Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life
Thursday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. Bridget of Sweden
July 23, 2015
Ex 19:1-2.9-11.16-20, Dan 3:52-56,, Mt 13:1-17
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- “Why do you speak to the crowds in parables?,” the disciples ask Jesus in today’s Gospel. It’s a very important question for us to know the answer to, especially as we enter today into Chapter 13 of St. Matthew, which contains eight of Jesus parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, parables we’ll be hearing through next Thursday. Jesus gives us the ultimate answer at the end of his explanation, which tells us not only why he teaches in parables but what is the point of all his teaching: Quoting the prophet Isaiah he says that the reason is so that we “may understand with [our] hearts and be converted and I heal [you].” Jesus teaches in order to help us hear him with the heart, convert and be healed, to turn away from whatever is poisoning our relationship with God, to turn toward him the Divine Physician and then literally to “turn with” him (con-vertere).
- He needs to use parables with the crowds in order to circumvent the problem of the three types of infertile soil. If he were preaching only to those with good soil, he could speak very directly. If he said, “I need you to stop doing that,” those with good soil would stop. If he said, “I need you to go here,” those with good soil would go. But relatively few listen to the Lord with the willingness to let it change their life in 30, 60, 100 ways or more. So Jesus, in order to try to bring them to conversion, healing and holiness, uses the images of the parables.
- We see the power of a parable in achieving what direct speech would not be able to accomplish in the interaction between the Prophet Nathan and King David. If Nathan had simply upbraided David for committing adultery with Bathseba and then having Uriah murdered, David likely would have been defensive, since he had already had his conscience eclipsed with regard to what he had done and was self-justifying. Bathsheba was now living with him and he showed no real recognition that anything he had done was wrong. So Nathan went into his presence and called him to conversion parabolically. He asked him, “Judge this case for me! In a certain town there were two men, one rich, the other poor. The rich man had flocks and herds in great numbers. But the poor man had nothing at all except one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He nourished her, and she grew up with him and his children. She shared the little food he had and drank from his cup and slept in his bosom. She was like a daughter to him. Now, the rich man received a visitor, but he would not take from his own flocks and herds to prepare a meal for the wayfarer who had come to him. Instead he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and made a meal of it for his visitor.” David was outraged at what had happened and said, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this merits death!” Then Nathan said to him: “You are the man!” That’s when David realized what he had done. After he had recognized the terrible injustice parabolically he was able to see what he had done. That’s the first reason why Jesus speaks in parables, because it is through parables that he is able to communicate the truths of the Gospel to those with hardened, rocky, or thorny soil who wouldn’t receive the lessons in an ordinary didactic way, because they listen but do not hear with faith and look but do not see with faith because they don’t want to hear the message of conversion and see the path to a converted life. We see that Pope Francis did the same thing in Laudato Si’, giving the analogy of the care for endangered species as an analogy for the way we care for each other, especially those in danger through abortion, or euthanasia, or of death through poverty in the middle of life. He used the analogy of concerns about genetically modified organisms as a parable of sorts for the concern we should have for the manipulation of the human genome, for embryonic stem cell research and the like. He focused on the legitimate care we have for our environmental ecology with what we should have for our human and social ecology.
