The Lean Hearts Needed to Understand Jesus’ Parables, 16th Thursday (II), July 21, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Doctor of the Church
July 21, 2016
Jer 2:1-3.7-8.12-13, Ps 36, Mt 13:10-17

 

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 more deeply 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 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.
  • 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 learning the meaning and growing in faith or whether the person is prepared simply to blow off the parable as irrelevant to his or her life. 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?
  • In the first reading today, God gives us a powerful parable through his prophet Jeremiah that should lead us to examination. He says at the end of today’s passage, “Be amazed at this, O heavens, and shudder with sheer horror, says the Lord. Two evils have my people done: they have forsaken me, the source of living waters; They have dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that hold no water.” He used the image of water, which is extremely powerful in an arid climate full of desert areas like the Holy Land. The first thing those in Judah did was forsake the spiritual well God had given them. He was the font of living waters, constantly seeking not only to quench their thirst but to hydrate them and make the healthy. Instead of coming to the well God had given them and getting flowing water, they thought they didn’t need it. They built cisterns. Cisterns in the Holy Land were carved into the thick layers of limestone a few inches underneath the soil (what we talked about with stoney soil). The problem with limestone, however, is that it’s very porous and hence it needed to be lined with plaster and sealed in order to maintain any water. When that plaster was broken for any reason, however, the cistern would quickly lose all the water it contained. God was accusing the Jews, first, of foolishly forsaking a well of fresh flowing water for a cistern of stagnant water and, second, for doing so for a broken cistern that can’t even hold water. That’s what they did when they forsook the Lord for pagan gods and an immoral lifestyle. What they did was summarized by God a little earlier in this chapter, in a passage that was excerpted out of today’s first reading, but gives us the key to understand it: “What fault did your fathers find in me that they withdrew from me, went after empty idols, and became empty themselves?” We see that whole progression in this reading, how the Jews were devoted in their youth as they followed him in the desert but when he brought them to the land flowing with milk and honey, the “garden land to eat its goodly fruits,” they defiled the land and make the heritage of that land loathsome. They basically desecrated the gift God gave them by their idolatry and sin. Even those who were supposed to be especially committed them joined in the spiritual adultery. The priests, he said, who were supposed to teach “asked not, ‘Where is the Lord?,” because they totally abandoned prayer and passed on, instead of God’s word, their own worthless platitudes. Those who were supposed to be teachers of God’s law “knew me not.” The rulers of the people, referred to symbolically as the “shepherds,” “rebelled against me.” They stopped following the Lord as their shepherd and led the sheep not into verdant pastures but to the slaughter house. The prophets who were supposed to announce God’s word instead “prophesied by Ba’al,” the god of sex and pleasure, “and went after useless idols.”
  • The parable of the exchange of the flowing well for a broken cistern is given to us not as a tidbit of historical curiosity but to help us, like every parable, to convert and come to the Lord to be healed. Do we still love the Lord with the intensity of the devotion we had when we used to pray as children, on the day we came to receive our first Holy Communion, at the time of the great graces we’ve received when we knew how real God was, that he loved us, that he was with us? If we were poor at one point of our life and really depended on God and on prayer, are we still as dependent and prayerful now that we can make all our ends meet? Have we helped to make the land of our soul a real garden where the Lord roams as we eat of all of its “goodly fruits” or have we defiled the great heritage he has given us? In his dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus identified himself as the “living water” who would well up inside of us to eternal life. Do we go regularly to drink of that font as Jesus seeks to hydrate us in the Gospel, in prayer, in the sacraments, in deeds of self-less charity, or have we traded Jesus’ living water for a refrigerator, or a summer cooler, or a keg? In the Responsorial Psalm today we prayed repeatedly, “With you is the fountain of life, O Lord!” Are we able to say of God that fountain what we pray in the Psalms, “O God, you are my God, for you I long! For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts, like a land parched, lifeless, and without water”? (Ps 63). God gave us Jeremiah’s parable, Jesus has given us all the parables, so that we might return to Him, the font of living water, and receive within the medicine that will make us truly whole.
  • One person who had good soil and a lean heart to receive Jesus’ parables and help others to understand them in such a way to be converted and healed is St. Lawrence of Brindisi, the great Capuchin Doctor of the Church whom we celebrate today. He was gifted with extraordinary intelligence and an incredible memory such that he learned almost all of the modern European languages as well as the ancient ones used in the Bible, which he learned inside out in the original languages. But rather than allowing his intelligence to go proudly to his head, he humbly sought out God’s wisdom not as a thing to be known but a gift to be lived and nourished through prayer and shared with others. As a six year old boy, he used to give powerful homilies to his family members and other parishioners on the meaning of Christ’s incarnation at Christmas time. Eventually after he had become a Capuchin Franciscan, he became a famous preacher of conversion, first to Catholics in traditional mission and sermons, then to Protestants in Germany who had left during the Reformation and finally, at Pope Paul V’s request, to the Jews in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. In all three circumstances, his enfleshment of the beauty of God’s mercy, his awe at God’s holy wisdom, and his radiance of the happiness that comes from walking in the Lord’s way brought many to profound conversion, healing and the fullness of faith through the Catholic Church. At the beginning of Mass today, we prayed to God the Father to grant us “that in the same spirit [of St. Lawrence], we may know what must be done and, through his intercession, bring it to completion.” Today God makes abundantly clear through parables the conversion he’s asking of us and we ask St. Lawrence to intercede to bring us to complete conversion as we prepare now to receive from the same font of living water that he received each day, that helped him become a doctor of the Church, and welled up within him to eternal life!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
JER 2:1-3, 7-8, 12-13

This word of the LORD came to me:
Go, cry out this message for Jerusalem to hear!
I remember the devotion of your youth,
how you loved me as a bride,
Following me in the desert,
in a land unsown.
Sacred to the LORD was Israel,
the first fruits of his harvest;
Should any presume to partake of them,
evil would befall them, says the LORD.
When I brought you into the garden land
to eat its goodly fruits,
You entered and defiled my land,
you made my heritage loathsome.
The priests asked not,
“Where is the LORD?”
Those who dealt with the law knew me not:
the shepherds rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after useless idols.Be amazed at this, O heavens,
and shudder with sheer horror, says the LORD.
Two evils have my people done:
they have forsaken me, the source of living waters;
They have dug themselves cisterns,
broken cisterns, that hold no water.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 36:6-7AB, 8-9, 10-11

R. (10a) With you is the fountain of life, O Lord.
O LORD, your mercy reaches to heaven;
your faithfulness, to the clouds.
Your justice is like the mountains of God;
your judgments, like the mighty deep.
R. With you is the fountain of life, O Lord.
How precious is your mercy, O God!
The children of men take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They have their fill of the prime gifts of your house;
from your delightful stream you give them to drink.
R. With you is the fountain of life, O Lord.
For with you is the fountain of life,
and in your light we see light.
Keep up your mercy toward your friends,
your just defense of the upright of heart.
R. With you is the fountain of life, O Lord.

Gospel
MT 13:10-17

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.
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.”

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