For the next three Sundays, we will be reading Jesus’s sermon of parables, in Matthew 13.
The parables are the third of five sermons around which Matthew orients his account of the Gospel. He begins on the Mount, setting out the Christian way (cc. 5-7). In the next sermon, he calls his twelve apostles and tells them how to spread the message (c. 10). Chapter 13 is in a boat, again speaking to the crowds, but from some distance; the heart of the message, we will see, is that they hear but do not understand. The fourth sermon turns inward, talking about the life of the community (18-19). And the last proclaims the coming destruction and judgment (23-25). At each step the gate seems to be narrower.
This week’s parable, the first, about the seed sowed on different kinds of ground, introduces the genre of parables. He gives the image, but before he interprets it, the disciples ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He responds, “Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but . . . they look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand.” A parable is a way of teaching that only some people understand – or rather, it manifests how all of Jesus’s teaching makes sense only to a heart rightly disposed.
Then he explains the parable. Watch how the word “hear” dominates the transition. “Lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted . . . . Many prophets and righteous people longed . . . to hear what you hear but did not hear it. . . . Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it.”
The first parable is about parables: we can all hear the same word from Jesus, but it doesn’t bear fruit in all of us.
Martin Luther used the image of cow manure to explain his understanding of grace. You stink. Grace is like snow that covers up your stink. But you are not changed. That, of course, is the opposite of the Gospel as Catholics understand it.
But as Ratzinger liked to point out, Luther usually has a point worth considering. I am told the following response comes from Teresa of Avila, though I am not sure:
Yes, we are like manure. But in the Bible, grace is not like snow. Grace is like a seed. As much as manure stinks, it is the material that a seed can turn into a fruit-bearing plant. Manure is fertilizer. In fact, it is better fertilizer the more it has been chewed up and broken down and excreted as waste. In this week’s parable, we want to be like manure. Snow, well-tended ground, solid rocks, even jewels – none of these can become part of a flower or tree.
Now, an important part of that metaphor – and our Gospel’s metaphor – is that the life force is from outside of us. It is the seed that brings life, not the manure. The manure is lucky to be incorporated into something better – just as the life that grows in us is Christ’s life, turning us into members of his body, branches on his vine.
That might be the genius in Luther’s image: we can become nothing until we realize that we are nothing. The only way the dirt “cooperates” with the seed is by letting the seed take over.
Last week I said that Romans 8 is the great charter of hope. This week we get another installment. “Creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
It’s not quite right to think of ourselves as manure. Manure is a side-effect, a reject. But all of creation was made for this. All the emptiness, all the frustration, is part of a plan: the making of the good earth that can receive the seed of God’s word.
And while the Gospel parable emphasizes the many people who are not good ground, our reading from Isaiah emphasizes the power of God’s word, which “shall not return to me void.” Here the word even “gives seed to the one who sows” and then “bread to the one who eats.” Where the Gospel focuses on one point, our reception of the word, Isaiah emphasizes that God is active at every point: he is the rain, he is the seed, he is the bread, his Sacred Heart will triumph.
For one more image of our receptivity, return to the Gospel. The seed is the word, something with shape and intelligence. The receiver is the one who hears, with or without understanding. The human mind – not so separate from the heart – is an amazing potentiality to hear and understand and follow the Word of God. Pretty fancy manure.
What kind of thing are you, than can receive the Word?