Jesus answers the opposition described in chapters 11-12 in Matthew’s gospel with a series of parables that begin with the parable of the sower sowing his seed. (Chapter 13) The seed doesn’t always fall on good ground, he reminds his disciples. Sometimes it falls on the path where it quickly dries up– like the towns that welcome him enthusiastically and soon forget him.
The parable of the weeds and the wheat points to enemies who want to poison the power and beauty of his words and deeds because of their own claims. The Pharisees did that.
The kingdom of God comes in smallness. It’s like the mustard seed, not a full grown tree. You can miss it if you’re looking for something fully grown and done. The treasure is hidden in a field; you may discover almost accidentally. Maybe Jesus’ own extended family in Nazareth still saw him as just the little boy they knew before and could not appreciate him now. We underestimate small things and what they can grow to be.
But the kingdom of heaven is also like a merchant in search of fine pearls. You have to keep searching for it all your life. You can’t give up that search. Keep looking, hoping searching.
Jesus concludes his teaching with the parable of the net cast into the sea that catches fish of every kind, good and bad. At the end of time, the net will be dragged to shore and the good will be separated from the bad. God is the ultimate judge, leave judgment to him.
His parables are about the real world, the world Jesus experienced. They also help us look at the world we live in, which is not far from his.
“Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep” (Luke 15:6).
“Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost” (Luke 15:9).
“But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32).
In Luke’s trilogy of joy, God presents himself as a shepherd, a woman, and a father in the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son. The choirs of angels in the court of heaven “rejoice” with the Lord at the restoration of grace to sons and daughters who had wandered far away (Luke 15:10).
The Greek words for “rejoice” (sugchairó and chairó) spring from “grace” (charis)—divine favor, gift, blessing, or kindness. The angel Gabriel greeted the Virgin Mary with, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” and “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:28, 30). Mary was filled with grace by her union with the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ within her womb.
At the Annunciation, the divine shepherd, woman, and father of the parables commenced their longing search for humankind upon the earth. Jesus and Mary, radiant with the grace of divine life, light and energy, restored paradise to Adam and Eve by their “Yes” to the Father.
The tireless shepherd searched high and low in mountains and valleys to retrieve the one lost sheep, humankind. In many of the Church Fathers, the other ninety-nine represent the blessed angels: “This one sheep is the man Adam, whom in the beginning the Lord had created in his image and likeness. This one strayed from the company of the angels by sinning, and through him the entire human race strayed from God.”1 The Good Shepherd descended to earth “to save the one sheep that had perished, that is, the human race.”2
The lost coin is stamped with “the royal likeness and image” according to St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. John Chrysostom.3 The coin has a homing instinct built in, a potentiality for grace and glory. The prodigal son is the father’s very flesh and blood. In all three parables, what was lost is found, and what was dead has come back to life.
“Rejoice!” the choirs of angels resound around the throne of the Blessed Trinity. “Rejoice!” for grace has been restored to Adam and he has come home.
1 Epiphanius the Latin, Interpretation of the Gospels 27.
2 Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 3.18.12.
3 St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 106. St. John Chrysostom’s commentary can be found in the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas, Luke 15:8-10.
In the marbled and malleable world of metaphor and analogy, God changes guises faster than James Bond. Here he steals into our world as a prowling thief:
Jesus said to his disciples: “Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
The watchful servant of the last parable now dons the costume of the master, and the master slinks in the dark suit of a cat burglar. The “Parables of Jesus” is a gangbuster variety show!
The celestial crook neglected to make an appointment and broke in without warning. Surprise!
Then Peter said, “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?”
The vigilance required of the master of the house (a.k.a. watchful servant) seemed like a weighty responsibility. Perhaps Peter was feeling the weight of the “rock.”
And the Lord replied, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so. Truly, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property.
Switcheroo! Lights on, center stage. Without intermission the cat burglar suddenly turns master, and the master’s robe transmutes into an apron. The steward is left alone with his appointed task. But when the cat’s away, the mice will play?
But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish the servant severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful. That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly.
Misuse of power and carousing by the majordomo result in severe penalties. Stewards who misbehave with full knowledge are held more accountable than those who deviate out of ignorance.
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
In this world, inequalities of rank and ability are obvious, but the virtue of faithful stewardship is open to all to an infinite degree. St. Stephen the deacon is one with the chief of apostles, St. Peter, and the anonymous women who ministered to Jesus (Luke 8:1-3) are the true daughters of Mary, the handmaid of the Lord.
All that we are belongs to God. The heavenly housebreaker lives in our heart continually and every moment is Now. Blessed are we who serve the One who made all things out of nothing. In his hands, our emptiness becomes fullness.
The disciples approached Jesus and said, “Why do you speak to the crowd in parables?” 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. 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. This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.
This text has been interpreted as dividing the world into “us” (insiders) versus “them” (outsiders), but for practical spirituality it is more helpful to think of the two as stages in one’s own journey. We all begin as beginners in the spiritual life, as infants needing milk and parables. If we receive divine nourishment willingly day by day, we will eventually be able to take the solid food of the deeper “mysteries.” But solid food is for the mature (Hebrews 5:12-14; 1 Corinthians 3:2).
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see.
It is helpful to ask oneself, when do I hear without understanding, or look without seeing? What are the obstructions that prevent union and communion in the Trinity?
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. “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. 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.”
Receptivity to divine mysteries is a matter of the heart. From the moment the seed of grace is planted in baptism, the lifelong process of watering, fertilizing and nurturing the new heart begins. Grace transforms stone into flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Spiritually enlightened eyes and ears develop as the Holy Spirit works from the inside out to transform every cell of our being.
For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light (Psalm 36:9).
