O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Background: The Parable
Our word “parable” comes from Greek roots, namely para – alongside, and bolē – to throw. It’s Greek examples come largely from rhetoricians who used it to make an illustration about their point using a concise fictional narrative. Unlike a fable which uses various animals, inanimate objects, or plants as characters, such as the “sour grapes fable”, parables use human beings as the main characters of the narrative. David Gowler describes them as a “metaphorical analogy.” We know parables especially in the Gospels, such as parable of the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son. They are also known in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Nathan’s parable of “The Ewe-Lamb” (II Samuel 12:1-9), or the “Woman of Tekoah” (II Samuel 14:1-13). Parables are also known in Islam, especially in the Sufi tradition. Meant to impart universal truths, parables use a simple narrative, tells of the action on the part of the characters, and then teaches from or shows the truth that is illustrated in the story.
First Reading: Genesis 25:19-34
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
There are two introductions from the priestly strand (verses 19 – 20, and 26b) which tie together the story and tradition provided by the Yahwist. In the midst of the story there is a God-saying that provides an etiology about the nations that would spring from both Jacob and Esau. Of interest in this story is the competition that exists amongst the characters: a) Jacob vs. Esau, b) Isaac loves Esau, Rebekah loves Jacob. In a way the narrative mirrors the animosity between Cain and Able. In this story we can see the roots of our own racism and prejudice – Esau, the ruddy and dark skinned one, while Jacob is milder in complexion. Von Rad notes in his commentary, “the Palestinians noticed the much darker color of the eastern and southern inhabitants of the desert…The more civilized Israelites found their wilder neighbors rather scrubby.” The world into which these boys were introduced and raised represented two different styles of life – the hunter (Esau), and the shepherd (Jacob). It appears to represent a cusp in history, the move from the culture of hunting/gathering to that of farming, and settlements.
The final line of the story tells the tale, at least in this pericope, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Perhaps that is a difficult concept for the nomad, but not the farmer. We are treated here to more than a family history but rather a glimpse of the development of a whole cultural entity – a nation, or nations, if you will. The God-saying in the midst of the pericope is more telling than when first heard or perceived.
Breaking open Genesis:
1. Are their tangents or cusps in your family history?
2. How does this story anticipate the fourth commandment (Honor your father and your mother)?
3. How have you moved beyond your family traditions?
Psalm 119:105-112 Lucerna pedibus meis
105 Your word is a lantern to my feet *
and a light upon my path.
106 I have sworn and am determined *
to keep your righteous judgments.
107 I am deeply troubled; *
preserve my life, O Lord, according to your word.
108 Accept, O Lord, the willing tribute of my lips, *
and teach me your judgments.
109 my life is always in my hand, *
yet I do not forget your law.
110 The wicked have set a trap for me, *
but I have not strayed from your commandments.
111 Your decrees are my inheritance for ever; *
truly, they are the joy of my heart.
112 I have applied my heart to fulfill your statutes *
for ever and to the end.
Psalm 119 is a rather ambitious acrostic psalm made up of twenty-two sections, each one initialed by the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Our section this day is initialed by the letter nun. Weiser, in his commentary, is not all that complementary about the psalm. “The psalm is a many-colored mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in a wearisome fashion.” This section is one of several hymns in the collection, this one rejoicing in God’s word and law. Verse 111 seems to be a reflection on Esau’s rejection of his heritage, “Your decrees are my inheritance for ever.” The psalmist is pictured as a student and YHWH as the teacher.
Breaking open the Psalm:
1. How does God’s Word provide light in your life?
2. What do you say when someone asks you about the Bible?
3. Does it guide your life at all?
First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-13
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Chapter 55 of Isaiah is a thanksgiving and rejoicing in the works of the servant. Verses 1-15 is a celebration of food and drink, a metaphor for the satisfaction that the Lord provides. Verses 6-13, which includes our pericope for this day is a celebration of God’s Word, with its invitation in verse six, “Seek the Lord when he may be found.” Our verses begin with a comparison to the rain and snow that fall on the earth. The verse that precedes takes our eyes upward so that we anticipate the precipitation that falls in our verses, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth…” Then comes what follows, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth.” The implicit question that this Isaiah asks is one of dependency – on whom shall we depend, on what shall we rely? The prophet’s answer is simple – God’s word and promise, “it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”
The example of the rain is more than we realize. As a Californian, I can image what this Isaiah proposes here. Rain can be indifferent to our needs, but is quite important to our living. So it was in the Near East. Rain was the difference between living on the produce that it provided or dying in its absence. Our minds turn back to the initial verses of this chapter where this Isaiah displays God’ word as the fruit and vegetables that satisfy us and give us life. There is a cycle here, the rain falling, and then returning to the heavens. Something like God’s word descending and our prayers ascending. The closing verses see Creation rejoicing in this as well, and that nature itself will substitute the good (the cypress) for the bad (the thorn).
