15th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
I failed algebra twice in high school and once in college. In every other subject in high school and college both I did just fine. English, history, and philosophy were simple. . .compared to algebra. I managed – finally – to pass college algebra with a C+ by memorizing the formulas and using them mechanically. I understood literature. I understood the flow of history. I understood philosophical arguments. I could not understand the quadratic equation. To save my soul, the souls of my family and friends, the souls of the whole nation – I simply could not “get” algebra. And I still can't. I memorized the equations and mechanically applied them, having no clue how or why they worked. No doubt the sufferings of my poor teachers sprung many a soul from purgatory in those years. What I know now that I didn't know then is that “understanding” takes more than “knowing that” and “knowing how.” Understanding – true understanding – is knowledge put to work, lived out, lived with. The disciples ask Jesus why he teaches the crowds with parables. Jesus answers: “. . .they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Looking is not seeing; hearing is not listening. Seeing and listening to the Word of God are gifts given to us for our salvation.
Some in the crowds have not yet received the gifts of seeing and listening. So, Jesus defends his use of parables in teaching on the grounds that there are some there who have not been granted knowledge of the kingdom's mysteries. Why don't these people have the knowledge required to see and listen? Jesus, quoting Isaiah 6, says, “Gross is the heart of this people.” He's recalling the orders that God gives Isaiah regarding His people, “Make the heart of this people sluggish, dull their ears and close their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and their heart understand. . .” The sluggish hearts of God's people refused to be moved by punishment, admonition, argument, or exile. They closed their eyes to miracles and their ears to prophecy. God orders Isaiah to let them languish in blindness and deafness “until the cities are desolate, without inhabitants, Houses, without people, and the land is a desolate waste.” In other words, God will allow His people to live with the consequences of their ignorance and disobedience until all that they have is destroyed. This is not another punishment, but a hard call to repentance and conversion. Isaiah is sent to make sure the message is crystal clear: repent, return to obedience, and be healed.
For those in the crowd who have received the gifts of seeing and listening, Jesus' message is crystal clear. For those with a heart open to the Word and a mind ready for the Truth, his parables are instructions for living a holy life. The seed of the Word flourishes in fertile soil. Rocks, sand, thorns, a blazing sun – all destroy the seed before it can take root. The seed of the Word cannot take root in a heart divided btw the Gospel and the World, in a heart that beats for Self Alone. The seed of the Word cannot flourish in a heart choked with anger, vengeance, malice, or pride. It cannot grow surrounded by self-righteousness, gossip, obscenity, or vicious habit. A disobedient heart cannot listen to the Father's offer of mercy, nor can it see the truth of His love. The parable comes into razor-sharp focus when the disobedient heart turns from sin and listens again to the wisdom of Christ: “. . .the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it.” And the one who understands “bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”
Earlier I noted that I finally managed to pass college algebra with a C+ by memorizing the formulas and applying them mechanically. I did not understand algebra then, and I still don't. What I have come to understand is that our faith is not algebra. We cannot simply memorize the formulas and apply them mechanically. Faith is trust and trust must be lived – openly, freely, generously – with God and one another. That means taking some risks, perhaps some dangerous risks, but always risking with the assurance that whatever God has in the works for us it's for our eternal best. Memorized formulas and mechanical applications got me through algebra. . .that's b/c algebra is the sort of thing that just needs to be done not necessarily understood. Your relationship with the Father through Christ is a living relationship that requires tending – like a healthy garden or a growing child. It needs attention. It needs loving care. Left alone, your relationship with God will grow stale; it will grow “gross,” sluggish, and you will be left wondering why the abundant graces you once enjoyed are so scarce of late. Receive the gifts of seeing and listening so that the Word of God might be a constant sight and source of wisdom and inspiration for you. Put that wisdom into daily practice so that you can come to understand – truly understand – the faith you profess. Christ is asking you, me, all of us to become the good ground that yields a fruitful harvest!
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