Words on the Word
15. Sunday A
Is 55,10-11: May the word not return to me empty.
Rm 8,18-23: Creation groans in labour pains.
Mt 13,1-23: A sower went out to sow.
The readings we have heard put before us images of dynamic growth. Life, we are told, is about transformation and fecundity. That applies to our biological existence. It also applies to our life of faith.
Isaiah sets the scene with a cosmic perspective. It takes us right back to the beginning of creation, for there was no plant or herb of the field as long as God had not caused it to rain upon the earth (Gen 2,5). This ancient trope is relevant for us who live in times of climate change. Drought is a global problem, a source of unrest and a cause of migration. We see what can happen when the earth is not rained upon. The prophet bids us remember: The same sort of thing happens to our inner ecosystem if it isn’t regularly nurtured by God’s word.
Paul, writing to the Romans, likens creation to a woman giving birth: ‘the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now’. Only a fellow would write like that, probably. A woman who knows what labour pains are like might have chosen a different metaphor. Still, there is truth in what Paul writes. For the world we see around us, which we experience with our senses and measure with our instruments, is not a definitive world. The universe is in a state of becoming; we ourselves are pilgrims in it, travelling through. The world we touch points beyond itself. Only in Christ, God’s Word, by whom all was made, will creation find its goal.
The labour pains concern the Word’s breakthrough in us and about us. It is a concrete process. ‘Oh my children!’, wrote Paul to the Galatians, ‘I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you’ (4,19). Are we sufficiently focused on this fact, that we are called to a wondrously new life in Christ?
Our Gospel is thoroughly grounded. It is about a farmer who went out to sow. Farmers tend to avoid waste. They know the value of the earth’s resources and administer them wisely. A farmer doesn’t chuck away his grain. What then about the one we meet in Jesus’s parable? Why does he throw good grain into poor soil, in the ditch, among thistles, onto stony ground? We are dealing with an experimental form of agriculture. This farmer’s chief concern is not to maximise the harvest. He is concerned about testing the soil. He wants to find out where grain can grow, and is prepared to be surprised. He sows, therefore, on all surfaces, then sits down to wait and watch. A single fruitful ear of corn among rocks would be a marvel! And in such marvels the farmer finds his joy.
The farmer represents our Lord, who from the beginning made dry land fruitful, transforming deserts into nurturing land for those who are hungry (cf. Ps 107,35-6). That’s the sort of thing he keeps doing to this day.
How does God communicate and spread new life? He is the creator of the universe. He is almighty. Evidently he can plough, sow, water, and gather by direct intervention. His preferred method, though, is to act through his people, through the Church. Jesus told his parable to a large crowd, to anyone prepared to listen. But he explained it to the Twelve in a confidential setting. It was to them, above all, he entrusted the message about God’s kingdom; they were the ones he sent out to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28,19). They were to sow the word generously in all territories, proclaiming it in season and out of season (2 Tim 4,2). Then as now the apostolic preaching is explosive, a seed of new life in a degree of intensity we cannot imagine until we’re touched by it and see, ‘Aha! So this is what it means to be born anew to eternal life!’
To be born anew is quite a thing. The word of Christ, even when proclaimed noiselessly, without ‘wrangling or crying aloud’ (Mt 12,19) sounds like a roar for anyone who has ears to hear. The word is dynamite. It breaks open our heart’s stone quarry and gives the seed a chance in spite of all. In Christian Antiquity Christ was referred to as the Lion of Judah (cf. Rev 5,5). He awakened people from slumber and lethargy to life. The apostolic preaching was likewise likened to a lion’s roar.
I thought of this last weekend when I went to visit The Basilica of the Twelve Apostles just downhill from the Quirinale in Rome. On either side of the entrance is a lion carved in stone, mighty symbols of the Apostles’ fortitude and powerful proclamation. Somebody had rather adjusted this symbol, however, well-meaningly no doubt, yet shockingly all the same: on each lion’s back was placed a nice large blue pot with what might be azaleas. The heralds of the Lion of Judah transformed into flowerpot-holders!
I remained a while to contemplate this sight. It seemed to me I had before my eyes a parable summoning me to examine my conscience. For the Gospel cannot be reduced to décor. The Gospel intends to transform us. It is a force for life and salvation, a call to set out, to leave securities behind. We are told that a shepherd should smell of sheep. This is good — but he shouldn’t sound like one. He should roar like a lion.
Creation is subject to futility, but we are called to life in the real. This is God’s word to us. May we not return it to him empty.
Is it too fanciful to discern a mixture of embarrassment and grief in the reduced lion’s eyes?