I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them bloom for me and you...
I see skies of blue and clouds of white,
the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night...
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!
Several decades ago, the jazz musician Louis Armstrong was inspired by the magnificence of the natural world as he sang of the tenderness of human love. The biblical authors of today’s readings were also enthralled by the beauty of the world. They employed natural imagery to speak of God and the things of God. Isaiah was in awe of the fructifying potential of the rain as he sang the praises of God’s word. The psalmist painted scenes of the life-giving world when proclaiming the glories of salvation. Paul likened our longing for redemption to creation’s struggle to bring forth new life. Finally, Jesus compared various degrees of openness to the word of God with different kinds of ground. The natural world does indeed lend itself to lessons about God.
How does this imagery work? Metaphors point to a common characteristic possessed by two very different realities. For example, we may not understand how God’s word will take root in our lives, but we do experience rainfall and the natural abundance that it yields, and we know the difference between good soil and land that produces only thorns. It is because we are so familiar with natural creation that we are able to understand metaphors like these that speak of the things of God.
The marvelous cycle of rainfall, evaporation and then atmospheric condensation is an apt image of the indefatigable power of God’s word, as found in the first reading: “My word shall not return to me void.” The life-giving potential of that same word is captured in Jesus’ parable as well. However, there the focus is on our openness to that potential. The 30-, 60- or 100-fold yield of rich soil mentioned in the Gospel is depicted in the responsorial psalm.
But there must be a common characteristic for the metaphor to be meaningful. How will we speak of God if our world no longer corresponds with divine attributes? Would Isaiah compare God’s word with acid rain? How would the psalmist praise God if the earth were unable to bring forth healthful food? Would Jesus’ sower cast the seed onto land that is polluted? Today we have to wonder: Is creation groaning with the labor pangs of new life, as Paul suggested, or with the burden of contamination?
These readings should remind us that we are natural creatures and that everything about us is a part of the natural world or is mediated to us through it, even our understanding of God. The world is not ours; we only hold it in trust. Like the rest of its living creatures, we are dependent on the rain. We come from the earth as from a mother, and we are nourished from this same source of life. These readings remind us that it is truly a wonderful world!