5th Sunday after Trinity

13 July 2017

Isaiah 55.10-13; Psalm 65 (or Psalm 65.8-end); Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

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Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

 

“LISTEN,” Jesus says as he begins the parable of the sower (Matthew 13.3). Perhaps storytellers have always used this device for gaining an audience’s attention. Here, it warns hearers to stay alert; for parables do not have surplus words, and listening means more than grasping the outline of a story.

We must disregard the lection­ary’s guidance to omit verses 10-17 to see that this is exactly what Matthew’s Jesus is saying in what looks superficially like hard discrimina­tion (Matthew 13.11-13). Jesus has not deliberately chosen to address the crowd in a form that they find incomprehensible because he has written them off as pro­spective followers. Brendan Byrne explains that “parable” here has an “enigmatic sense”.

What Jesus means is this: “The reason that what I say to them comes across to them as ‘parables’ (= riddles) is because of their lack of understanding” (Lifting the Burden, Liturgical Press, 2004). The pro­phets had the same difficulty, and Matthew quotes Isaiah’s attempts to warn people whose hearts were “dull” and whose ears were “hard of hearing” that, at their present rate of progress, their future lay in exile (Isaiah 6.9-10, Matthew 13.14-15).

Does the parable of the sower give any hope, then, to those outside the immediate circle of the dis­ciples? Jesus confirms that the com­mun­ity of believers can grow when his teaching about the Kingdom of God takes root in good and recept­ive soil. That entails not just hearing the word, but striving to understand it at a deeper level. The conse­quences of such understanding are seen in transformed and fruitful lives, developing at different speeds, as the variations in yield suggest (Matthew 13.23).

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The second part of the prophecy of Isaiah takes up the themes of hope and transformation that have appeared in earlier passages in the first part (Isaiah 11, 25, 41.19). In chapter 55, God calls the people to listen (“Ho, everyone who thirsts” Isaiah 55.1) and to choose a way of life that will be for their greatest good.

This need not mean the imme­diate end of exile, Walter Bruegge­mann says: rather, it invites the hearers to rediscover their home in the ways of God (The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). The longed-for journey out of Babylon and home to Jerusalem can stand for this other return jour­ney, away from practices gradually acquired in the Babylonian setting, and towards the rediscovery of their true identity as God’s holy nation.

The picture enshrined in this invitation is not just given an extra dimension of beauty by the singing and applause of the natural world (Isaiah 55.12-13). The music of moun­tains and hills and the clap­ping hands of trees are part of a vision of the new creation, when human hearts and wills are to con­verge with the ways and thoughts of God, and the land colonised by thorns and briars will be reclothed in myrtles and cypresses (Isaiah 55.8-9, 13).

Paul, too, is concerned with the transformation of lives and disposi­tions without an automatic accom­pany­ing transformation of external circumstances. Romans 8.1-13 moves the discussion on from the dilemma at the end of chapter 7. The unresolved struggle between two alle­giances — to God and to the flesh — is now dealt with decisively. Jesus has freed his followers “from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8.2).

The passage is built on strong contrasts, which are obvious in Greek, but tend to be obscured in English translations. Thus, rather than dismiss the law altogether, Paul opposes the powerlessness of the law (weakened by its entangle­ment in the flesh) with the right­eous­ness of the law when it is ful­filled in people who walk no longer in the ways of the flesh, but in the ways of the Spirit (Romans 8.3-4).

Just as Paul dramatised the struggle of the individual torn be­-tween obedience to God and the inclinations of the flesh in the pre­vious chapter (Romans 7.14-25), here he addresses his Roman corre­s­pond­ents as if they have emerged vic­­­torious from that struggle. Through the liberating power of Christ, their lives have already undergone a radical reorientation under the “law of the Spirit” (Ro­­mans 8.2, 4, 9-11).

The Spirit becomes the true engine of the human person, restor­ing life where sin has deadened the body to God’s law. The body brought back to life by the Spirit is, for Paul, ultimately a resurrection body, but, for the duration of earthly existence, it stands as a bridge across and beyond time. It participates in “a new quality of existence already enjoyed”, and it looks forward to “future, eternal exist­­­ence with God” (Craig Hill, “Romans”, in The Oxford Bible Com­­­­­mentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford Uni­versity Press, 2001).

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9 October
The Parish: Has it Had its Day?

Join us for a Moral Maze-style debate at St Mellitus College, London. Tickets £10 (£5 for students/ordinands). Read more and book tickets

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