Why did Matthew put the parables of Jesus, which we’re reading these days at Mass, in the 13th chapter of his gospel instead at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as Mark does, who puts them in the early chapters of his gospel? Might seem unimportant, but commentators think it helps understand them from a different perspective.
Way back in the 5th chapter of Matthew, Jesus called his disciples up a mountain and promised them a blessed life would come from following him. He taught a sublime message, and worked miracles to back up its truth. He then sent disciples out to proclaim his life-giving message ( chapter 10) , but tells them: “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
They did what he told them, but found tough opposition, more than they expected. Jesus faced the same opposition,
Matthew’s gospel was written around 90 AD in Galilee when Galilee had changed from the time of Jesus.. After Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, Jews influenced by the Pharisees moved into Galilee in force seeking to rebuild Judaism. They strongly opposed the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
Matthew’s gospel, reflecting the increasing tension between Christians and Jews in his day, presents Jesus’ parables, not only meant for the people of his time, but for the new situation in Galilee.
It’s a society increasingly hostile to Jesus of Nazareth. Still, the seed must be sown, however it’s received. And don’t give up on the tough ground, don’t judge it hopeless, don’t be judgmental about it, Matthew’s gospel insists:
“A sower went out to sow. some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. 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.Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.”
Some seed fell on good ground. Farming methods then involved throwing out the seed, however uncultivated the soil.
A lesson for us today? Seems so. .We’re like those who heard this parable originally and then, convinced it would be heard and understood and accepted, brought it to others.
The soil was unwelcoming then. Our soil seems unwelcoming now.. Still!
To listen to the audio for this week’s homily please select the audio slider below:
Matthew 20,1-19 25th Sunday A
The kingdom of God is coming, it’s here, Jesus says in the gospels. Often he describes the kingdom of God as a harvest, as he does in today’s gospel from Matthew. It’s an abundant harvest, bigger than you think. Pray that God’s kingdom come, he says to his disciples. Pray that it comes here on earth as in heaven. Don’t underestimate the kingdom, the harvest God sends.
It looks like the owner of the vineyard in our parable today has underestimated the size of his harvest. The first crew he sends out at 9 in the morning aren’t enough, so he calls more workers at noon, then 3 in the afternoon. At 5 in the afternoon he’s still adding to his workforce. Looks like he didn’t expect much.
That’s one of the first lessons to draw from the gospel. Don’t underestimate the power of God. Unfortunately, that’s what we do. We can expect too little from God. We forget that his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. We think he has nothing or little to do with human affairs, or our world or the things here on earth.
The workers in the vineyard don’t seem to appreciate a big harvest either. They’re interested in something else– how much they’re getting paid and how much the other fellow is getting paid. The owner’s not fair, they say, because he pays the last workers the same as those who came first to work in the vineyard. They’re concerned with themselves, blinded as they are by envy and jealousy.
“Are you envious because I am generous,” the owner of the vineyard, who now seems to be a figure of God, says to them. Is this another lesson to draw from the parable? Envy and jealousy and measuring everything from our own perspective blinds us to God’s generosity. They blind us to the coming of God’s kingdom.
On his way through the towns of Galilee, Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God. He was bringing it to the world. It was an abundant harvest, yet even as he announced it, powerful voices were denying it was true. The scribes and Pharisees called him a false teacher, even his own disciples’ and his own family didn’t understand him. Still, he proclaimed God’s great kingdom. In the darkness of calvary he proclaimed it to a thief on a cross, and then he proclaimed it to his own disciples as he rose from the dead.
But let’s admit it, as we look at our world today we don’t see signs of a great harvest. Where is the harvest Jesus spoke of? Where is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God seems far off, hardly here or ready to come. We’re living in a post-modern age, they say, when cynicism and questioning touch everything.
More than ever, we need to look at our world, not with our own eyes, but with the eyes of Jesus.
I like the story from John’s gospel describing Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman on his journey from Jerusalem to Galilee. It’s a hot afternoon; Jesus is tired and stops by a well to get a drink of water. It’s not a friendly place; the Samaritans don’t like the Jews and the Samaritan woman doesn’t like this Jew sitting at their well. But as they talk a new world appears, a light pierces the darkness and the woman recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and calls the people of her town to see him.
“‘In four months the harvest will be here’”? Jesus says to his disciples, “ I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest” He sees the kingdom of God coming in this small unexpected event. In the awakened faith of the woman before him, he sees the kingdom come.
That’s one of our greatest challenges today, to look up and see, in simple signs and in spite of everything, that the fields are ripe for the harvest. The kingdom of God has come.
Most of our readings for this part of Lent in the liturgy are from the “Sermon on the Mount” from the gospel of Matthew, which begins “When Jesus saw the crowds he went up the mountain and after he sat down his disciples came to him and he began to speak, and taught them…” Mt. 5, 1-2
Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain, a place where they can see beyond what they may see in their everyday world. In his time a mountain in Galilee looked down on a land of great beauty, blessed by God.
During lent we’re called to look at our life where beauty might be hidden, or perhaps we just don’t see it. In lent Jesus takes us up a mountain, the Mount of Beatitudes and the Mount of Calvary, and teaches us to see and understand life before us.
Awhile ago, I visited Galilee. Our guide Joseph had an extraordinary appreciation for that part of the Holy Land. In fact, he had a small farm near the Sea of Galilee and constantly remarked on all the things that grew in that blessed land around the sea.
Jesus had the same appreciation for that land, I’m sure. And he used images from the land and the sea to teach about God and his mysteries. I made a short video of Galilee with my friend Mauro and I’m going to use it on Saturday evening during a presentation of the parable of the Sower at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, NJ.