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Christ’s parables are not secret codes but calls to conversion

On the Readings for Sunday, July 16, 2023

Detail from "Sower at Sunset" (1888) by Vincent van Gogh []

• Isa 55:10-11
• Psa 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14
• Rom 8:18-23
• Matt 13:1-23

The well-known parable of the seed and the sower is the first of seven parables in Matthew 13. These are known as the “Sermon of Parables” (Mt 13:1-53), and this sermon, as a whole, is the third great sermon recorded in the first Gospel, the previous two being the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) and the Mission Sermon (Mt 10:5-42).

There are about forty parables in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the Fourth Gospel contains no parables), and each expresses some truth about the mystery of the Kingdom of God, which is the heart of Jesus’ preaching. They impart, Jesus told the disciples, “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”, and are meant to enlighten those who hear with faith, while frustrating those without faith, “because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand”.

Yet the parables are not secret codes for a certain select, but are challenging calls to conversion. Parables, explains Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, “are means used by God’s mercy to reach the obtuse and hard-hearted, to give them something they can grasp that will perhaps initiate in them a process of conversion.” They reveal by concealing, and in doing so they test our humility and our willingness to really hear and know the Word of God.

The first four parables in Matthew 13 (vs. 1-43) focus on how the kingdom grows and the transforming power of God’s Word that brings about such supernatural growth. The final three parables (vs. 44-50), are concerned with the complete and radical choice demanded by the reality of the kingdom, which requires a full commitment of the heart, soul, and mind.

Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah describes how the goodness of God is evident in the rain and snow that waters the earth, thus providing the means of natural life—seed and bread—for everyone. Likewise, the word of God goes forth to all men and it “shall not return to me void”. So the word of God is likened to a seed; similarly, Jesus made a direct connection between the seed and the “word of the kingdom”. The seed that is sowed is not just a collection of words about the kingdom, but is the Word sent by the Father to dwell among men. This is, of course, the Incarnation, the coming the Logos, or Word, into the world (cf. Jn 1:9-18).

This seed is also the entire body of the teachings of the Incarnate Word, as well as the “good news” of his saving death and resurrection, by which the Kingdom is established and revealed. “In the word, in the works, and in the presence of Christ, this kingdom was clearly open to the view of men”, states the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, “The Word of the Lord is compared to a seed which is sown in a field; those who hear the Word with faith and become part of the little flock of Christ, have received the Kingdom itself. Then, by its own power the seed sprouts and grows until harvest time”.

The constitution further notes, “While it slowly grows, the Church strains toward the completed Kingdom and, with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its King” (par 5).

This parable of the seed and sower describes the slow growth and the straining of the Church here on earth. The path is the world, which is fallen and fractured, containing every sort of distraction and temptation. It contains much rocky ground and many thorns. Creation, as St. Paul observed, “is made subject to futility”, desiring to “be set free from slavery to corruption”.

But the world is also a place of authentic choice and of new life for those who are receptive to the seed. Those who truly hear, Jesus said, will be healed; they are, in the words of St. Paul, partakers in the “glorious freedom of the children of God”.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the July 10, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1216 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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