Today we consider a text that is crucial to the Church’s understanding of itself. The words of Jesus addressed to Peter, ‘You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ I suppose this is one of the most famous puns in the whole of history, Peter meaning rock. But that aside, the claims that the Church has made based on those few words are very great indeed. And they have provoked a good deal of criticism and have been an obstacle to many.
Today in our liturgy we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While this doctrine was only formally defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950 it has been the constant belief of Catholics going back in antiquity. What the Pope effectively did in 1950 was to confirm this long-held belief and give it a special feast day 15th August. Incidentally it is also a feast we share with the Orthodox Churches who call it the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Life as an Apostle of Jesus was certainly very eventful and even dangerous at times. One minute, John the Baptist is executed and right afterwards they are feeding the five thousand and before much longer Jesus hustles them into a boat and they find themselves out on the lake in a very rough sea. And then, lo and behold, Jesus comes walking on the water to rescue them! That’s to say nothing of the incident with Peter also attempting not very successfully to do the same thing!
You might not agree with me, but I think that it is a pity that in our Lectionary we do not have much longer extracts from the Gospels! So often on a Sunday we have read to us wonderful stories about the life of Jesus or one or other of his miracles and yet they are mostly presented to us as isolated incidents completely out of context.
Jesus gives us several short parables about the nature of the Kingdom of God. It is like a treasure hidden in a field. It is like a merchant in search of a pearl. It is like a net thrown into the sea. It is like the master of a house who brings out treasures new and old. These simple parables actually tell us a great deal and are not in fact so simple as all that because each one challenges us to the very core of our being.
Last Sunday we had the parable of the Sower, this Sunday we have the parable of the Man Sowing Good Seed, next Sunday Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a treasure hidden in a field.
These agricultural images are obviously very appropriate to his listeners who were much closer to the land than most of us are. Jesus uses many other easily understandable images in his parables; for example, today we also have the mustard seed and the yeast in the flour. But there are many, many more very vivid images recorded in the Gospels.
This is a completely different approach from the scribes and the Pharisees who tended to work from the Law. Religion being for them a matter of following sets of laid down instructions: “keep these rules and God will be happy with you!” is what they seem to be saying. And: “if you don’t understand them just ask us—the experts!”
Instead Jesus takes a more figurative approach because it means that all his listeners, from the most sophisticated to the very simplest, can understand them. But that does not mean that Jesus is making things easier for the people. By making things understandable for them means that the moral choices they have to make in life become much clearer, much starker.
This particular parable about the good seed and the darnel certainly presents a very stark comparison between those who do good and those who do evil. Jesus seems to be suggesting that you are either a) virtuous and will shine like the sun or b) are evil and will be thrown into the blazing furnace. He presents no middle way.
That sounds rather unfortunate to us. If you are anything like me you have a bit of good and a bit of bad in you. Not completely bad! But then not completely good either! This puts us all in a bit of a quandary. We want to be good but we find ourselves badmouthing our neighbours; we want to be holy but we don’t say our prayers very often; we want to be trustworthy but, well, if nobody’s looking…!
This is the very human dilemma most of us are in. We want to get to heaven but we are a little nervous of that big book and what St Peter has been writing about us over all these years. We might not like what we find when we get to those pearly gates. Will we gain admission or not? It could be a bit of a moot point! There might be a lot of humming and hawing!
What Jesus is doing is highlighting the fundamental choice all of us must make in our life. Naturally he wants us to choose the good, to follow the way he outlines for us. But, of course, it must be our absolutely free choice and that leaves open the possibility that we might make a fundamental choice for evil, a choice not to go the way he sets before us.
Jesus does not do this to be difficult. He does it so that we see clearly the way we are going in life. He does it to help us make the right choices without ever restricting our freedom. This is, in fact, the most loving and caring thing he can do for us.
Jesus doesn’t often explain his parables but he does so in the case of Parable of the Sower which is set before us for our consideration today. It is a bit more complicated than many of his other parables and the disciples query him. They clearly do not understand its meaning and so they question him asking why he speaks so often in parables when it is obvious that a lot of the people do not understand them.
We must never forget that the Gospel that Christ preached was a Gospel of compassion and love and simplicity. In the text set before us today Jesus explains that his message is a very simple one that can be understood very well by children and ordinary people. However, so called sophisticated people are much more likely to misunderstand his words and find problems with his teaching.
Today we celebrate the feast of two great saints; saints we consider, after Christ, to be the very cornerstones of the Church. Two great saints and yet two very human creatures. Paul the persecutor of Christians; Peter who denied Christ three times. And yet it is entirely typical of the way God deals with his people that these two unlikely characters should become such important figures in the establishment of the Church.
Today in our Gospel we are presented with a series of sayings by Jesus which it is generally regarded come from quite different sources and indeed from very different situations. Matthew has put them together and presents them as a series of instructions given by Jesus to the Twelve Apostles about how to carry out their mission.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket