Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 16, 2017
Exiles struggling to return home to Judea had only the promise of God's word to go on. So the prophet compares God's word to a powerful force well known to this desert people.
Saint Paul was so enthusiastic about God's work in Christ that he saw it applied not just to human destiny but to all creation.
The earliest Christians wondered why others did not understand and accept the message of Jesus. They recalled a saying of Jesus that gives a partial answer.
Lectors, even if they're not going to read the gospel publicly at mass, should prepare for their service by reading today's gospel, since the first reading prepares the congregation to hear the gospel.
The Theological Background: How recently and how often have you asked, "Why doesn't everybody else see things the way I do? I mean it's so obvious that I'm right, here. What's the matter with these people?" That common human experience is behind today's gospel. The earliest Christians wondered why so many, including some of their relatives and friends, didn't get it about Jesus. Their answer is, frankly, not very satisfying to us fair-minded, democratic people living in the land of the free. (Lector's Notes originate in a country that has long been proud of its fair-minded and democratic ideals.) We expect everybody to have an equal chance to enjoy everything good. But Jesus seems to acquiesce to an arbitrary division between those who understand (and accept) his teaching, and those who reject it. No satisfactory explanation is given, nor does Jesus seem to think explanation is required. Perhaps the best thing we can say is that a lot of water has gone under the cultural bridge since Jesus spoke this parable. In those days, it's possible that few or none believed in personal responsibility for religious choices. So they didn't expect God to grant people equal opportunity. This, of course, is not the last word on the subject; there are gospel passages where our Lord is quite clear about one's responsibility for one's response to him.
The Historical Situation: More important is the last sentence of the gospel, where the yield of some of the seed is a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or at least thirtyfold. These were astonishing figures when our Lord spoke them, for in those days a yield of sevenfold was considered a bumper crop. The meaning is that the believer who "hears the word and understands it" enjoys and shares a yield of grace incomprehensibly rich, beyond anything the believer could account for on his or her own merits.
The Historical Situation: The prophecies collected in Isaiah, chapters 40-55, are known as the Book of Consolation (also called Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah). Written while exiles were returning from Babylon to Judah, the chapters are meant to comfort dispirited people. There are promises of fertile land and restoration, water for the thirsty, secure defense against enemies, and more.
The Theological Background: Dan Nelson, on the web page cited below, points out the similarity between this last paragraph of Deutero-Isaiah and its first paragraph, "in its description of the change of nature from harsh to fruitful as the result of Yahweh's power and mercy... Yahweh's word is certain and powerful. Like rain and snow that water the earth so that seeds may sprout and grow, God's word will accomplish its purpose to return the exiles back to their homes in peace. Their return shall be an everlasting memorial to the power of Yahweh's word."
So today's passage promises spiritual fertility. We might say it implies that God will make the peoples' religious lives fruitful, as he has done for their land. And it could bespeak a promise that God will make fruitful the work of the prophet, whose job it is, after all, to proclaim God's word. That should be some comfort to the lector, too.
Proclaiming It: Lector, by now you have meditated on the gospel, and perhaps on the hope that your listeners become spiritually fertile for hearing God's word. So it shouldn't be hard to prepare to proclaim the first reading. Just realize it's a single, seventy-word sentence. To make it sound right to the congregation, pause before "so shall my word be." Then punch out each of those five core words slowly and loudly.
The Theological Background: In this passage, sentences about our spiritual distress surround sentences about nature's distress. Rightly does a modern person ask how these belong in the same paragraph. What does Paul mean by creation "eagerly awaiting the redemption of the children of God" and creation being "subject to futility"? Perhaps Paul has a vision more holistic than ours. He might mean that the sin of Adam, which, of course, looms large in the Letter to the Romans, brought corruption not just to humankind but to nature. Genesis 3:14-19 does describe nature turning against the convicted Adam and Eve. For Paul, then, what God is doing for us in Christ is so powerful that it will redeem not just us but the created world, too.
Proclaiming It: If we've interpreted Paul correctly, then he would have written this in an "Oh, wow!" frame of mind. God is reversing all of human and natural history! And we're witnessing, participating and announcing it! The theological subtleties are hard to get across in oral interpretation, and are best left to your assembly's preacher. But Paul's enthusiasm for his subject is something you can convey with your voice. Read this dramatically, emphasizing the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Extra! Each Sunday passage from Romans in context: Click here to see a table summarizing the readings from Romans from the 9th to the 24th Sundays of Ordinary Time, this year.
Harvest of a hundred-, sixty- or thirty-fold, at a recent Farmers' Market in Ferguson, Missouri, U.S.A., near the author's home. The photo appeared in the online version of The Current, student newspaper of the University of Missouri at Saint Louis, also near Ferguson. Click here for a larger version.
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated June 1, 2017