The Style and Substance of Jesus the Teacher, and Our Response to Him, Third Wednesday (II), January 29, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Wednesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
January 29, 2014
2 Sam 7:4-17, Ps 89, Mk 4:1-20

To listen to an audio recording of today’s Mass please click here: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • As we continue in this Catholic Schools Week to ponder that the Catholic Church is a school where Jesus teaches us throughout the entirety of our life, today we turn to the style and substance of his teaching and how we’re supposed to respond to his teaching.
  • First, with regard to his style, St. Mark tells us today, “Jesus began to teach by the sea … a very large crowd … and he taught them at length in parables.” St. Matthew would tell us, “He spoke to them only in parables,  to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation [of the world].'” Why in parables? There are a couple of obvious reasons. First is that any teacher begins from what people know to take them to what they don’t know and so Jesus used various images from daily life to teach about the spiritual life. They can make what might seem abstract concrete. Second, especially when someone is teaching at length, stories, images and other illustrations can help listeners both understand and retain the meaning. They’re interesting.
  • But the reason Jesus gives for using parables is something totally else and quite challenging. Quoting Isaiah, he says that the reason he teaches in this way is that “they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.” It also seems that he uses parables deliberately to confuse rather than to clarify, to prevent conversion rather than to facilitate it. But that’s clearly not why he’s doing it. Rather, it’s to engage the freedom of the hearer, to test the listener’s willingness to hear the word and ponder it, to examine his or her hunger for the truth and desire to know the deepest meanings of what God is teaching. If someone hears a parable with no desire to meditate on what is being indicated it shows how hard-hearted someone is. But if someone desires the truth, hearing the parable, it gives a prism for the examination of one’s life. Parables also can get through to people who would not be able to be reached with direct speech. We see that in the parable that the prophet Nathan gave to David later in 2 Samuel, about the evil of stealing and slaughtering a neighbor’s single beloved ewe lamb for a feast when someone has a hold flock; that’s what allowed David to see how evil was his decision to take Bathsheba adulterously and have Uriah her husband killed. For people who might not initially be open to conversion, parables often will prove to be the most effective way to convict them. That’s Jesus’ style.
  • Now we get to the substance of the parable he gives us today, which is something that should convict us. It’s all about receptivity to his teaching, whether we’re good students or not of our Master.
  • Before I get into what Jesus says, I’d like to repeat a story I often tell that one of my Italian professors told me back in the late 90s. There was an interview with an Italian porn star for one of the popular Italian magazines. He mentioned that he had gone to the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan and that his favorite class was on Christian ethics, something that the journalist found hard to understand. The actor said he really learned how to think in that class. He never missed a lecture, he took assiduous notes, he sat in the front row and ended up acing the final exam. So the reporter went to interview this ethics professor about his former student. The aging professor said when asked about the man, “He was never my student.” The journalist, thinking that the professor just couldn’t recall his now well-known former pupil, told him what the actor had said, that he had never missed a class, used to sit in the front row, had aced his final exam, etc. The professor said, “No, you misunderstand me. I remember the boy very well and he was in my class, but he was never my student.” The reporter was obviously confused. The professor clarified: “To be my student, one needs to do more than occupy space in my classroom, or regurgitate what I said on the final exam. To be my student, one needs to put what I teach into practice, and that’s why that boy was never my student.” Disciple is simply the fancy Greek word for student and we’re called to be students of Jesus in just this way: to do more than show up and know what Jesus says — although that’s a start! —  but to act on what he says and trust in Him even when it’s hard. What Jesus teaches us should change our life, but in order for that to occur, we must receive what he teaches on good soil. Today, with his words in the Gospel, we take a soil sample.
  • The first type of soil, pointing to the first type of inadequate student, is the hardened soil by the way side. The seed of Jesus’ teaching can’t penetrate because one  has a closed heart, either because one thinks he already has all the answers he needs, or because she’s too stubbornly set in her ways and refuses to put in the effort to change. We find this soil regularly with inveterate sinners who resist any call to conversion. But you also find it regularly in daily communicants who have heard the word of God so many times that they know the end of the story and they cease to listen in a way so as to change. Sometimes you also find this soil in the elderly, those who say, “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” I always say that if this is the case, then we’re going to find a lot of old dogs in hell! Jesus is always calling us to change, to deepen, to follow him the Master more closely. He’s going to be teaching us and calling us to change for as long as we have life. And we have to be open to that process. Otherwise, we will bear no fruit from his teaching.
  • The second type of soil is superficial or rocky soil. In many parts of the Holy Land, there is a thick layer of limestone about five inches under the soil. That means that when a seed hits there, the roots can establish very quickly in the warm soil that retains all the water in five inches, but eventually when the hot Middle Eastern sun arises, it scorches because the roots aren’t deep, it can’t continue to get nourishment from the soil, and the water that would be safe several inches under the soil ends up evaporating. These are people, Jesus tells us, who respond with joy to the word, who “like” it, but who don’t allow the world to drill deep down in their life to change them. There are many people who approach the word of God to be entertained rather than to be changed. They would much rather listen to a good storyteller who keeps them laughing and smiling than to someone who calls them to examine their consciences, their actions, their aspirations, their lives in the light of God’s word. This is the second type of soil — and this was fundamentally the soil of the Italian porn star. Jesus’ teaching bears no fruit in this type of student.
  • The third type of soil he describes is thorny. The soil would otherwise be good but thorns choke the growth of the seed. Jesus defines the thorns “as worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things.” We know this is true. If we come here to listen to Jesus with anxious hearts — for example, because a loved one is in the hospital with a terrible diagnosis, or because we don’t know how we’re going to pay this month’s rent — it’s going to be very hard to hear God’s word, even if it’s about trusting in God’s providential care. Likewise, if someone comes to Jesus’ class craving money and material possessions, or vanity, or power, or pleasure, or a big breakfast, it’s going to choke their receptivity and responsiveness to his Word, because their hearts will be elsewhere. Our hearts are where our treasure is. This is something every student of Jesus needs to ponder deeply. One of the reasons why we don’t bear nearly as much fruit as we could is because our heart isn’t in bearing fruit for the Lord. Rather our hearts are set on earthly concerns. It’s kind of like a high school student whose biggest goal in life is becoming an NBA basketball player. Such a student is in English and Physics thinking about basketball, and rather than studying as much as he should, he’s out practicing his free throws. We can do the same thing spiritually when we’re seeking an earthly hall of faith rather than the eternal hall of fame.
  • The fourth type of soil, the one Jesus calls “good,” produces fruit thirty, sixty or one hundredfold. It produces not just a little fruit but abundant fruit. A good student of Jesus, hearing his word, is changed thirty, sixty or 100 ways or more. That’s the way we should ponder the word, to look not just for one application to our life, but one after another. That’s obviously the way Mary heard the word in her contemplative heart and sought to have her whole life develop in accordance with it.
  • Thinking about bearing 30, 60 or 100-fold fruit can intimidate us, but in the first reading today, we learn something crucial about how we’re supposed to respond and how we bear fruit. David tells the prophet Nathan that he wants to build a house or temple of cedar for God, to bear fruit from what God had taught and given him, and Nathan, without taking it to the Lord in prayer, just says “Go for it.” But later God comes to him to Nathan and sends him back to David saying that he would not build a house for God, but that God wants to build a house for him — something that would be fulfilled, obviously, in the Temple Jesus himself was, which according to his humanity came from David’s line. Likewise, we can think about our building for God, our bearing fruit for him, but God wants first to build a house for us, he wants to give us himself. Once we become united with the Word — which happens when we enflesh his word proclaimed to us, but most especially when we enter into holy communion with the Word-made-flesh — then we begin to bear fruit naturally and supernaturally, as Jesus told us during the celebration of the first Mass: “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.” It’s key for us to grasp this point about fruit bearing, that it happens not primarily by our will power but because of our communion with God. And God seeks to give us that communion as gives us his Word and gives us Himself. As Pope Francis said in his recent apostolic exhortation, the Word of God is first a gift before it is a demand!
  • So having heard the Word of God today, we seek to respond as good students with good soil, bearing fruit in acts of love that will last. And the secret to that fruitfulness is here, as branches we enter into a life-changing communion, with the Vine.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
2 SM 7:4-17

