Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
July 13, 2008

Readings: Is 55:10-11 /Rom 8:18-23 /Mt 13:1-23

One experience we are all too familiar with, but which we’d rather not have to go through is the experience of failure. Students dread the thought of all their efforts at mastering the subject matter all coming to naught at the end of the term. Farmers need to do their sowing of new seeds at the right time, lest their seeds, for lack of sufficient moisture, wither and die. Parents go through their task of raising children with fear and trepidation because failure in this regard may spell a lifetime of regret - if not, recrimination.

We all dread failure. We do not look forward to wastage of any kind, least of all our human efforts. We desire that all human effort expended in whatever field of endeavor, would turn efficacious, either for ourselves, or for others. We long for success. Students look forward to a diploma. Farmers want a bountiful harvest – and a good supply of new seeds besides, for the next planting season. Parents work hard to assure themselves of having responsible, productive children in future. No one wants to fail. No one wants his efforts turning futile, and producing nothing but wastage. Like the little farmer in each and everyone of us, we all look forward to a bountiful harvest.

But then, let us face it. Not everything we do ends in success. Not every seed we sow germinates and grows and bears fruit in plenty. Even in our families, members grow in the same environments, eat the same food, hear the same admonitions from the same parents, but we all know how children grow up to be different from one another. For one who have been planting various types of plants over these past so many years, I do know that not every seedling turns out to be a healthy tree or a good shrub. As a teacher for well over 30 years by now, I do know that not every student I taught turned out to be responsible and caring individuals – the honest citizens and good Christians Don Bosco wanted every Bosconian to become.

Wastage and failure are an ineluctable part of human experience.

Today’s Gospel parable – no less – speaks about this. Some seeds fell on rocky ground, on the footpath, or among thorns. They ended up as wastage, failures. Some seeds fell on good soil. They bore fruit in plenty. They were not wasted. The Gospel puts us face to face with the idea of failure. Despite the very upbeat tenor of the first reading today, the Lord would have us understand how even the best efforts could turn into failure and wastage.

The second reading is some kind of a reality check for all of us. Paul speaks of “sufferings of this present time.” He refers to creation as “groaning in labor pains” like we ourselves, he says, who “groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Take any good dictionary. Groans refer to cries of one in pain. All of creation is groaning in expectation, in waiting, in anticipation. Science has not found a way to really predict twisters and sudden squalls at sea. Volcanoes and tornadoes have caused and still will cause a lot of destruction all over the world. In a very literal and figurative sense, the whole of creation is also waiting for deliverance. Cancer and HIV patients all around the globe are still waiting for a breakthrough discovery of a cure that really works. And all of us, still in this valley of tears, are waiting avidly in hope for the fullness of salvation. Waiting in deep expectation…waiting in hope…hoping even against hope, at times…this is how we all are.

One of the most moving descriptions of waiting in hope I have ever encountered, is found in the lengthy poem The Wreck of the Deutchsland by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In moving poetic language, Hopkins recounts the ordeal and eventual death by drowning of five Franciscan nuns traveling from Germany to England on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 7, 1875. The Deutschland ran aground in a shoal, caught by a severe squall, and 50 out of 200 travelers met their untimely death (Incidentally, this tragedy pales in comparison to the more than 6,000 that perished in four shipping accidents that befell the Philippines’ Sulpicio Lines, the last one being late last month). What caught the attention of the poet was the bravery and holiness of one of the sisters named Gertrude, who, with courage and hope did her best to help save the lives of others but lost her own and that of her co-sisters. This, she did, despite the fact that, in the words of Hopkins, “hope had grown grey hairs, hope had mourning on, trenched with tears, carved with cares, hope was twelve hours gone; and frightful nightfall folded rueful a day nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone, and lives at last were washing away…”

Gertrude, the towering nun, took charge “a prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told” and, not minding the sea water that blinds her, she sees one thing only: God, and the “call of the tall nun to the men in the tops and tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.” Courageous and heroic efforts from a nun all turning to naught… She died, along with the other four, along with 45 others… a story of wastage and failure.

Failure, yes…but only in the eyes of men. Hopkins’ perspicacity saw beyond the seeming failure. He saw – rightly – a picture totally different, a story patently similar to what St. Paul, Isaiah and Jesus Christ are recounting for us today. For they all recount a story of hope. They all speak about a power and efficacy that triumph in the end, despite the seeming failure all around.

