Matthew: The Power of Parabolic Thinking
rich-thoughts-flowers
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
July 17, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time on July 16, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 65; Romans 8:18-23; and Matthew 13:1-23.



The Gospel of Matthew is the gospel of parables, and we’re going to hear at least seven parables over the next three weeks. The word parable comes from the Greek rhetorical term parabole (similar to words we still use in English, simile and hyperbole). A parabole finds something in common between two dissimilar things. For you analytical geometry fans out there, parabole is also the origin of the word parabola

Today, we hear what is perhaps the most straightforward of Jesus’ parables. But let’s not settle for the explanation given in the gospel. This parable is an invitation to dialogue, to contemplation. Let us delve more deeply into the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.

Let us ask God to allow us not only to look, but also to see the kingdom of heaven. May we not only hear, but also listen and understand God’s mercy. 


What is a parable? I define it as a story with an unexpected twist at the end, inviting us to deeper reflection. If we think we completely understand a parable, we’re probably wrong! 

What do a line and a point have in common? Every point on the parabola is equidistant from both.

simple_parabola

I don’t think that the parable of the seed and the sower is telling us that there are four kinds of people in the world: those who hear the Word but ignore it, those who have initial enthusiasm but then fade away, those who get distracted, and those who hear it, get it, and blossom. We are not static beings. God doesn’t destine anyone to fall in the first three categories in this parable. A parable can accomplish a lot more than this…

… just as a parabola does a lot more than just relate a line to a point. Parabolas have a very interesting property that I used throughout my career as an optical engineer. If you make a mirror with a paraboloid shape, all the light beams parallel to the axis of symmetry with be reflected through that same point. 

 

2000px-parabola_with_focus_and_arbitrary_line-svgThat is why the point that defines the parabola is called the “focus.”  

So, on what does the parable of the sower and the seed invite us to focus?

Perhaps we can think about the various phases that we go through as disciples. When we first heard God’s Word, we may have been like the seed on the path. Perhaps, as we met additional people who witnessed to God’s word, we started to internalize the Word, but in fits and starts, like the seed on rocky soil or the seed surrounded by weeds. We strive to take the Word into our hearts and magnify God’s message by thirty-, sixty, or a hundred-fold.

Another way to think about the parable is that each of us are working through all four phases simultaneously. Perhaps we have “good soil” to reflect God’s love in our relationships with a few special people in our lives. Other people may try our patience. We can love them genuinely until they do something chokes out our love like weeds. Other people in our lives may be hard to love, and to them, our hearts are as hard as stone. Maybe we haven’t yet recognized the love God calls us to share with people who are very different from us, living in other parts of the world.  The seeds of love are quickly snatched up before they take root.

A third challenge of the parable is to know that not all is lost for the seed on the path, in the rocky soil, or among the weeds. In elementary school, I walked along a small asphalt path to get to the playground. The school was closed at the end of my fifth-grade year, and over the next 20 years, the asphalt broke down and grass has grown to the point that you can barely discern that there was ever any asphalt there. Over time, the seed has taken root on the path and blossomed. It’s the same with the seed on rocky soil. Certain plants have the ability to grow with little soil, and they eventually break down the rock into rich nutrients. And anyone who gardens knows that there will always be weeds. All we need is patience to allow the flowers the space they need to grow.

But there’s a fourth challenge. We must avoid the temptation to turn inwards and ignore the plight of people who are different from us. It makes me think of this story by Megan McKenna:

“There was a woman who wanted peace in the world and peace in her heart and all sorts of good things, but she was very frustrated. The world seemed to be falling apart. She would read the newspapers and get depressed. One day she decided to go shopping, and she went into a mall and picked a store at random. She walked in and was surprised to see Jesus behind the counter. She knew it was Jesus because he looked just like the pictures she’d seen on holy cards and devotional pictures. She looked again and again at him, and finally she got up enough nerve and asked, ‘Excuse me, are you Jesus?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Do you work here?’ ‘No,’ Jesus said, ‘I own the store.’ ‘Oh, what do you sell in here?’ ‘Oh, just about anything!’ ‘Anything?’ ‘Yeah, anything you want. What do you want?’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’ Well,’ Jesus said, ‘feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is that you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.’

“She did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. By the time she got back to the counter, she had a long list. Jesus took the list, skimmed through it, looked up and smiled, ‘No problem.’ And then he bent down behind the counter and picked out all sorts of things, stood up, and laid out the packets. She asked, ‘What are these?’ Jesus replied, ‘Seed packets. This is a catalog store.’ She said, ‘You mean I don’t get the finished product?’ ‘No, this is a place of dreams. You come and see what it looks like, and I give you the seeds. You plant the seeds. You go home and nurture them and help them to grow and someone else reaps the benefits.’ ‘Oh,’ she said. And she left the store without buying anything.”

— Megan McKenna, from Parables: The Arrows of God

God declares through the words of Isaiah: “The seed that I have sown shall not return to me void.  It shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” 

Let us … ahem… focus on the essentials.  Let us pray:

Loving God, you continually sow your Word within our hearts. Help us to be open to receiving it. Soften the stony parts of our hearts. Give us patience to weed out the sinfulness in our lives. May we magnify your Words of hope, peace, and love by thirty-, sixty, or a hundred-fold.  Amen.