July 16, 2023
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
“Riddle me this: There are three men in a boat with four cigarettes but no matches. How do they manage to smoke?”
So queries the Riddler in the classic 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West. “Boy Wonder” Robin, Batman’s trusty sidekick, provides the riddle’s answer:
“They threw one cigarette overboard and made the boat a cigarette lighter!”
The answer is, of course, a pun, and no real answer at all. Instead, it opens one’s eyes to view the scene in a completely different light, to delight in the play on words that emerges and to begin to understand the twisted (and silly) mind of the Riddler.
This week, we begin reading the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Taking them at face value, Jesus’ parables may seem like simple images meant to convey understanding of the Kingdom of God to simple people. He uses agricultural images, for instance, that the people would understand based on their own life experience — images of birds and seeds, and bushel baskets. In some sense, this is true.
In this week’s Gospel, we hear the parable of the sower, and are led to ponder how seed falling upon different soil fairs differently: some eaten by birds, some sprouting, some choking and some producing abundant fruit. Simple enough.
Yet, Jesus himself proclaims that the purpose of his parables is precisely not so that his hearers can easily grasp their meaning and move on to the next thing with pat wisdom easily acquired, but so that they will be confronted by their own blindness and inability to hear with understanding.
“This is why I speak to them in parables,” Jesus says, “because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’” (Matthew 13:13; cf. Isaiah 6:9) In other words, Jesus wants to break them out of their normal mode of seeing and understanding the world, and to begin to see things in a new light — to begin to understand the rightly ordered (and beautiful) mind of the Logos. Dig just a little deeper, and questions begin to arise — riddles, embedded in Jesus’ parables, that make us scratch our heads and acquire deeper vision.
In fact, the Hebrew word for parable is “mashal,” and it comprises a wide variety of figurative speech — veiled discourse — including the riddle. A mashal’s meaning is best opened up when one looks for the “twist” it provides on conventional wisdom.
So, for starters, any good farmer would note that this sower of seeds is apparently a very bad farmer. He must not understand the value of his seed since he throws it indiscriminately on the field and the road alike. Why would Jesus compare himself to a bad farmer?
The yields described of this seed are equally ridiculous. How can seed produce a hundredfold of fruit, or even 60 or thirtyfold for that matter? What is Jesus talking about?
He is speaking, of course, of the Kingdom of God, which is already present in his own coming, and yet takes the form of a seed with incredible potential to multiply if only something particular happens to it. That something is precisely what happened to all the prophets who came before him. Namely, they were utterly rejected, and even killed for proclaiming the Word of God to a deaf and blind people. That’s us.
Jesus shows those who have ears to hear how the grain of the Kingdom of God must fall to the ground and die so that it can produce abundant fruit. (cf. John 12:24) The parable is about him. He is both the sower and the seed sown. He is the Kingdom incarnate. And the parable is less an invitation to improve our Bible study in the hopes of improving the soil of our heart, important as that may be; instead, it is more an invitation to die to ourselves with Christ in order to rise with the eyes and ears of those blessed of his Kingdom who seeing, see, and hearing, hear, precisely because they have died with him and so unlocked the nuclear fusion of sacrificial love.
Plugged in to that reactor, our rootlessness is healed. Tribulation and persecution no longer cause us to fall away. Worldly anxiety and the lure of riches lose their choke hold on us. (cf. Matthew 13:21-22) Instead, we come to “share in the glorious freedom of the children of God,” which Paul speaks of so eloquently in his Letter to the Romans. (8:21)
Riddle me this: should we not all shed a proverbial cigarette and so become a cigarette lighter?