I am referring here to the power and efficacy of God and his word. The first reading states in no uncertain terms: “my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” (Is 55:11) Such is the power of God’s utterance. The Genesis account of creation tells us how God’s word was behind all of creation. In poetic language, we are told how the world and everything in it came to be: Let there be… and there was…This dynamic reality of the word per se, and the creative character of the divine utterance, as believed in by the Old Testament Jews, find numerous echoes in the New Testament. Jesus, whom John the Evangelist calls the Word incarnate, is often portrayed as one who spoke with authority, whom “even the winds and the sea obey.” (Mt 8:27) He was seen, not only as one who spoke with authority, but one whose words effected what they signified, as is clear in the many passages that recount his healing acts for the sick. And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, "Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean." He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, "I will do it. Be made clean." (Mt 8: 2-3) The same truth is affirmed by the Letter to the Hebrews: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in a recent book, recounts another moving story of a young seminarian who wanted to become a priest. Unfortunately, in an out-of-town trip to visit an elder sister who was a nun, together with his family, the van they were riding on met an accident. Of all those inside the van, only he was hurt seriously and was paralyzed from the neck down. The whole family being known to everybody in the parish where they came from, the whole parish was brought down to its knees in prayer for him, begging the Lord for a miracle. When they gathered again for what they thought would have been a thanksgiving prayer service for the expected “miracle” weeks later, in came a wheelchair, bearing the once athletic, handsome body of this young man now almost unable to move, but who spoke thus: “You all came here for a service of thanksgiving, but, as I was wheeled up the aisle, you all thought, ‘Thanksgiving for what? This young man is a quadriplegic, and will be for the rest of his life. His promising future is destroyed. This is hardly an answer to our prayers!”… I must admit to you that I have felt the same way every once in a while these last ten weeks since the accident. In other words, like the apostles in the Gospel in the midst of that overwhelming storm we are tempted to think our Lord is asleep and couldn’t care less. Hope, my friends,…hope is the gift that keeps us going when we think Jesus is asleep, and let us thank God for that great gift of hope!”

Archbishop Dolan recounts, one could have heard a pin drop in that jammed church, as this young man gave the best discourse on hope that made the words of the psalmist ring true: “In God alone is my soul at rest, my help comes from him. He alone is my rock, my stronghold, my fortress, I stand firm.” (Ps 62).

I would like to take back what I started out with in this reflection. No, the readings do not speak primarily of wastage and failures. They all speak primarily about bearing fruit in plenty. At a time when we are tempted to think that “hope is growing grey hairs” in the Philippines, politically, economically, culturally and in a host of other aspects, we are reminded: “my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” I would like to think that the dark clouds that hover over the Church in the Philippines in these difficult moments do not represent at all hope being 17 years gone (after PCP –II), or that things have gone totally hopeless. No, they goad us on to hope even more, to trust God even more that He will keep his promises. This is the same hope that, together with St. Paul, declares unflinchingly: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”

To all of you, who like me, are tempted to think the Lord is asleep and does not care a fig about us and our human condition, I would like to say, take heart, take courage…and, take heed! Your pains, your worries, your hurts…all of it, is nothing. Nothing compared to the glory to be revealed to us!

Alternative Reflection:


All three readings today speak of two aspects of human experience – success and failure. The first reading refers more to success. It refers to the power and efficacy of the divine utterance.

Comparing God’s word to rain and snow that falls down from the heavens, that word, says Isaiah, will never go back to the heavens without first achieving the purpose for which they came.

The second reading though, taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans, offers us a reality check. It speaks of “sufferings in this present time.” Although it speaks of something that people would rather not have to undergo, Paul’s letter nevertheless, waxes hopeful as it frames suffering in the bigger context of God’s call – the glorious destiny that God has in store for all of us.

The Gospel passage combines the pictures of success and failure in one interesting parable - the parable of the sower and the seeds. Failure … some seed fell on rocky ground; some fell on the footpath. Those seeds stood very little chances. They grew up fast, but they also withered and died even faster. No sooner had they sprouted than all sorts of obstacles stood in the way of their coming to full term. Success … some seeds fell on good ground. They bore fruit in plenty … a hundred, sixty, or thirty fold!

This is the context in which we live our human and Christian lives. We are all an ongoing story of success and failures.

There is much to praise and thank God for. God’s word continues to be sown in many places all over the world. That same word sprouts and takes root in the lives of many people. The Church continues to grow at a pace that no one could readily imagine, let alone predict, as manifested in places like Nigeria in the African continent, in Korea, and elsewhere. True to Isaiah’s words, the word does not go back where it came from empty handed. It achieves and effects its purpose. God’s divine utterance continues to be creative … not only creative, but salvific. Everywhere around the world, God’s word produces the results for which they were uttered. His original “blessing” that was behind the creation of life, continues to produce new life. “Let there be …” “and there was!”

