10 July 2011/Proper 10A – Isaiah 55:10-13/Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Mount Calvary Episcopal Church, Baltimore
“Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
At the end of his parable of the sower, Jesus makes an outlandish prediction of what the yield will be for the seed that falls on “rich soil” – one hundred, sixty and thirty fold! The crowd would be incredulous. Such an expectation is insane – perhaps this teacher and his disciples are all insane as well! To which Jesus replies, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
Hearing is central to Israel and Judaism. Three times a day for the past three or four thousand years the faithful of God’s people recite the following words: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might….” It is called the Shema Y’Israel. So when Jesus invokes the importance of hearing, he is calling upon this daily ritual of his people, God’s people.
Once again, there is a gaping hole in our Gospel – verses 10-17. And once again, these verses appear to be central to our Lord’s teaching in chapter 13. Following chapters 10-12 which center around conflict and opposition to Jesus and his disciples, Chapter 13 presents a series of parables which offer reflection on the nature of the opposition and on the bountiful hope for those who have ears to hear. All of this is presented in the context of the failure of an attempted revolt against Rome resulting in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and therefore desperate attempts to hold the community of God’s people together. Jesus represents a radical new attempt to hold the community together.
At this point in his ministry he resorts to telling stories – parables – stories with familiar themes but surprising conclusions. We need to observe that the church has often turned these parables into allegories in an attempt to “make sense” of them or reinterpret them, and that this act of reinterpretation is already at work in the gospels themselves.
This should not be surprising since Jesus, in the missing verses, is himself reinterpreting Isaiah to meet the needs of the people in the current crisis. In the missing section, the disciples ask Jesus a question. They do not ask, “What does the parable mean?” Instead they want to know, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” “Them” would be the crowd. And in this missing section Jesus draws a clear distinction between the disciples (“Us”) and the crowd. To make his point he quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 which talks about those who “hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and are turned (repent), converted, and I heal them,” over against those who do not.
How this conversion and healing will be recognized was announced at the outset by John the Baptizer who declares that those who return to the Lord and the Lord’s way will “Produce good fruit as evidence of repentance.” Matt 3:8
Jesus further assures the disciples that the “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven have been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted…This is why I speak to them in parables…” Then come the words of Isaiah, as a way of explaining why it is that the first will be last and the last will be first – that is, the Empire and the religious authorities have it all wrong, only those who have turned and repented will hear and understand and be healed of the current crisis. Not only shall they be healed, but this small band of little people shall produce miraculous, outrageous, results!
It will be, says Jesus, as we hear in Isaiah 55 – God’s word shall not return to God empty, but shall accomplish that which “I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out with Joy, and be led back in peace – the mountains and hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands,” as all creation celebrates a new Exodus, a new deliverance from Exile, a new deliverance from the constraints of the Old Empire!
And, oh yes, Jesus is that Word – that logos – that incarnation of God’s purpose made flesh and blood, moving into our neighborhood as the New Moses leading God’s people out of crisis once again. Jesus is the seed of a new deliverance.
So here we sit. Oddly enough the empire that has precipitated our crisis is still Rome. As the parable of the sower suggests, there is still hardness of heart at work. There are still shallow assertions and responses. There are still cluttered souls that cut off and choke the word of the mysteries of God’s kingdom - even arrogant assertions that God’s kingdom has no mysteries but is somehow carved in stone, set, impervious to anything new, to any new interpretation of God’s Word, to any movement in new directions by God’s Holy Spirit.
As we gather here week after week, it seems as absurd to us as it does to the crowd of “Them” that our faithfulness will result in the kind of good and rich soil Jesus talks about – the rich soil of faith, which the ancient author of the Letter to the Hebrews asserts is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Heb 11:1
When we assert week after week our faith in a God who is the creator of all there is, seen and unseen, we say we are those people who know that the story of God’s redemption is far from over. That our God, the God of the Shema Y’Israel, the Lord our God who is One God, has not only new and unimaginable things in store for us, but will increase the yield of our faithfulness thirty, sixty and one hundred fold if only. If only we will let his Word take root in the rich soil of our souls, our hearts and our minds. If only we will receive and respond to his Word.
Our God does not maintain the status quo! Jesus did not die on the cross to maintain the status quo. Jesus invites anyone – any-one without qualification, male or female, free or slave, native or resident alien – to join us because “them” who cannot hear are merely isolating themselves from that which Jesus, the Word of God, above all comes to bring them: healing. Healing from hardness of heart, souls cluttered with superfluous doctrine, and shallow assertions of certainty and self-righteousness.
Jesus concludes the missing verses with a kind of prayer or beatitude of hopefulness for the few who hear and receive what he is saying: “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears because they hear. Amen I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” Matt 13:17
We are called to be the rich soil and allow his message of grace to grow within us and beyond us. God’s Word shall accomplish that which it proposes: our healing and our growth in the kingdom! “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” Amen.