Lectionary Reflection—16 July 2017

That same day Jesus left the house and went out beside Lake Galilee, where he sat down to teach. 2Such large crowds gathered around him that he had to sit in a boat, while the people stood on the shore. 3Then he taught them many things by using stories. He said:

“A farmer went out to scatter seed in a field. 4While the farmer was scattering the seed, some of it fell along the road and was eaten by birds. 5Other seeds fell on thin, rocky ground and quickly started growing because the soil wasn’t very deep. 6But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched and dried up, because they did not have enough roots. 7Some other seeds fell where thornbushes grew up and choked the plants. 8But a few seeds did fall on good ground where the plants produced a hundred or sixty or thirty times as much as was scattered. 9If you have ears, pay attention!”

[10Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you use nothing but stories when you speak to the people?”

11Jesus answered:

“I have explained the secrets about the kingdom of heaven to you, but not to others. 12Everyone who has something will be given more. But people who don’t have anything will lose even what little they have. 13I use stories when I speak to them because when they look, they cannot see, and when they listen, they cannot hear or understand. 14So God’s promise came true, just as the prophet Isaiah had said,

‘These people will listen
and listen,
   but never understand.
They will look and look,
   but never see.
15All of them have
   stubborn minds!
Their ears are stopped up,
   and their eyes are covered.
They cannot see or hear
   or understand.
If they could,
they would turn to me,
   and I would heal them.’

16But God has blessed you, because your eyes can see and your ears can hear! 17Many prophets and good people were eager to see what you see and to hear what you hear. But I tell you that they didn’t see or hear.]

18“Now listen to the meaning of the story about the farmer:

19The seeds that fell along the road are the people who hear the message about the kingdom, but don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches the message from their hearts. 20The seeds that fell on rocky ground are the people who gladly hear the message and accept it right away. 21But they don’t have deep roots, and they don’t last very long. As soon as life gets hard or the message gets them in trouble, they give up.

22The seeds that fell among the thornbushes are also people who hear the message. But they start worrying about the needs of this life and are fooled by the desire to get rich. So the message gets choked out, and they never produce anything. 23The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and understand the message. They produce as much as a hundred or sixty or thirty times what was planted.”

Ah...the parables of Jesus. They’re some of my favorite passages in the Gospels. Matthew 13 is the beginning of a series of parables—of stories—that Jesus tells the people. And this one is quite telling.

Matthew tells us that this parable (like most of the ones in this Gospel) is about “the kingdom of heaven” (v. 11). For those of us who don’t know, the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew is equal to the “kingdom of God” found in the other Gospels and throughout the rest of the New Testament. It’s another way of saying God’s Realm. But what does it mean? For a lot of people today “the kingdom of heaven” means something like, “believing in Jesus—that he died for our sins—and going to heaven when we die.” But that’s hardly what the people of Jesus’ time would have thought.

Biblical exegesis, the art of interpretation, is trying to excavate the original meaning of the text with regards to the author’s or speaker’s intent and audience understanding. I’m not going to lie—it can be hard work. Trying to get to someone else’s intention is almost impossible (some would say it’s definitely impossible).

One of the things we experienced in Spiritual Direction training was the Ignatian practice of placing oneself into the story. I find this practice to be very helpful when reading the stories we encounter, especially in the Gospels. Stand there with the crowd. Smell the air. Feel the humidity. Taste the dust rising on the wind. Now ask yourself, “If I was standing there with the crowd, how would I have understood what Jesus was saying? Would I think he was addressing us in the crowd or would I have thought he was addressing all people through all time?” If our answer is he’s speaking to all people throughout all time, well, we need to keep practicing! As a friend of mine once said, “Words means something!” So when Jesus says “you” throughout this passage, for example, he would have intended to mean the people to whom he was speaking.

So, what is the “word about the kingdom” (v. 19)? It’s none other than the message Jesus preached as seen in Mark 1.15, “The time has come! God’s kingdom will soon be here. Turn back to God and believe the good news!” Or, as the Common English Bible translates it, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news” (emphasis added). The “word about the kingdom,” then, was the message that God’s promised Realm was finally coming into the world. And, more shockingly, it was somehow coming through Jesus. It’s not something coming in the future at the end of the world (as many people thought and still think today) but it was appearing right then and there.

The phrase that points to the then fulfillment of God’s Realm entering our world in Mark 1.15 is “soon be here”. In Greek, that’s one word—ἐγγίζω (engizō). When ἐγγίζω is used in the way it’s used here (perfect tense, indicative mood) it carries the meaning of “extreme closeness—immediate, imminent” (HELPS).

In other words, the story Jesus tells in the Lectionary reading is all about the people of Jesus’ day. It’s about him (and, later, his followers) speaking about God’s Realm coming into the world. It describes the hearts and minds of Jesus’ own people. And, certainly, this could be extrapolated to people in our own time, too, but we can’t miss the original message. This was directed specifically to Jesus’ generation (as will be seen even clearer in next week’s reading). It’s that generation whose ears had stopped hearing and whose eyes had stopped seeing what God was doing through Jesus:

But as Jesus came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. 42“How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it’s too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. 43Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. 44They’ll crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies won’t leave a single stone in place, because you didn’t recognize it when God visited you” (Luke 19.41-44; adapted; NLT2).

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

1. Unless otherwise indicated, the Bible used this week is The Contemporary English Version (CEV). Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society, Used by Permission.

2. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.


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