The Fifteenth Sunday of the Year
[Scripture Readings: Is 55:10-ll; Rom 8:18-23; Mt 13:1-23.]
If you have a garden, or have a generous friend who is a gardener, then you know that this is a great time of the year. Produce and fruit are coming in. They taste much better than the tomatoes picked two months ago in Guatemala from a hybrid stock that can endure the rough shipping and freight. Home grown fruit tastes like real fruit. All this leads us into the context of today’s Gospel in which Christ speaks of His word as bearing fruit. It is a simple image, but leads into a complex mystery of the mysterious process of the reception of God’s word.
Matthew was confronting the experience that God’s word seems to be so ineffective. In this, he was echoing Christ’s experience who withdrew into the company of his disciples in the face of the incomprehension and hostility of many of his contemporaries. Isaiah, too, knew this proclivity of Israel to hear, but not listen, to look, but not see. In the face of the physical experience of God’s word and his presence, the response was indifference, vacillation, and hostility. In the words of the Prologue to John’s Gospel, “the Word came to His Own, and His Own received Him not.” Even on a warm day, these are chilling words. The Gospel and the liturgy pivot around this mystery. “To you it has been given to understand the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven.” But do we understand them? Have we been included in the community of disciples, or are we really still on the outside?
“Why do you speak to them in parables?” When the Word of God enters into our world and our history, it seems to assume the shape of a parable. We tend to think of them as being esoteric, childish, or belonging to another culture. Why isn’t God more direct? Why does He mislead us and play games with us? But the whole dynamic of the Word of God is to bring us to conversion. It reveals to us another order of reality, another way of seeing. It enters into the logic of our discourse, but subverts the conclusions we draw from thin our own world views and systems. It is at work to disconcert us, to subvert and deconstruct our sense of “what is so.” If we were to understand them with our hearts, then we “would be converted and I would heal them.”
I think it would be worth taking a little time to reflect on this image of bearing fruit which appears in today’s Gospel and in so many places in Scripture. When we think of a “fruitful life”, we tend to think of having many children, making lots of money, advancing in a profession, being productive and successful. But this seems to be far from Christ’s understanding. “Bearing fruit” is , first, a slow process that obeys the seasons and times beyond its control. It emerges from within and all the energies of the plant or person are involved in this process. It externalizes what was hidden within and brings it forth into visibility. This challenges our usual mode of separating the internal from the external, the product from the producer. We are more than content with what shows externally, with the world of seeming, with the impression something makes. External images are what count. Secondly, the very idea of bearing fruit means that another will benefit from this activity. The fruit is for the nurturance of another. At the point of maturity, there is a separation and detachment. Otherwise, the fruit will rot. Erikson speaks of generativity as “the capacity to lose oneself in the meeting of bodies and minds.” A different expansiveness is realized in this mode of being. The very structure of our being moves us toward altruism, toward finding deep happiness in living for others. And thirdly, “bearing fruit” is correlated with rootedness. A plant that is frequently transplanted can hardly survive, much less bear fruit. We need to “earth the Gospel” in the context of our own place and historical situation. We live within the limits of the history and commitments which form us, and face the need to accept our own mortality. We know the groanings of creation from within the marrow of our own being. We know those sufferings which wait to be transformed into the glory of God’s presence. Our lives are deeply grounded in the mystery of dying and transformation that permeates the cosmos and the very dirt on which we stand. Our own bodies sacramentalize our participation in this dynamic which returns all things back to their creator, “not void .. but achieving the end for which I sent it.” Salvation includes the redemption of our bodies and all those processes of creation with which they are entwined.
It is only too easy for us to recognize those places on which the seed was sown. The path is that smooth route where the world walks back and forth over us. It is the world of coming and going, the world of our prized mobility. We need to “be on top of things.” And there we stay, plugged into any and every form of media while we create a soul of numb indifference. The rocky ground is seemingly receptive, but there is no depth of soil that comes from vulnerability and suffering endured and accepted. It shuns all suffering, whether from persecutions or the inevitable suffering that commitments bring. It vacillates in its loyalties and glories in its capacity to adjust and adapt. The soil which is home to weeds as well as God’s word finds itself choked by conflicting desires. It is the soil of too much opportunity, in which we think we can garden our service of God and Mammon at the same time. But in fact, we come to be hostile and hate the one for its critique of our desires and sense of privilege. Many are the ways in which our hearts grow dull and gross.
I think the key phrase in our Gospel today is Christ’s saying “to you it is given to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” The understanding which can convert our hearts is in fact a gift, not the result of our own cleverness or industry. The gift seems most able to penetrate our hearts when their coarse fibers are parted. Often this is at the time of suffering or loss. But also when we touch our own humility in silence and open expectancy. We let ourselves experience our incompleteness in knowing it can be met only by God. And in this knowing, we find we are given the mind of Christ to read the Scripture, to read our world and our own history. It is given to us understand the deep meaning of life contained in the mysteries of the kingdom of God — bearing us all together into His fullness.