teach in parables, using topics of everyday life and making comparisons to emphasize His teaching points that reveal "the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven" (13:11).  Jesus will use the word "kingdom" twelve times (Mt 13:11, 19, 24, 31, 33, 38, 41, 43, 44, 45, 47 and 53); it is for this reason that the parables in chapter 13 are called "the seven Kingdom Parables."

Jesus' first parable is about sowing seeds in different kinds of soil.  Every element in the parable is symbolic:

The Sower The Seed Different kinds of Soil
Jesus planting seeds of faith The word of God: the Gospel message of salvation that is broadcast to every person within the scope of Jesus' teaching (see Lk 8:11) The different kinds of human response to Jesus' message of salvation in the coming of the Kingdom.

When the sower in Jesus' parable casts his seed, he casts it in every direction and into every kind of soil condition.  It was a common farming technique in which most, but not all, of the seed was expected to produce healthy plants.  The technique used up a large amount of seed, but the generosity in broadcasting the seed assured the area was well covered and that many plants would spring up resulting in a fruitful harvest.  This method of sowing seed is similar to Jesus' teaching.  Jesus "broadcasts" God's message of salvation in every direction: to the receptive faithful, to those only looking for entertainment from a Galilean rabbi who performs miracles, to skeptics, and to those who are hostile to His message.  His focus is the harvest of souls for His Kingdom.

The more difficult part of the parable concerns the comparison in the four different kinds of soil where the seed falls.  In Scripture, the number four represents the world.  Jesus will explain the meaning of the parable in verses 18-23.  One of the keys to understanding the parable is that the production of "fruit" is far beyond a normal yield (verse 8).

Matthew 13:10-17 ~ Why Jesus Speaks in Parables
10 "The disciples approached him and said, "Why do you speak to them in parables?"  11 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.  12 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.  13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because 'they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.'  14 Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: 'You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see.  15 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 heart and be converted and I heal them.' 16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.  18 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."
Jesus tells His disciples that knowledge of the Kingdom has been granted to the disciples but not to others.  God has granted knowledge to the disciples because their receptive hearts have made them open to accepting the revealed mystery.  It is because of their response to the gift of God's grace that they will receive more understanding.  But to those who have listened with a closed and critical heart, He will take away even what little they have heard in that they will fail to understand the significance of what Jesus taught.

Jesus says a little proverb in verse 13 explaining why He now speaks in parables, and then, quoting from Isaiah 6:9-10, Jesus makes another of the ten Old Testament fulfillment statements in the Gospel of Matthew.  Since the crowd has rejected His message, He speaks in parables so they will not readily understand.  What He does fulfills the judgment prophecy in Isaiah against an unrepentant people (see the harsher statement in Mk 4:12).  The contrast with the disciples who will understand because they have heard with their ears, seen with their eyes, and understood with their hearts.  They have been converted and healed spiritually by Jesus the Messiah in preparation for the coming of His Kingdom.

Matthew 13:18-23 ~ The Parable of the Sower Explained
18 "Hear then the parable of the sower.  19 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.  20 The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.  21 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.  22 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.  23 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." (Emphasis added).
The Gospel of St. Luke explains that the disciples, failing to grasp the full meaning of the parable of the sower, asked the Master to explain: Then his disciples asked him what the meaning of this parable might be.  He answered, "Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God has been granted to you; but to the rest, they are made known through parables so that 'they may look but not see, and hear but not understand' (Lk 8:9-10).

Jesus reveals the symbolic meaning of the four different kinds of soil that receive the seed/Gospel of salvation in verses 19-23.  The four kinds of soil represent four kinds of human response:

1. Seed sown on the path This person hears the word of the kingdom without making any effort to understand and embrace the truth.  Since he has failed to understand, Satan can separate him from the truth and his place in the Kingdom.
2. Seed sown on rocky ground This person receives the word of God with joy, but he has not applied the word to his life.  He has no internal stability ("roots").  In a time of hardship, he abandons his faith in God.
3. Seed sown among the thorns This person hears the word but does not love God above all else.  The secular world pulls him away from faith, and he bears no good fruit/works.
4. Seed sown on rich soil This person hears the word, understands it, applies it to his "heart"/life, and bears the fruit of the good works of faith in abundance.
Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2011

Jesus attributes the failure of some to produce the good fruit of repentance and conversion to:

  1. the activity of Satan (verse 19)
  2. personal shallowness (verses 5, 20-22)
  3. the ambition for worldly pleasures and wealth (verse 22)

The use of the phrase the word of the kingdom in verse 19 is a technical term Jesus uses for the Gospel message of salvation and prepares us for subsequent references to "the word."  Notice that Jesus uses "the word" six times in this passage (in verses 19, 20, 21, 22 twice, and 23), and consider what Jesus refers to as "the word" (see Mt 13:19 and the document "The Significance of Numbers in Scripture").  In the symbolic meaning of numbers in Scripture, six is the number of man, created on the sixth day.  "The word" refers to the Gospel message of salvation manifested in Jesus' Kingdom on earth that is the Church.

23 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.
Those who accept the "word" that is the Gospel message of salvation are known by the "fruit" deeds/works that they bear.  Although some bear more than others, in each case their fruitful lives in service to Christ's Kingdom far exceeds expectations.  It is common to expect that a very good crop might yield about tenfold.  However, the yields Jesus expects are far above average or even a good harvest.  He expects a super-abundant harvest!

Which of the four kinds of persons who hear the words of God are you?  How would you evaluate the soil of your life into which Jesus has sown His word?  What deeds of righteousness have the words of the Gospel of salvation produced in your life?  Are you living up to the "yield" that Jesus expects from the faithful so that you will be ready for the great harvest of souls into God's storehouse of Heaven?

Catechism References:
Romans 8:18-23 (CCC 280); 8:18 (CCC 1721); 8:19-23 (CCC 1046); 8:20 (CCC 400); 8:21 (CCC 1741); 8:22 (CCC 2630); 8:23 (CCC 735)
Matthew 13:3-23 (CCC 1724); 13:3-9 (CCC 546); 13:10-17 (CCC 787); 13:10-15 (CCC 546); 13:11 (CCC 546); 13:22 (CCC 29)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017