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. How is food used as a symbol in the Bible?
2. What satisfactions do you find in your faith?
3. How is your life in God a cycle of response?
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14 Te decet hymnus
[1 You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; *
to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.
2 To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
3 Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.
4 Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
5 Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.
6 You make fast the mountains by your power; *
they are girded about with might.
7 You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.
8 Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs; *
you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy.]
9 You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.
10 You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.
11 You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
12 You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.
13 May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, *
and the hills be clothed with joy.
14 May the meadows cover themselves with flocks,
and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; *
let them shout for joy and sing.
Here, in this psalm, we are still in the difficulty that rain (or lack of it) describes in the Near East, and in many of the places in which we live. The optional verses describe a people going to God in prayer, hoping for a response in a time of dire need. The threat of a drought is answered in verses 9 – 14 with a vision of green fields and their plenty. “You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.” In this psalm the people ask and God responds to definite need. The idea of God as the protector of creation, “You still the roaring of the seas.” The waters of the seas, in the Hebrew mind, was a sign of death and destruction, but water in the field was veritable life. So not only do the people rejoice but the meadows and valleys as well. “Let them shout for joy and sing.”
Breaking open Psalm 65:
1. What are the dire needs of your life?
2. How have you prayed about these needs?
3. How have you been an answer to your prayers?
Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-- indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Paul, in his usual manner, sets up a comparison between the flesh and the Spirit. Martin Franzman in his brief commentary on Romans gives us something to think about when thinking about the Spirit part of this comparison. “Our English use of ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’ has cast a grey veil over the meaning of ‘Spirit of life’; the Spirit of God has become for us a pale and unsubstantial member of the Holy Trinity.” He goes on to describe and give us a vision of a powerful Spirit – present at creation, anointing prophets, priests, and kings, touching tongues with fire, seen in mighty winds. Paul attempts to describe here how life can become a different entity when empowered by the Spirit. “To set the mind on flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Our reading ought to remind us that we are a new people in our Baptism. To think of it only as a memory, not known to us, but only in pictures and parents’ memories, is to lose its power. Baptism is living, it is process, it is growth. Flesh is death, but the Spirit, Paul preaches, is life. Power to the people!
Breaking open Romans:
1. When were you baptized?
2. What do you know about it, sponsors, etc.?
3. How can the Spirit given you in Baptism, be powerful in your life?
The Gospel: St. Matthew 13:1-9,18-23
Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew we have the Parable of the Sower, and its interpretation in the latter verses of the reading. In the first section we have a rather realistic description of what farming was like in the Levant. Oddly enough, Matthew places this teaching and parable in a boat, on a lake, far from the farm lands of which he is speaking. The lively descriptions have us see the variables on the farm, the hard clay of the path (often translated as “road”, but really just the oft-trodden dirt between the fields. Also seen are the parts of the field where the limestone under the soil comes close to the surface or actually borders it. Thorns were always a problem, for they were only turned under by the plow, not weeded and thus quite easily returned. See the Track Two First Reading, where the thorn gives way to the Cypress. So what is the teaching here? What do our ears need to hear? Jesus is honest about the complications of the enterprise he is recommending. There will be obstacles, but there will be good results as well, with varying results. Is this really a message to the disciples, or does Matthew use it as instruction to the early church?
Most commentators see the latter verses (18-23) as an addition to the tradition and text by the early Christian community. This second level of interpretation resorts to allegorizing. It builds on the images imparted in the early verses. We understand Jesus’ purpose from the very beginning of this section, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom…” We need to keep in mind the purpose, the announcement of the kingdom. That was a difficult enterprise in the time of Matthew, where such an announcement divided families and relationships. What does the early church see as obstacles in their mission: a) those who are distracted by “the evil one.” b) opportunists, put off by suffering and persecution, and d) those distracted by secular concerns. The key for the faithful is “hearing and understanding.” There is another part, however, the bearing of fruit and yielding results. “Let anyone with ears listen!”
Breaking open Matthew:
1. Which of the obstacles have you found in your life?
2. What does the Kingdom of God mean to you?
3. What fruit has been borne out of your faith?
General Idea: Recognizing the gift
Instance 1: Knowing the value of our inheritance in God (Track One: First Reading)
The gift of God’s word for growth in our life (Track Two: First Reading)
Instance 2: Knowing power in the gift of the Spirit and in Baptism (Second Reading)
Instance 3: Rejoicing in receiving the seed (Gospel)
All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller