He got into a boat...and He spoke to them.
Hearing someone is easy. Listening and understanding is harder. Teachers who teach the same material to an entire classroom of students are continually amazed when the test is given at the range of what was heard and comprehended. Parents, too, wonder why one child does so well and another is so often in trouble. Such are the mysteries our ability to communicate.
Matthew wrote his Gospel for a community of Jewish Christians. As outsiders looked at this community with a thought of joining, Matthew had to deal with a very real problem. How was it that all the Jews were hearing the same message about Jesus but only some became followers? Also, why did some in the community burn with a passion for Jesus only to be lost in a short while? These questions are still asked today. Why do some people who are baptized and raised as Catholic stay faithful and some do not?
Catholics — and many others — are generally crazy over Pope Francis. Given his popularity, and knowing that Catholics are supposed to be united under the pope, how is it so few Catholics really listen to what he has to say? Matthew would probably recognize his own community in us!
Pope Francis reminds us that we must care for the poor and the outcast, but finding volunteers to help with programs that serve the poor is next to impossible. We love the words, but we often don’t act on them. Pope Francis has never condemned wealth or the wealthy, but when he suggests that wealth brings with it responsibility, he is dismissed as a socialist (which he is decidedly not!). Everything he says sounds great and beautiful, that is, until what he says affects us personally.
In the Gospel passages prior to today, Jesus taught in and around the synagogues and the homes of leading Jews. At first everyone was fascinated by Him and everyone wanted to hear what He had to say. But, as His words began to call people to responsibility and accountability, He began to earn the disfavor of the leadership. Also, Jesus had a large following, which worried the leadership.
Matthew uses this moment to tell his community something important about Jesus. The boat is a symbol of the Church. One thing we must learn that many never grasp by this story is that the authentic teaching of Jesus takes place within the Church, not outside of it. This message would not have been lost on those pondering whether to stay or leave Matthew’s Christian community. It was not lost on the leadership that knew God’s word backwards and forwards but failed to grasp God’s call to care for the poor, the outcast, the defenseless, the widows and orphans.
The parable of the sower and the seed directs us to ponder the Word of God. God’s Word is sown everywhere. Some hear it. Some get it. Some act on it. Some may pay no attention at all to the Word of God, but God gives it anyway. God is a very generous God, something we often hear said but perhaps do not comprehend. Jesus is calling us to look like God and act like God. We would prefer, however, only to passively hear God’s word. We resist acting on it.
This parable was told and retold before it found its way into the Gospels. What lessons did the first Christians teach with it? Then and now the story teaches Jesus’ lesson about our mixed response to God’s Word, although for the early Christians it seems to have had an additional purpose. It is thought that this parable was used as an examination of conscience. It is perfect for such a use. How do we measure up? Are we someone who has heard the message but doesn’t care? Has our initial enthusiasm for our faith failed? Did some thorns in our lives drive us away? There are many people difficult to deal with even in a Christian community, are the weeds choking us? Perhaps we are at times the weeds ourselves, teaching our children and others that Church isn’t important.
St. Paul acknowledges that acting on God’s Word can be difficult and, at first glance, be thought of as a burden. If we live the Catholic moral life, we are likely to be ridiculed. We do not suffer physical persecution, but we do suffer the slings and arrows of a culture that does not hold our values. Paul says to us that following God’s Word, while at times difficult, is worth it!
Our call today is to examine our relationship to the Word and message of Jesus Christ. We’ve heard it; have we listened to it? Are we in the boat or outside of it looking in?
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C..