15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar … Have you ever listened to someone tell a joke, and when the punchline comes … you don’t get it? Everyone else around you is rolling on the floor, and you’re scratching your head wondering why. What was so funny about that?, you ask. Everyone is laughing. But I don’t get it.

Scientists have been asking the question for some time—What makes us laugh? There’s the obvious distinction between what causes laughter, tickling or jokes. Now we know that some people are just more ticklish than others. It just goes to show we don’t all have the same triggers. And research has also shown that some animals have been observed to laugh, though mostly from tickling. Scientists confirm that no animal has ever laughed when told a joke, not yet. An article quoting Dr. Fabian van den Berg, a neuropsychologist, in Forbes magazine points out, “The detection of whether something is funny or not seems to happen in the left Inferior Frontal and Posterior Temporal lobe.”[1] It looks like we know where brain activity occurs when we laugh, but still not why. One theory states “we find things funny that don’t fit with what we think should happen. Our brains are pretty good at predicting what might happen. We like routines, anything that deviates will pop out.”[2]  I found a similar conclusion in findings from research done at Oxford University[3], but I’m not convinced. Mathematics will also produce predictable outcomes. And I have yet to hear a funny math joke. Maybe it’s me.

When Jesus spoke in parables, he would tell his listeners truths they seem not to already know, about God, about God’s kingdom, about our role in God’s plan. He spoke of how God cared for us, and that we should not worry about what we are to wear or what we are to eat.[4] He spoke of God’s mercy and compassion and that we must be willing to extend mercy and compassion to our neighbor.[5] He spoke of God’s providence and generosity toward those in need, and our obligation to then treat others as we would have them treat us.[6] In a few places, the gospel would relate how people would come away amazed, not just at what Jesus said, but also at how he said it, that he often spoke with authority, and not like the scribes.[7] And sometimes they responded in shock as well because apparently, he also said things they found hard to take.[8]

Now we can examine everything the Gospels tell us Jesus said. It isn’t surprising that some of his teachings we will agree are brilliant and insightful, like the one about a servant whose master forgave him his entire debt, yet somehow he was unwilling to forgive a fellow servant who owed a lesser debt. “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”[9] But some teachings may still puzzle us. I’m wondering if something important could have gotten lost in translation, like when Jesus said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.[10] Now I am not aware that anyone has ever attempted to pass a camel through the eye of a needle. Even David Copperfield isn’t touching that one. But over the centuries, the church has raised not a few emperors and kings and popes to sainthood. I would still love to see a camel give it a try.

So when Jesus admitted “I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand,”[11] he may only be confirming that insight and wisdom are not entirely up to us, that we would also need the gift of faith which only God gives. And as he proceeded to explain the parable of the sower to his disciples, he was at that very moment giving them understanding.

God casts an abundance of seeds upon the fertile soil of our hearts each day. Each day, the gentle rains come down in the form of subtle blessings to coax life out of those seeds. But not every seed takes root. And those seeds that do take root are not guaranteed survival just because they break through the hardened ground. That is why many seeds need to be sown because God will not be outdone in generosity. God is patient as well, never begrudging the slow or stubborn learner, mindful of our limitations, generous beyond measure. In time God is confident, the seed will sprout. And when it does, a bountiful harvest awaits. In time God is confident, those who hear will understand, and those who look will see. It is the nature of all living things to come to maturity slowly. And God above all else is very much aware of that.

One [Saturday evening] Sunday morning, a priest went to proclaim the gospel and preach God’s Word. Everyone in the assembly was caught up in his or her own swirling universe of concerns and anxieties, lingering arguments, unresolved questions, worries about relationships, concerns about money, exasperation for those they elected to public office, reasons they were running late for church, and why they had to leave early, worrisome news from distant friends and relatives, petty irritations from people living in each other’s business every day, or just a general reluctance to participate in life because its color or sound or feel did not match their mood. Out in the assembly that day, there was an immense assortment of lame excuses, frazzled emotions, battered egos, unfulfilled expectations, immature hopes, and impossible dreams. And in one sweep of his mighty hand, God cast his Word on the minds of people like a generous handful of seeds upon every kind of soil imaginable. Now even God knows not to harbor unrealistic expectations. Even God knows only to hope and to wait patiently. God knows some seeds will just feed the birds, but some will indeed produce fruit in abundance.

When they went home, some were nourished and inspired. They found comfort in knowing God’s presence and power in their lives. Others experienced no noticeable change. They never even put down the burdens they brought. But because people were nice and gave them doughnuts, maybe they’ll be back. Maybe next time, the seed will land on more fertile soil.

Rolo B Castillo © 2017

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/04/18/the-science-behind-what-makes-us-laugh/#7fc57959d612

[2] ibid.

[3] http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2015-11-24-what-makes-us-laugh-its-serious-research

[4] Matthew 6: 25

[5] Luke 10: 37

[6] Matthew 7: 7—12

[7] Matthew 7: 29

[8] John 6: 60

[9] Matthew 18: 21—35

[10] Matthew 19: 24

[11] Matthew 13: 13