- But there’s a second reason he speaks in parables. It’s because the rehabilitation of infertile soil requires some work and the parables are an invitation to do that work. The are a test to see if the person is willing to do the work to understand the meaning of the parable, whether the person cares about what he or she is listening to in order to learn the meaning and grow in faith or whether the person is prepared simply to blow off the parable as irrelevant to his or her life. Just like poetry or any other type of symbolic writing, parables require some work to figure out what the symbolism means and to draw the appropriate moral or morals of the story. This is what Jesus is pointing to when he says, “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 one of the central lessons of life. Those who study grow in knowledge. Those who lift weights grow in strength. Those who practice a skill develop it. But those who don’t study, work out, or practice gradually lose their abilities. It’s a similar thing with faith, which is a both a divine gift and a moral muscle. The more we make acts of faith, the more we grow. The more we hunger to learn and live our faith, the more those hungers are fed. Jesus’ use of parables expose whether we care about the truths of faith enough to do the spiritual exercise required to understand their meaning and apply it to our lives. And so for us during these days both at daily Mass and at Sunday Mass, the big question for us is whether we’re going to respond to Jesus’ parables by examining what type of receptivity and response we have to his Word by means of the Parable of the Sower, Soil and Seed; what type of growth we’re experiencing by the Parable of the Mustard Seed; what type of influence we’re having in lifting people to God by the Parable of the Leaven in the Dough; whether we’re wheat or weeds in the fields, or good fish or bad caught in the dragnet; whether God is truly the most important reality in our life in the parable of the treasure buried in a field and the pearl of great price; whether we really value the inheritance of God’s word that we try to integrate with everything we learn in the parable of the storehouse with the owner taking from it both the new and the old. The parables require work to understand them and much more work to live them. Are we prepared to put in that work?
- Today we can ponder in depth the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. Because yesterday on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene we had a proper Gospel, we combined it with todays Gospel as the Church recommends we do at daily Mass so that we can have continuity in the readings. By this Parable, Jesus is inspiring us to take a soil sample of our hearts, to help determine how we receive and respond to him, to all that he teaches us, and to all that he seeks to do in our life. He is the Sower who goes out to sow. He ultimately sows himself like a “grain of wheat” (Jn 12:24): he sows his word, his grace, his body and blood, all he is and has he tries to implant within us and within the world. But the way we respond to those gifts varies.
- To understand what he says, we first need to grasp a little about ancient farming techniques (and how much farming has advanced in 2,000 years!). Sowers would scatter seed on long thin plots before any soil had been turned over. The seed would land on four different types of earth. The first is the hardened land between plots that would serve as the paths on which people would walk and make hard; no seed could penetrate those ancient sidewalks. The second would be the very thin “rocky” soil that would have thick layers of limestone a few inches underneath the surface. Here the seeds would take and quickly germinate because the water would be retained within the few inches of soil and when the temperature would quickly rise in the morning. Because the roots couldn’t penetrate the stone, however, the sprouts would not be able to last for long, quickly dehydrating and withering as the sun grew in intensity. The third terrain Jesus describes as “thorny” soil, which is basically good earth that could have borne a lot of fruit if it weren’t covered with thorn bushes and weeds that would grow up exhausting the nutrients of the soil so that the good seed really couldn’t grow. And the last type was good soil that Jesus describes would bear much fruit.
- Just as a sower would scatter seed over all four types of earth, so Jesus scatters his word, his grace, his saving deeds over all four kinds of people represented by the respective soil samples. We see all four soil types among his first listeners.
- We saw in many of the scribes and Pharisees the hardened soil that totally resisted Jesus’ words and the testimony of his miracles, closing their ears and their hearts to his message and actually accusing him of working his indisputable miracles not by God’s power but by the devil. No matter what Jesus said, no matter how he said it, no matter how he backed it up by deeds, they weren’t going to listen and be converted. The evil one, as Jesus mentions in the Parable, would come to snatch the seed away before it could ever get planted.
- We see the rocky or superficial soil in the people for whom Jesus worked the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. They listened to Jesus for hours, they even followed him after the miracle along the entire upper lip of the Sea of Galilee, but most of them abandoned Jesus as soon as he asked them to believe something they found hard, his teaching on the Eucharist, that to have life we need to gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood. They were willing to listen to Jesus’ words for a time, but when he asked them to do something that made them uncomfortable, their faith withered and died.
