January 30, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today’s gospel reading is Mark 4:1-20.
On another occasion he 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 root; 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.”
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary quotes C.H. Dodd’s classic definition of a parable, “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” I like that because I often am left scratching my head trying to figure out the precise meaning of Jesus’ parables. However, this time Jesus makes its meaning pretty clear to his disciples. Why did he explain it so carefully to his disciples including the Twelve and not all those who heard him that day? I think it’s precisely because they represented the rich soil. They had given up everything to follow him; they didn’t know where he was leading them but they followed. They endured rejection and scorn by many of their fellow Jews, the probable doubt even from family and friends. Jesus upended everything they had grown up believing — befriending sinners, touching lepers, speaking to strange women, praising Samaritans. But they kept at it day after day, eager to learn, trusting this man who had a special relationship with God, and accepting what followed his “amen, amen, I say to you” pronouncements. They were the rich soil that would yield even a hundredfold from the seed he planted in them.
The New American Bible notes explain that the sowing of the seed represented the “breakthrough of the kingdom of God into the world….The climax of the parable is the harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold, indicating the consummation of the kingdom. Thus both the present and future action of God, from the initiation to the fulfillment of the kingdom, is presented through this and other parables.” These disciples represented the consummation of God’s kingdom, the present and future fulfillment of His kingdom. How is that? The kingdom of God is present in the heart and mind of the one who submits to the will of God as Jesus did and who faithfully acts on His will by bringing His compassion and justice into the world. That brings the kingdom of God into the present. And those who experience the kingdom will want more of it and will strive to recreate it again and again. The seed sown in fertile soil will repay the investment many times over. That is the future kingdom of God, at least as I understand it.
There are some verses in the gospel that I simply can’t understand on my own; I have to glean understanding from someone else. This verse about the mystery of the kingdom of God being withheld from some is one of those. Barclay helps me out with his explanation of the Greek meaning of the word ‘mystery.’ “It does not mean something which is complicated and mysterious in our sense of the term. It means something which is quite unintelligible to the person who has not been initiated into its meaning, but is perfectly plain to the person who has been so initiated….[I]t does not mean that the Kingdom is remote and abstruse and hard to understand; but it does mean that it is quite unintelligible to the man who has not given his heart to Jesus, and that only the man who has taken Jesus as Master and Lord can understand what the Kingdom of God means.” Jesus was not withholding anything from some people. It was they who were withholding acceptance of him and, with that, understanding of the what the kingdom of God meant. Thus, they would fail to be converted, to believe, to repent and consequently forgiven.
The four types of soil upon which the seed is sown is meant to be each one of us. Jesus wasn’t dividing people into four groups. I am all four of those he describes. It’s not that I have developed sequentially, leaving one phase behind as I mature into another. I repeatedly cycle through them all, it seems. I am like the hard-beaten path when I steel my mind and heart against a new way of seeing things or against someone who has hurt or offended me. I don’t want to open up; I want to stay right where I’m mired. Even the word of God cannot penetrate my hardness. I can’t count the times I’ve been like rocky soil. I get all jazzed up by a retreat, a homily, a song, a book and make all kinds of resolutions. Then nothing happens. I can’t sustain the exhilaration of the moment and soon lose interest or motivation. When the difficult part comes, I fold. I’m back to where I started. I probably spend more time in the thorns than anywhere. It’s so easy for me to be consumed by work, or a new idea or plan, or lust for something I’d like to have, or worries that always abound. Then before long I go days and days without praying or praying without being present, without praising and thanking God for His bountiful blessings, without keeping Jesus in my mind and heart as I go about my day.
For quite a while now I’ve been like the rich soil. It began with my Christ Renews His Parish retreat. The difference this time, I think, was the formation process and giving of the next weekend. It wasn’t a one-time high that soon dissipated. A question formed in my mind that wouldn’t go away: Who was this man Jesus? It occurred to me that the best way to find out was to read the gospels. After I read the daily gospel a few days I had a strong calling to write down what it provoked in me. In those reflections Jesus was revealed to me as a person I could relate to, talk to as a friend who loved and accepted me no matter what. It was as John Sanford in The Kingdom Within describes, through my “close contact with Jesus and..growing spiritual awareness” that I “glimpsed this reality that Jesus calls the kingdom….Such an ‘opening of one’s eyes,’ a ‘revelation,’ can never ben given directly in so many words. We see inner reality only through an ‘aha!’ experience, a sudden insight into our own being….This is why Jesus calls the kingdom ‘a mystery.’ The Greek word for this is mysterion. A ‘mysterion’ was something to be known, but it was an initiated knowledge, knowledge that a person could acquire only through his or her own individual insight and experience, and that could not be communicated through an ordinary educational process.”
By this experience I am being challenged to take action, to put the gospels into motion, to do not just to be. I have come to see that the kingdom of God is meant to be established here and now, first in my heart and then in my actions with all those around me. It seems like I’m only able to take tiny, tiny steps. But hopefully one of these days, I may be one of those who produce fruit a hundredfold; I may be food for countless others. I think that is Jesus’ hope for me anyway.