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Scripture In Depth
Sixteenth Sunday
in Ordinary Time A
July 23, 2017
Reginald H. Fuller

Reading I: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19

The caption to this passage highlights the idea of repentance.

From the parables in today’s Gospel, however, it appears that the real reason for the choice of this passage was to reinforce the notion of God’s forbearance: “Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us” (Wis 12:18).

God’s care, it says, is for all people, and even for the tares among the wheat. “Your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all” (Wis 12:16).


Responsorial Psalm: 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16

This psalm of individual lament is remarkable for its confidence in the faithfulness and steadfast love of Y(HWH), a confidence unshaken by present distress.

If God’s forbearance is the main theme of this day, this is a highly suitable psalm to go with the Old Testament reading and the gospel.


Reading II: Romans 8:26-27

We note that two verses (Rom 8:24-25) have been omitted between the end of last week’s reading from Romans and the beginning of today’s selection. This is because verse 26 picks up from verse 23.

The inward groaning of those who possess the first fruits of the Spirit is assisted by the Spirit, who intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26; the word for “sighs” is akin to “groanings”).

Herein lies the clue to Paul’s meaning. It is not that the speech of the Holy Spirit is in itself encompassed with infirmity and therefore itself groans or sighs in an unintelligible fashion (in glossolalia, for instance); rather, Paul’s thought is that the Spirit condescends to take up our infirm prayers and to bear them up to God and to present them before God in the form of intelligible speech.

Here the Spirit acts as a Paraclete or Advocate, as in the Fourth Gospel, although Paul does not actually use the word.

We habitually think of prayer in terms of “me down here” speaking to “God up there.” But when I pray as a believer, it is not just “me down here”—it is the Spirit of God within me praying to “God up there.”

Thus, immanence and transcendence are both acted out in the activity of prayer. Thus, too, prayer is an activity in which the believer participates in the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43

We continue today with another parable from Matthew 13. Like the parable of the sower, the parable of the tares has undergone allegorization, and once again the short form gives the non-allegorized version that is very probably close to the form in which Jesus originally spoke it.

There is a further similarity: in the long form, the parable and its allegorical interpretation are separated by other materials. In this case, the intervening material consists of two parables found elsewhere in the gospel tradition, namely, the parable of the mustard seed, which occurs in Mark and Q (Mark 4:30-32Luke 13:18-19); and the parable of the leaven, which is found in Q (par. Luke 13:20-21).

These little parables are followed by a shortened form of Mark’s conclusion to the parables (Matthew 13:34-35; par. Mark 4:33-34) and a fulfillment citation from Psalm 78:2, which is both unique to and typical of Matthew.

We thus once more have three levels in the tradition: (1) the parable of the tares, substantially as told by Jesus; (2) the parable of the tares with its allegorical interpretation; (3) the insertion of the complex of other materials between the parable and its interpretation, and the shift of the latter from a public to a private location. The meaning of each of these levels may be constructed as follows:

(1) Jesus is criticized by his purist contemporaries for inviting the outcast to eat with him as an anticipation of God’s salvation. He answers by saying that it is for God to make the separation and that God will do so only at the end. Then it will be clear who are the wheat and who are the tares. Doubtless there will be some surprises in store.

(2) The allegorical interpretation applies the parable to the Christian community. There are tares as well as wheat in the church now. The church is a corpus permixtum, and there need be no premature attempt to separate the wheat from the tares in its present life.

(3) By sandwiching the intervening material between the parable and its interpretation, and especially by shifting the scene from public to private teaching just before the interpretation, Matthew has applied this complex of material to the situation of his own church.

As we saw last week, that situation is marked by disappointment over the failure of the mission to Israel.

Now the church is assured that when the gospel came to Israel, it came as a parabole, a mashal, a riddle (Psalm 78:2). Only the church comprehends the riddle. The tares are presently indistinguishable from the wheat, but at the end God will separate them. The church must meanwhile be patient.

There is a remarkable amount of continuity between the three interpretations—more so than in the case of the sower. At each level the point remains the forbearance of God. What changes is the identity of the wheat and the tares.

For Jesus, it was the outcast and the authorities of his people. For the church tradition, it was the good and the bad within the Christian community. For the evangelist, it was non-believing Israel and the members of his church.

Reginald H. Fuller
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Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today

Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), pp. 158-160.

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