- We see the thorny soil in those who said that they would follow Jesus but first they wanted to bury their father, or go on their honeymoon, or inspect their new oxen. We also see it in the Rich Young Man, who came to Jesus as a good teacher and who kept all the commandments from his youth, but who — when Jesus gave him a choice between storing up for himself treasure in heaven or holding on to his earthly riches — chose the thornbush of his worldly wealth. His materialism choked his growth in faith and prevented his seeking “perfection” together with Jesus.
- We see the good soil in people like the Blessed Mother, who, as the ancient icons attest, conceived the word of God first through her “ear” before she conceived him in her womb, whom Jesus praised for hearing the word of God and putting into practice, who wanted her whole life to develop, as she told God through his angel, according to God’s word. We see this good soil in so many other saints like eleven of the apostles, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and others who bore abundant fruit by allowing God to work through them.
- We see the same four types of soil in the ancient Israelites whom we have been accompanying on exodus in the first readings over the course of the last week.
- We see the hardened soil in the response of many who stiffened their necks toward God and Moses throughout the journey.
- We see the superficial soil in those who responded, “Let us sing to the Lord. He has covered himself with glory” after passing through the Red Sea but who immediately began to complain about their food and drink, not trusting in the Lord continue to provide and lead. We will see it later when Moses reads to them the commandments and the law of the Lord and they replied, “All that the Lord has commanded we will do,” only to break it almost immediately and start worshipping a golden calf.
- We see the thorny soil in all those who longed for the fleshpots of Egypt, who had worldly cares and anxieties that were distracting them from the growth God wanted to give them.
- And we see the good soil in Moses, who responded to the Lord in the burning bush, who did what the Lord commanded, and whose life continues to bear fruit spiritually until this day.
- The point of today’s parable is that God wants us all to receive his word and to respond to him with good soil. To become a saint we don’t have to be a spiritual superhero; we simply need to give God permission and correspond to what he wishes to do in and through us. We just need to have good, receptive and responsive soil. If we’re going to do that, however, we have to grasp what good soil is. And there are three things we need to grasp about good soil: attentive listening, the courage to eradicate the hardness, drill through stony layers and weed out thorns, and an eager longing to bear fruit.
- Someone who had this type of good soil is St. Bridget of Sweden (1304-1373) whom the Church celebrates today. She was married at the age of 14 in an arranged nuptials to Ulf Gudmarsson. She had eight children and she was an exemplary wife and mother, passing on the faith to her husband and children faithfully and creating a spiritual ecology of good, fruitful soil. One of her children, Christina, also became a canonized saint. When Bridget was in her late 30s, she and her husband made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the shrine where the remains of St. James (whose feast day we’ll celebrate on Friday) are interred. Returning from Santiago, Ulf and Bridget decided that God was calling them, now that their children were older, to go their separate ways as they continued the pilgrimage of life. Ulf entered a Cistercian monastery and Bridget founded a new religious community, the Order of the Most Holy Savior, which has ever after been called the Brigittines after her. There she was blessed with many mystical visions of the Lord’s passion, which bore great fruit in her own life as she united herself to the sufferings of the Lord for the salvation of the world. In the opening prayer of the Mass, we turned to the God “who guided Saint Bridget of Sweden along different paths of life” — as a daughter, a wife, a mom, a religious and a foundress — and asked him, “grant us that, walking worthily in our vocation, we may seek you in all things.” St. Bridget sought God in all the phases of her life, a life that was never static but always a pilgrimage that contained along the way many surprises. She allowed the Lord to plant the seeds of a vocation to holiness within her and in various forms of life, those seeds bore abundant fruit.
