Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Fifteenth Sunday (13 July 2014)

Gospel for the Fifteenth Sunday (13 July 2014)

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.

And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much
soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13:1-9 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

This same parable and the explanation that follows can be found in Mark 4:1–9, 13–20 and Luke 8:4–8, 11–15. Matthew has in fact taken Mark 4:1-34 and supplemented it with other parables.

It seems reasonable to assume that the first Jewish believers in Jesus were worried by the fact that very few of the Jews joined them in their belief. This must have been a painful reality and it needed to be explained. St Paul wrestled with the same reality in Romans 9-11 some thirty years earlier.

This is not the sort of reality you can deal with in an analytical way. There is no “answer”. The parable offers the possibility of wrestling with it but at the same time leaving it as an incomprehensible fact.

C H Dodd suggests a good definition of a parable: “A metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt of its precise application to tease it into active thought”. (C H Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, Scribner’s, 1961, 5.)

John Dominic Crossan’s description of the way the parables work complements Dodd: “The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs. We want good precepts and we want sensible programs. We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables.” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 82.)

“The Synoptic Gospels contain about five dozen separate parables; the Gospel of John has almost none of these; the rest of the N.T. offers no real parallels. This is fatal to the idea that the early Church created the parables; no one in the Church even attempted to rival Jesus in this teaching method. He used parables not only to illustrate and clarify truth but also to capture the imagination, direct the will, and lead to obedience.” (Footnote 2 in L Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 333.)


The Western mind is captured by the felt need to measure, to categorize and to define. We demand useful outcomes, solutions and KPIs. “Does it work?” is a more important question than “Is it good?” This is functionalism and it is, in the end, all about control.

It would never cross our minds that we might need to think differently about the things that really matter in life. When it comes to the ultimate truths, matters of forgiveness and compassion, care and patience, simply loving other people, we are in the presence of mystery. We must accept one of the fundamentals of existence: Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. There is no solution to life!

The Gospel of John reminds us that Jesus has come that we may have life and have it to the full (see 10:10). We cannot begin to grasp the reality of our faith if we remain within the limits of functionalism and attempts to control life.

Wrestling with the parables of Jesus is one way to move beyond mere functionalism and the immature desire to control everything. They can open us to life as mystery and introduce us to intimations of what St Paul described: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

There are two expressions that Matthew uses in presenting the parable of the sower and these expressions can open the door a little on this parable. Firstly he says “Jesus went out” and then we hear Jesus himself say, “the sower went out”. It is the same verb in each case.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is describing a scene that is well known to his audience. He starts with their experience. This is an appeal to the imagination rather than the intellect. It evokes feelings of identification with a process rather than a content.

The process has the sower taking the initiative this is what you do!

From this human experience the listeners may begin to feel identification with what is happening right before their eyes in the person of Jesus. In him we recognize the initiative of God, the liberality of God’s self-giving and the earthy realism of it all.