By Christian Bergmann
The Gospel reading from last week – “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29) – was arguably, if first century Judaism is taken into account, a rabbinic call to discipleship. We moderns might think of this as a call to adopt a worldview, only this was a call to study under a rabbi’s tutelage, to adopt their interpretation of the Scriptures. The strange thing about Jesus was that he was calling them to encounter not merely something that could be learned, but something revealed: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (v.25). It is the revelation of God made flesh who calls us to see him as the fulfilment of the Scriptures, not merely another interpreter. The call of Jesus is to see him as the hermeneutical (or interpretative) key that unlocks the entire history of salvation.
Today’s Gospel, the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, continues this call to discipleship with the famous Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23).
There is ample historical evidence to suggest that rabbinic literature of the first century frequently grouped types of disciples into four categories, often with different images or analogies bearing on each. Gamaliel, for instance, a contemporary of Jesus, spoke about the disciples who were like different types of fish, either clean, unclean, from the Jordan, or from the Great Sea. Another ancient text compares disciples to sponges, strainers, sieves, and funnels. These categories mostly related to the students’ understanding of the Scriptures and their retentive and argumentative capacity once understood. Jesus, as a rabbi, seems to be doing something similar here in the Parable of the Sower: a description of four soils that pertain not only to disciples, but anyone who hears the ‘word of the kingdom’ (v.18), the word that God was fulfilling his promise to David in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 7:10-17). This promise was of a descendent who would ascend the throne of David and inaugurate an everlasting kingdom, the reign of which (as we heard in last week’s Old Testament reading) would be “from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10).
In a sense, then, we can agree with Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI that this parable is ‘autobiographical’ in nature: the word of the kingdom is the ‘Word’ of Jesus, the logos, the incarnate God who announces himself as the one to assume David’s throne. Interestingly, too, Benedict proposes that here Jesus embodies a ‘living parable’, who in his own humanity conceals and reveals divinity. Thus, this descendent of David is strange. He is rabbi. He is king. He is God.
If we understand the significance of Jesus properly, we are no longer permitted to see him as simply another moral figure among moral figures (akin to Gandhi, the Buddha, or the Dalai Lama). That avenue is closed off for us, which is a good thing: it leads only to a milquetoast Jesus who we can ignore or listen to at our leisure and without any unnerving ramifications.
Instead, the Parable of the Sower is a call to encounter Jesus as he truly is and as he claims to be. It is a call to be a disciple that ‘hears the word [read: of the kingdom] and understands it’ and ‘bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty’ (Matthew 13:23). How do we recover this vexing Jesus, who even today disturbs our modern sensibilities with the claim of establishing an everlasting kingdom that will ‘“make all things new”’ (Revelation 21:5)? Who calls us to follow his strange but transfiguring way?
The spiritual tradition up and down the centuries has been consistent on this one, taking up the answer Jesus himself gives in the Gospel: listening. Saint John Chrysostom, in his commentary on this parable, remarked that if we find weakness of heart or unbelief within ourselves, our first port of call should be ‘careful listening’ to Jesus. Listening is not, however, a passive activity. In fact, the word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin words ob and audire, which means ‘to listen’. Anglican theologian Graham Ward translates it as deep listening. It is not for nothing that the Rule of Saint Benedict begins with the word ‘listen’ and places heavy emphasis on a life of obedience. The theological tradition of the Church has constantly affirmed this deep connection between the two. The act of listening is not a passive act but a transformative one. It is why Paul talks about the ‘obedience’ of faith (Romans 1:5). Faith is not simply an assent to a proposition about who Jesus is, but is the result of the transformative act of listening. To listen to Jesus is to submit ourselves to an encounter with him as he is: the reigning Lord to whom ‘all things have been delivered’ (Matthew 11:27).
The writer Henri Nouwen has used this connection in language to describe the movement of the spiritual life, because the word ‘deaf’ comes from the Latin word surdus, from which we also get ‘absurd’. In this way, the moral and spiritual life is a movement from deafness to obedience, from absurdity to deep listening. Even as Christians, maybe the charge upon us is to move from our own absurdities to obedience to who Jesus truly is and who he claims to be. And trust that if we do this, he will bring about the fruit. As today’s Old Testament reading says: “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).