Readings: Isaiah 55. 10-13; Romans 8. 1-11; Matthew 13. 1-9, 18-23
Theme: The Word of God
When we say, “the Word of God”, what do we mean?
Our readings for today invite us to reflect on the answer to this question and to consider how this Word of God is transforming us. So, what is the Word of God?
The beautiful first reading from Isaiah introduces us to several fundamental characteristics of the ‘Word of God’ that were present to the ancient Israelites. The first characteristic is that the Word of God proceeds from the mouth of God. In other words, the ‘Word’ is the means through which God communicates to us. Across the infinite distance and difference that separates us from God, it is the ‘Word’ where the meeting point between God and human creatures occurs. The ‘Word’ is the point of contact between God and us.
But more than simply a point of connection, this ‘Word’ is also purposeful, missionary and creative: “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it”. The Word that goes forth from the mouth of God is like a seed that is sown. It bears a message that will be translated over time into the “myrtle that will break forth”. In other words, the Word that comes from God is symbolic. It manifests God in a way which needs interpreting, as is the case with all symbols: symbols represent things in multiple ways. However, in the case of the Word of God the symbolic nature of this Word is literally infinite, because it represents the One who is infinite, namely, God. That is why when we read the Holy Scriptures, we should not do so as if they are some kind of instruction manual. They are not like the booklet that comes with the new fridge-freezer, for example, which has simple literal information: this switch does that, that button opens such and such a compartment and so on. No, when we read the Word of God, the Sacred Scriptures, we are reading the mind of God, so to speak. Because of this, the hearing of the Word of God is not the consumption of a piece of information, it is meeting someone: God’s own very self in the Word. So, how should we read the Word of God? Well, how should we meet and greet someone? We need to be prepared. You cannot meet and greet someone unless you know what they look like. To hear the Word of God, we need to be familiar with God, so that we can recognize the Word, when we hear Him. If we listen to the reading of the Sacred Scriptures a little like listening to the news, we will only look out for the bits that interest us at the time. This way of reading the Scriptures would be like looking for a different person to the one we are meant to meet and greet. One only becomes familiar with God through prayer and reading the Scriptures. This time of encounter with God leads us to become familiar with the characteristics of God so that we can recognize the Word when it is proclaimed.
The same idea, introduced by the reading from the prophet Isaiah, is taken up in the Gospel of St Matthew, according to the parable of the sower. A key word in this passage, one which is easy to overlook is the word ‘listen’. This is a word, which can also be translated as ‘see, look or listen’ or in a more old English idiom, as ‘Behold’ (Idoù). It is a way of saying, as the Americans would say, ‘listen up people!’. In other words, get ready; get ready to encounter someone, not something, but a living person is being conveyed to you in symbolic form: The Word of God. And the manner of that meeting is typically through a story form. One might say, that story is the privileged form of God’s ‘meet and greet’ style. The Sacred Scriptures privilege the narrative style of writing to convey the encounter with God; a narrative style that is usually pregnant with rich and evocative symbols that represent aspects of God, and God’s presence amongst us in a variety of ways. Let’s pick out a few key characteristics from this parable of the sower in the Gospel of Matthew.
The first thing to notice is that for the Jewish listeners of Matthew’s Gospel, the passages from Isaiah would have been ringing in their ears as they heard this parable from Jesus. It would have been as if Jesus was ‘riffing’ on a popular jingle that his listeners had echoing in their ears. Yes, this passage from the Gospel of Matthew echoes the passage of Isaiah. It would have reminded his listeners at the time that the God of the Scriptures, and for Jesus and his listeners the ‘Scriptures’ were what we would call ‘The Old Testament’, was being interpreted by Jesus through the parable of the sower. The key message for us, as Christians listening to the Word of God in the 21st Century, is that Jesus is the One who interprets the Sacred Scriptures for us. It is He, the Word made Flesh, the incarnate Son of God, who is both the Word Himself and the interpreter of this Word. We might say, that in Jesus, the Bible has been decoded. The symbolic narrative structure of both the Old and the New Testaments has been revealed to us, not as bits and piece of information, like the manual for the new fridge freezer, but rather as the biography of God. Yes, that is what the Word of God is: the unfolding of the life story of God. When we listen to the Scriptures it is somewhat like being in an encounter group, where someone reveals their personal story for us, so that we can know who they really are. So, it is with “the Word that goes forth from the mouth of God”.
The parable in Matthew goes on to indicate the different ways in which this Word of God can ‘land’ with us. It can fall on the path and be eaten up by the birds, it can fall on the rocks, where no roots could grow, it can fall amidst thorns and be choked, or it can fall on good soil and reap a harvest of 100, 60, or 30 fold of grain. I invite you to spend some time this week to allow this parable to sink into your good soil, to allow it to speak to you, so that you can be transformed by it. But let me mention just one point for your consideration today, namely, the fact that two elements are necessary for the Word of God to bear fruit in us. The Word itself needs to be sown in us, but in order for this Word to ‘land’ properly with us, the soil needs to be prepared. We need to clear the rocks and the thorns, we need to make sure it lands on soil and not on the path, and we should be attentive to the fact that the soil in which it lands is of a different quality depending on how it is tended; some soils produce 100, some 60, and some 30 fold of grain. So, whilst God sows the seed, that is to say that God communicates the Word to us, we need to receive it. It is not automatic, nor is it passive. We are active in the reception of the Word of God, so that it can bear much fruit.
I wish you a happy Bible study of this passage during the week.