Our gospel today introduces us to Jesus’s parables. The parable of the sower is the first parable in Matthew’s gospel; and some consider it the key to understanding the others, just like how the first psalm is often considered a doorway to the other psalms. Some consider it the key to the other parables because Jesus explains why he uses parables. And the key seems to be the quotation from Isaiah.
Isaiah seems to say that the Word conceals almost as much as it reveals. This is true. There is effort required to understand a parable. These days the word parable is often understood to mean short story, but a better translation might be riddle or mystery. The audience of a parable has to get involved. We have to do work to understand what is going on. I think I have mentioned previously the rule of a friend of mine when it comes to understanding parables: find what doesn’t make sense, and go from there.
Such a feature though is not limited to parables. Anyone who has spent time reading the Bible knows that it is not always easy to work out what is going on. There are often paradoxes or difficult proverbs or stories whose moral seems hard to determine. And this is not just a linguistic or historical problem. Even with all that sorted, it can still be difficult to determine what is the point. But, why might that be the case?
One of my funeral homilies is about the difference between seeing life as a challenge and life as a gift. I try to make the point that when we see life as something to be defeated then we miss the element of the gift. However, this distinction has always worried me, partly because of this gospel. I think the distinction misses the idea that the challenge itself might be the gift.
A number of people over the years have looked at the Scriptures in this way. They have seen the difficult passages of the Bible as deliberately difficult. These thinkers argue that rarely are people convinced or converted when it is all too easy. They argue that usually tough lessons must be hard won. Some have even described the difficulties of understanding the Bible as a type of seduction: God making us chase, and thereby increasing our desire, making our hearts bigger to receive the fullness of the mystery of Christ.
I think we have all experienced the truth of such a lesson, whether as a teacher or as a student. As a teacher, it is important both to grab a student’s interest and to make the point in a memorable way. Many philosophers have noted the importance of paradox in religion for just this point. Indeed, much philosophy works this way too. And as a student, sometimes the most important lesson is simply hard work, persistence in the face of a challenge. But this usually requires that the challenge be attractive.
However, Jesus adds something to this interpretation in today’s gospel, something which is amplified in our second reading. He notes the freedom of the audience and how that freedom is exercised. There are those who are prepared to exercise their freedom at the service of God’s Word, and so with God’s grace turn themselves into rich soil; and then there are those who aren’t so willing.
But it is also interesting to hear what Jesus says is the reason for this refusal. Such people do not want to be converted, they do not want to be healed by Jesus. Indeed, they are afraid of conversion and healing.
I think it was the French mystic, Simone Weil, who said that the only people who understood temptation were the ones who resisted it. As soon as I give in, I have lost its truth. I have succumbed to a false life. And deep down I know this. I know I am living a lie. And so I try to hide this. I may let my heart grow hard like the road to stop the Word of God piercing it. Or I may get busy with life to drown out the silence that I need to hear the Word clearly. Or I may decide that my sufferings are different from everybody else’s, that my sufferings, whatever they may be, give me a get out of jail free card when it comes to the teachings of Christ. The Cross is for everyone else, not me.
Whatever it might be, I choose not to wrestle with the Word of God, but instead to give up. And when I give up on the truth, I give up on freedom. I stop growing in that freedom of the children of God which the whole of the universe is waiting for.
So, this week, perhaps we might go back to a piece of Scripture that troubles us. One that we know is for us precisely because it makes us squirm. And for this task, let’s ask God for the graces of perseverance, courage and insight, that we might work over the ground of our lives and the ground of Scripture, so that we can become rich soil for the Word.