The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2008, reports that the fastest growing religious denomination is “none.” Among the 16.1 percent who do not identify themselves with any religion, approximately half had been affiliated with a religion as children. One in four young adults, ages 18 to 29, claims no religious affiliation. The study prompts important questions: Why is this happening, and what can be done about it? The Matthean community asked similar questions, as reflected in today’s Gospel. Why do some accept Jesus’ interpretation of the law while others do not?
Like all of Jesus’ parables, the one in today’s Gospel is open to a variety of interpretations. If we take the sower as the focus, the parable invites us to reflect on the boundless generosity of God, who offers the word, in the person of Jesus, to all in the hope of a fruitful response, no matter how poorly prepared to receive it some may seem to be. If we zero in on the seed, the parable assures us of the efficacy of the word. No matter what the yield, the seed itself is good, and it will bear fruit. If we take the harvest as the focus, the explosive return propels us into reflection on eschatological fulfilment of hopes beyond our wildest dreams. Finally, if the different types of soil are our focus, the parable urges effort to do everything possible to cull out obstacles and cultivate maximum receptivity to the word.
As Jesus’ first followers struggled to understand why others did not respond as they did to Jesus’ teaching, they turned to the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah articulates that this experience is repeated in the life of every prophet. Some people are disposed to see and hear and respond positively to the prophet’s message, while others close themselves off to the challenging word that could bring healing and that could free them to live life more fully in God’s love. To explain the negative response by the latter, Isaiah puts the onus not on the prophet, nor on the message, but on those who deliberately close themselves off to the prophet’s words and actions.
In the Gospel, Jesus explains that the ability to accept his teaching is a gift from God. What is given is “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (v. 11). This is the only time the word mysteries appears in the Gospels (Mt 13:11 and parallels). In other Jewish sources, the term mystery is associated with God’s purposes for the end times (e.g., Dn 2:27-28; 1 Enoch 68:5; 4 Ezr 10:38). Here the mystery is the presence of God’s realm in Jesus and his ministry.
While verses 11 and 12 explain that knowledge of the mysteries is God’s gift, verses 13 to 17 emphasize human responsibility to cultivate receptivity so as to be able to respond as fully as possible to the gift. Some let the gift be snatched from them; some toss it aside in favor of something else that seems more alluring. Work must be done to root out whatever might stand in the way of allowing the gift to unfold all its riches. The parable and its allegorical interpretation undercut any smugness or complacency on the part of those who have received the gift. The Gospel invites us to shift our focus from wondering whether the “seed” is effective—it is!—or why others’ soil is unreceptive, to the question of how those who have received the gift can be intent on helping prepare receptive soil and to continue the profligate and indiscriminate work of the divine sower, who eagerly shares the mysteries far and wide.
• Ask the divine sower how you might share the word with someone who is not a churchgoer.
• Let Jesus clear away the rocks and thorns in your soil.
• Give thanks for the rich harvest produced in you.