Today we heard what, last week, I called, “Saint Paul’s adventure story.” I hope it will be useful inspiration for you, particularly when times are tough, or you are feeling the pains of physical affliction. “God’s strength is perfected in our weakness.
We also heard this parable from Saint Luke’s Gospel about the sower sowing seed in various types of soil. Our Lord already explained it for us, and only foolish preachers try to explain God’s own explanations! Do recognize, however, that it is a parable, and subject to the limitations of parables. Everything our Lord says was Truth Itself, but we ought to recognize that we are not limited like the plants in the parable—we are capable of self directed change—if we are by the wayside, or on the rocky ground, or among the thorns, we are capable of moving ourselves to the good ground, where we will “preserve the Word of God in our hearts, and bear fruit in patience.” Just a little bit later, in the same chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel, our Lord acknowledges that “My mother and My brethren are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” God rewards us for what we do, not for who we are, or for our family connections.
Yet, there is another aspect to today’s Gospel—one that is sometimes puzzling. Our Lord exhibits a certain secrecy with this parable—everyone gets to hear it, but only the disciples have it explained for them: “To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to the rest in parables, that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” If you read this Gospel in your missal, you may have noted that our Lord was quoting someone—and that someone would be the Old Testament prophet Isaias.
If you have read the Old Testament, or if you have simply paid attention the readings that we hear every year during holy week, just before Easter, you will know that Isaias is the most significant of the messianic prophets. Writing centuries before Christ, he recorded what was spoken to him by God Himself. A lot of his writing was for the purpose of informing the Jewish people as to what they would see and what would happen when their long awaited Redeemer came on the scene.
What Isaias predicted, and, of course what happened, is that many to whom the Redeemer had been promised repudiated Him. And, chiefly, we find that those who repudiated Him were among the sect known as the Pharisees. These Pharisees were the proud descendants of the Machabees—men who had fought hard and bloody battles to preserve the Temple at Jerusalem, and to uphold the Mosaic Law, during the period after the death of Alexander the Great and before the birth of Christ.
In Christ’s time, the Pharisees tended to the arbiters of the Mosaic Law—teachers, not priests—and they had come to view the Law as their own private possession, and the source of their own personal glory. Our Lord complained that they were hypocrites: “Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” They loved to take the best places at table for social gatherings, and enjoyed being seen giving alms to the poor, and being seen keeping the Mosaic Law. They loved to be saluted in the market place and to be called Rabbi. They exaggerated the ritual prescriptions of the Law—the Law prescribed a leather headband containing a scriptural verse; theirs had to be wider than most—the Law prescribed tassels on one’s cloak; theirs had to be larger than most. “They bind heavy and insupportable burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders: but with a finger of their own they will not move them.”
Now, our Lord had been quite public in His teaching. Anyone who came along could see His miracles and hear what He had to say. He preached both in the wilderness and in the Temple, so he was easily accessible to all, Indeed, many of the Pharisees and others like them did come and recognize that with Jesus “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” Yet, as Isaias predicted, having seen all of these things, they would not believe—or, if they believed, they would not act—indeed, ultimately, they would conspire to put Him to death.
In fulfillment of prophecy, our Lord was, in effect, turning His back on those who would repudiate Him. He spoke in parables that were explained for those faithful to Him, but not for those who refuse to meet Him even a part of the way.
Now, the question ought to arise in our minds: “Why would faithful Jews, loyal observants of the Mosaic Law, to whom the Redeemer had been promised, fail to joyfully embrace Him when He arrived?” But those Pharisees are all long dead and buried, so rather than asking it as an historical question, we would do well ask ourselves: “Why did the Pharisees turn their backs on our Lord, and do we today share any of these traits with the Pharisees—are we doing any of the things that they did, that might keep us from knowing, loving, and serving God?”
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is that when the Pharisees encountered Jesus, they met him with inflexible preconceptions of what they were to expect from Him. Had they looked back to the writings of Moses and the Prophets, they would have realized that the Messias had been promised by God for only one reason—to undo the effects of sin; the original sin we inherited from Adam and Eve, and the actual sin which we ourselves commit. More positively (for sin, like all evil, is a privation, or a lack of what is good), man was intended to be alive with the divine life of grace in his soul, and Jesus Christ came to restore that grace. The Pharisees, however, stuck to the preconception that the Messias would come with a sword in His hand to beat off all of the enemies of Israel. They were looking for a general, rather than for a priest and prophet. We ought to ask ourselves whether or not we suffer from similar preconceptions—do our prayers and expectations reflect a God upon Whom we call only when want or need something? Do we think of Him as a private God, who will intercede for us at everyone else’s expense.
A second error of the Pharisees was the failure to listen to what the Son of God had to say. Had they listened to Jesus they would have known that He posed no threat whatsoever to legitimate authority. In their failure to listen to Him they lost all hope of receiving the graces which He brought, and, indeed, they began to perceive Him as a dangerous revolutionary. As the self appointed guardians of the Law, they felt extremely threatened when Jesus did things which contradicted their exaggerated ideas of what the Law required. This Man went around curing the sick on the Sabbath day, when no one was supposed to do any sort of work. From the Pharisaical point of view, “Pick up thy bed and walk” was a double violation of the Sabbath—Jesus healing, and the man expending the effort to carry his palate away. The Gospels record a number of these instances—no doubt there are more which were not written down. It was a challenge to their authority to suggest that “the Sabbath was made for man” rather than the other way around.
We know, too, that toward the end, since they had not listened to Him, they expected Jesus to precipitate a clash with the Romans—not as the all-powerful Messias but as a radical revolutionary, a troublemaker. “If we let him alone, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation.... it is expedient ... that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not.” Do we, like the Pharisees, fail to listen to what Jesus Christ has to say to us? Do we listen to Him regularly and frequently? at holy Mass? in our own reading of the Scriptures? in prayer? Do we listen, pay attention, and then act on what we have learned form Him?
Perhaps the most obvious sin of the Pharisees was their pride. The word “pride” is a bit ambiguous—clearly, pride in our workmanship is a good thing—the pride that makes us brush our hair in the morning and cut the grass around the house is also a positive thing—we ought to be proud of the good things done by our families, our children, and our society—and consequently quick to correct them when they do wrong.
But the pride of the Pharisees was of a different kind—of a kind that we must be careful not to possess ourselves. That is the kind of pride in which someone feels that he is somehow “better” or “more important” than everyone else. Having to wear fancier things than everyone else, expecting always to be seated in the place of honor, having to be seen by others in doing good—all of those Pharisaical things, criticized by our Lord, are symptoms of a destructive pride—the pride which drives people to theft, and war, and adultery, to constant bickering, and even to murder—the pride that says: “I am more important than everyone else, so I can do whatever I please!” “Maybe even against God!”
So take a lesson from the Pharisees—a lesson in how not to be. Every once in a while give some thought to the fact that our Lord turned away from them—examine your conscience, and be sure you are giving Him no reason to turn away from you.