That night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
“Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?
I have not dwelt in a house
from the day on which I led the children of Israel
out of Egypt to the present,
but I have been going about in a tent under cloth.
In all my wanderings everywhere among the children of Israel,
did I ever utter a word to any one of the judges
whom I charged to tend my people Israel, to ask:
Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’“Now then, speak thus to my servant David,
‘The LORD of hosts has this to say:
It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his Kingdom firm.
It is he who shall build a house for my name.
And I will make his royal throne firm forever.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
And if he does wrong,
I will correct him with the rod of men
and with human chastisements;
but I will not withdraw my favor from him
as I withdrew it from your predecessor Saul,
whom I removed from my presence.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.’”Nathan reported all these words and this entire vision to David.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 89:4-5, 27-28, 29-30

R. (29a) For ever I will maintain my love for my servant.
“I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have sworn to David my servant:
I will make your dynasty stand forever
and establish your throne through all ages.”
R. For ever I will maintain my love for my servant.
“He shall cry to me, ‘You are my father,
my God, the Rock that brings me victory!’
I myself make him firstborn,
Most High over the kings of the earth.”
R. For ever I will maintain my love for my servant.
“Forever I will maintain my love for him;
my covenant with him stands firm.
I will establish his dynasty forever,
his throne as the days of the heavens.”
R. For ever I will maintain my love for my servant.

MK 4:1-20

On another occasion, Jesus began to teach by the sea.
A very large crowd gathered around him
so that he got into a boat on the sea and sat down.
And the whole crowd was beside the sea on land.
And he taught them at length in parables,
and in the course of his instruction he said to them,
“Hear this! A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,
and the birds came and ate it up.
Other seed 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
and it produced no grain.
And some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit.
It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”
He added, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.”And when he was alone,
those present along with the Twelve
questioned him about the parables.
He answered them,
“The mystery of the Kingdom of God has been granted to you.
But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that
they may look and see but not perceive,
and hear and listen but not understand,
in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven
.”Jesus said to them, “Do you not understand this parable?
Then how will you understand any of the parables?
The sower sows the word.
These are the ones on the path where the word is sown.
As soon as they hear, Satan comes at once
and takes away the word sown in them.
And these are the ones sown on rocky ground who,
when they hear the word, receive it at once with joy.
But they have no roots; they last only for a time.
Then when tribulation or persecution comes because of the word,
they quickly fall away.
Those sown among thorns are another sort.
They are the people who hear the word,
but worldly anxiety, the lure of riches,
and the craving for other things intrude and choke the word,
and it bears no fruit.
But those sown on rich soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it
and bear fruit thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”