Commentary on the Gospel of
Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.
At a moment when so many disparate voices call for my attention — from members of Congress, from church leaders, and from the many voices carried by systems of electronic media — the final words of today’s gospel segment leap off the page: “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.” This is the place in the story of Jesus where each gospel writer focuses on Jesus as communicator. And they do it in terms of the question of why he speaks to the crowds in parables. What’s more, it is precisely this parable, the Parable of the Sower, that prompts the question.
Matthew’s treatment of this issue is especially interesting as it sits at the center of a carefully balanced design in his gospel. Scholars have long noted that most of Jesus’ sayings in Matthew are “packaged” in five discourses, and chapter 13 is placed as a kind of keystone, focusing on the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching, the kingdom of God. So, if hearing Jesus with understanding is important for me (and the church has ordained me to hear and preach what Jesus was sent to announce by the God he called Father), I need to listen up, especially right here in Matthew’s gospel. Given that we have begun to understand that all of us, ordained or not, are called to this ministry, we need to listen to Matthew’s presentation if we are to hear his voice above the sound of all those other voices clamoring for our attention right now. Let’s do it.
On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. For Matthew, every word counts. Jesus is not simply stepping out to catch a breath of fresh air. “The house” in this gospel is the place where Jesus typically explains things to his inner group of disciples (see verse 36; the reference is no doubt Peter’s place in Capernaum). Matthew notes that Jesus’ first act is to sit down by the sea. Hardly matter for Sacred Scripture, we might think. But then the phrase is repeated:
Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. Ah! Now I recall that, in Jesus’ day the expected posture of a teacher or rabbi addressing his followers is sitting down. (See Matthew’s setting for the Sermon on the Mount at 5:1; there, similarly, Jesus responds to gathering crowds by withdrawing to sit down and teach his disciples.) And here in chapter 13, what a huge group has come to hear Jesus teach! So big that he has to find a boat and (presumably a decent distance from the shore) to gain a proper perch for his voice to be heard and still maintain the proper posture expected of a teacher — seated.
And he spoke to them at length in parables (yes, Matthew 13 is indeed lengthy). All of the above is quite enough for me to trust Matthew as a guide to understand how I am to “have ears” that hear the voice of Jesus today in the midst of all those other voices clamoring for my attention and response. So allow me to touch lightly other prompts in this chapter of Matthew that help me spell out what that means for me as would-be disciple.
Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you. This gospel has already taught me to include myself, and all of us who identify as Christian, among those addressed by Jesus, whom we now know as risen Christ and Lord. That means I am graced as an “insider,” i.e. saved from being included in Jesus’ application of the quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 to the “outsiders” who did not get his meaning. Implication: I have at least begun to be healed from deafness, blindness, and fatness of heart so that I can begin to understand with my inner self (heart) Jesus’ secrets about access to the kingdom he teaches about and embodies.
What blocks me from fully accepting Jesus’ teaching regarding the kingdom life? That is spelled out in the explanation of the parable of the sower that comes next. That allegorical explanation, backed with the authority of the risen Jesus, urges me both to be good, receptive soil and also to be fertile, self-giving seed. I have come to call that use of two different images at once “double-talk,” which I use here in a positive sense. Both sets of imagery (people pictured as both seeds and soil) work together to describe a way of living that resists everything that the figure of “the evil one” (the Satan) stands for — by hearing deeply with the heart, sinking deep roots, resisting the lure of whatever constitutes the “riches” of my life (privilege, advantage, power, security.
This is enough, Lord Jesus. It is time to stop and pray about where this pondering about a single parable has taken me, simply by listening to it within its context of Matthew’s discourse package within his distinctive gospel. Thanks, first of all, for the leisure and schooling that has helped me hear afresh the familiar sower parable in the garden of parables of a single chapter, and within a vast forest of all the parables in this gospel. Those numerous crowds waiting for the teacher to speak — now I understand them as pointing to all those fellow human beings hungering for the good news that Jesus means for them to know and act upon — if I and my fellow Christians would only learn to share better what we have come to know through the gifts of tradition, community, narrative and practices that are traceable to you. Where we encounter others as insiders meeting outsiders, move us to the kind of dialogue that our leader Francis calls for and demonstrates, a dialogue that listens for signs of our common origin as fellow creatures, responsible for one another in our common home, and destined for the common destiny of the life with you that we believe is part of that New Creation that we label with that pale word eternal. I think I am beginning to understand why you are sitting there as you teach us. Thy kingdom come. Meanwhile, give this day our daily bread. Forgive us as we forgive.