God’s word, indeed, is effective … “like a two-edged sword,” in the words of the letter-writer to the Hebrews.

But the totality of Scripture does not gloss over reality as we know it, reality as finite and limited human beings like us know it. For St. Paul, writing to the Romans, “all of creation waits with eager longing for the sons of God to be revealed.” Creation itself, “groans in labor pains” as it awaits the destiny God meant for it. We live in an unfinished, imperfect world. We live in a world, that, marred as it is by sin, is longing for deliverance.

This world is one characterized by successes and failures, by pain and endless possibility, by limitations and by transcendence.

This is the world the gospel parable speaks about. It is a world cared for by a divine sower, gifted with seeds of new life, and new possibilities. This is a world that stands before a caring God in an ongoing dialogical encounter, a world capable of cooperating with the same God, or of rejecting His loving interventions.

And this is where the greatest failure comes to the fore – the failure to respond, the failure to dance with the divine music, the failure to comply with God’s overtures of creative love.

Our lives are an ongoing example of these overtures and initiatives coming to naught on account of our non-response, on account of our indifference and downright rejection of God. In our lives, there are soils and there are soils. There are those who offer nothing more than cragged rocky ground. Rocks and stones offer not much for the seed to sprout and take root in. There are those of us who offer nothing more than the margins of our waking and sleeping lives. All we offer, at times, is the well-beaten foot path where everything gets trampled upon. No matter how good, the seedlings get trampled upon by too much busyness, by indifference, by too many peripheral concerns. The seeds do sprout, but they soon rot away, trampled to oblivion by so many concerns that take central stage of our lives.

This is the failure called sin. This is the failure also referred to as lack of capacity to respond appropriately and accordingly to God’s overtures and initiatives. This is the failure called “aversio a Deo” and “conversio ad creaturas” – a turning away from God and a turning toward creatures.

Scripture, we know, basically revolves around a few convergent themes: the theme of election, the theme of covenant, the theme of God’s choice, the theme of man’s response; the theme of sin and the theme of repentance; the theme of the fall, and the theme of redemption. It is the same topic we speak of – the story of man’s – everyman’s – successes and failures.

Successes in our context … Let’s talk about the fact that we are the only Christian nation in Asia. Not bad, huh? But let’s see the other side of the coin, failure. We happen to have a most unsavory reputation of being the most corrupt nation in the same region!

Success … we export not only domestic helpers and caregivers. We also export our world-famous Christian faith. Were it not for Filipino domestic helpers, many Churches in once Christian Europe would be literally empty. Failure? … Yes, there’s quite a few. We happen to export also the culture of “sabong” (cockfighting) and raising fighting cocks in the heart of Christian Rome!

Success … Being a poor country, we can make do with so little. We can make miracles even out of the junk thrown away by our far richer neighbors like Japan. Ships that are retired and decommissioned in Japan find new life and bloom into worthwhile use when brought to the Philippines, and retouched by creative and inventive skilled hands. Failure? … everyone knows that one shipping company has figured in about 45 maritime accidents since they opened shop. Since 1987, that same company has figured in the untimely deaths of more than 6,000 people who perished in four different shipping tragedies, the most recent of which was just last June 21, 2008.

We are a country and people carried away by stories of success on the one hand; and marred by disturbing stories of failure, on the other. We are a people characterized by situations of lights and shadows, as our most often quoted document of PCP-II puts it (The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, 1991).

But we gather together Sunday in and Sunday out, among other things, precisely to find meaning in these utterly and apparently meaningless situations. We want to be guided by our faith, and we long for the seeds of God’s Word not only to take root in our lives, but also to sprout new life, new answers, and new ways of solving the riddles of our daily existence. We want, favored as we have been, by the “first fruits of the Spirit” to “groan” like all of creation does, as it longs for the full revelation of the sons of God. Despite the pain, despite the “contours of hopelessness” all around us, we still find it in our heart to have faith, hope, and love.

This is the Good News we hold on to. Successes and failures are all around us … lights and shadows … sin and grace. But this is not the problem. At bottom, the only question we need to ask ourselves, based on today’s readings, is simply this: “What type of soil are we?” Then, and only then, can we talk about whether we are going to be a story of success or failure