- I’d like to focus on one last aspect of today’s Parable, because it is central to every apostolate and is particularly relevant to your work as Sisters of Life and to seeking to make Christ’s kingdom come. Just like a plant that grows from a seed eventually bears fruit with new seeds that can be implanted elsewhere, so if we have good soil, then the grown and developed seeds that Jesus has planted will mature within us so that we can then implant them in the soil of others’ hearts. But as we do, we will encounter all four types of soil: some will respond abundantly, others will be totally opposed, others will give an immediate good response but not persevere, and others will want to persevere but the lure of pleasures or the fear of pain or suffering chokes the growth of the seeds within. Today’s Gospel is very consoling, therefore, for all of us who try to share our faith only to meet with a lack of response or outright rejection. It helps us to keep these objective failures in the transmission of the faith in their proper context. The seed — the Word of God — is perfect and we, the sowers in these cases, may have done our job as well as anyone possibly could. The reason why our work may not have borne fruit is because of the type of soil of those to whom we try to pass on the word. They might be too hardened, or too superficial, or too concerned with pleasure, riches or worldly anxieties to have let the word penetrate. There are a lot of things we can control, but we can’t control others’ soil. We can try to help those with whom we’re interacting loosen up their hardened hearts, drill through superficiality, and take out the various thorns that can choke the growth of union with God. We can use parables, like Jesus did, to help them see truths from other angles, to see if they have good will and a desire for the truth, to seek it and live it. But today’s parable teaches us that some will respond well and others poorly. Some people will use their ears to hear and some won’t. The only thing we can do is to keep planting the seed with eager longing, entrusting our loved ones to the Lord and asking his help to prepare the soil of their hearts to receive him fruitfully.
- Today at this Mass, not only has God tried to plant us the seed of Jesus’ word — so that we might have good soil and act on today’s beautiful Gospel! — but he also wants to inseminate us with Jesus the Word-made-flesh in the Eucharist. Jesus is the word that has come forth from the mouth of the Father, who did not return to Him empty but accomplished the purpose for which he was sent. He is the grain of wheat who fell to the earth and died, but rose again to rebirth so that we might share his divine life (cf. Jn 12:24). As we prepare to receive that Word bodily in Holy Communion, we ask him to till the soil of our souls so that his life might sink so deeply in ours that we might bear abundant fruit, fruit that will last into eternal life, fruit that will be the seeds of the word of God in the lives of those we love and meet.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 EX 19:1-2, 9-11, 16-20B
on its first day, the children of Israel came to the desert of Sinai.
After the journey from Rephidim to the desert of Sinai,
they pitched camp.While Israel was encamped here in front of the mountain,
the LORD told Moses,
“I am coming to you in a dense cloud,
so that when the people hear me speaking with you,
they may always have faith in you also.”
When Moses, then, had reported to the LORD the response of the people,
the LORD added, “Go to the people
and have them sanctify themselves today and tomorrow.
Make them wash their garments and be ready for the third day;
for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai
before the eyes of all the people.”On the morning of the third day
there were peals of thunder and lightning,
and a heavy cloud over the mountain,
and a very loud trumpet blast,
so that all the people in the camp trembled.
But Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God,
and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain.
Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke,
for the LORD came down upon it in fire.
The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace,
and the whole mountain trembled violently.
The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking
and God answering him with thunder.When the LORD came down to the top of Mount Sinai,
he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.
Responsorial Psalm DANIEL 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56
“Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our fathers,
praiseworthy and exalted above all forever;
And blessed is your holy and glorious name,
praiseworthy and exalted above all for all ages.”
R. Glory and praise for ever!
“Blessed are you in the temple of your holy glory,
praiseworthy and glorious above all forever.”
R. Glory and praise for ever!
“Blessed are you on the throne of your Kingdom,
praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.”
R. Glory and praise for ever!
“Blessed are you who look into the depths
from your throne upon the cherubim,
praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.”
R. Glory and praise for ever!
“Blessed are you in the firmament of heaven,
praiseworthy and glorious forever.”
R. Glory and praise for ever!
Alleluia SEE MT 11:25
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Blessed are you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth;
you have revealed to little ones the mysteries of the Kingdom.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MT 13:1-17
Such large crowds gathered around him
that he got into a boat and sat down,
and the whole crowd stood along the shore.
And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying:
“A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, 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.
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,
a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
“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.
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
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.”