JULY 10, 2011: FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
The closer I come to dying, the more today's lines from Isaiah 55 become significant in my life. "Thus says Yahweh: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful — So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it."
No one can stop rain and snow from having an effect on this planet; so no one can stop God's word from having an effect in our lives of faith. It's no accident that these words were proclaimed by one of the greatest of all prophets: Deutero-Isaiah. As I once mentioned in a pamphlet about him, "He's the person who changed our faith." We've never believed quite the same way since he came on the scene 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian Exile. Judaism as an institution was on the ropes, basic practices like sacrificial worship were impossible to perform, and worst of all, Yahweh was regarded as inferior to Marduk since his people, the Babylonians, had defeated Yahweh's people in battle.
The prophet had no choice but to fall back on Yahweh's word. It was the only thing the people hadn't lost; it alone gave him hope that the exile would eventually end. Though God's word is easy to ignore, it's the most powerful force our faith has to offer. Yet it would also cost Deutero-Isaiah his life. His martyrdom seems to be one of the reasons his disciples inserted today's oracle in the very last chapter of his work. By doing so, they assured his community that he died convinced the word would bring about the dream it proclaimed.
Paul, who expressly identifies with this unnamed prophet, shows how their experiences parallel. He points out to the Roman church that things and people didn't instantly change when he preached God's word in Jesus. He had a tough row to hoe. "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us .... All creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves . . . groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." No one is conceived, then immediately born. And no birth takes place without pain.
If the historical Jesus didn't identify with Deutero-Isaiah, his first followers made the connection for him. Here Matthew's Jesus shows he shares his prophetic predecessor's frame of mind. (This is one of those rare occasions when I encourage you not to read the whole liturgical selection. Proclaim only the first 9 verses. The remainder is an early Christian allegory having little to do with Jesus' original parable.)
One problem we encounter when dealing with Jesus' parables is that these stories only make sense if we're privy to what was said immediately before he delivers the parable. Scholars generally agree that in today's situation someone walked up to Jesus and said, "You're wasting your time! A month from now over half your crowd won't remember even one thing you said; a year from now only one or two will have changed anything in their lives because of what you said."
It was then that Jesus points to a farmer broadcasting seed and reminds his well-meaning friend that if just a little bit of seed takes root it'll produce "fruit, a hundred, or sixty or thirty fold." If just one or two people change their lives because of the word he's preaching, it'll make all his wasted effort worthwhile.
Jesus, like Deutero-Isaiah and Paul, was amazed at the power of the word he proclaimed. Ministering in a world like theirs, where few seem concerned with that word, it certainly makes me personally feel a lot better about dying.