Perhaps we should switch the first and second readings this Sunday.

St. Paul (Romans 8:18-23) surfaces a problem with which all people of faith must deal. But Isaiah (Isaiah 55:10-11) and Jesus (Matthew 13:1-23) give the same basic answer to the problem, even though they ministered more than 500 years apart.

Paul states the question: How do we know the things we hope for in faith will eventually happen? He begins by making a statement of faith: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us."

As in labor

Paul employs the image of a woman in labor to convey his point: "We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we are saved."

What's the basis of our hope? Isaiah and Jesus zero in on the same answer: God's word.

Isaiah prophesied during the Chosen People's darkest hour -- the Babylonian Exile. Between 586 and 530 BCE, a large percentage of Jews were confined in Babylon, a safeguard to prevent any revolt against their foreign conquerors. There was no hope for release, no chance to return to the Promised Land.

Then this unexpected prophet came on the scene, promising that their time of punishment was over. He encouraged them to pack their bags and to get the road between Israel and Babylon in shape because their hated exile was finished.

That sounded great, but how could the Jews be certain this longed-for day was just around the corner? Isaiah had just one answer: We've got Yahweh's word on it! If Yahweh says it, it happens, no matter the obstacles.

That's where Sunday's reading comes in. The prophet perfectly summarizes the force of that word: "Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it."

Some seeds grow

In His parable about sowing seed, Jesus completely agrees with Isaiah. Matthew leaves out the question that seems to have prompted Jesus' famous parable. Most probably, someone came up and asked Him why He was wasting His time doing all that preaching. In a month or two, the person might have said, practically no one would remember anything He said.

It's then that Jesus starts talking about all the seed wasted in the broadcast technique farmers employed in His day. No matter how much seed is wasted, some always falls "on rich soil and produces fruit, a hundred, or sixty or thirty-fold." God's word, in short, always has an effect.

Remember in the old days when we'd ask in our religion classes, "At what point of a Sunday Eucharist does our coming late switch from a venial to a mortal sin?" The answer: Only if we walked in the door after the chalice was "uncovered" (after the Offertory started) was it mortal; before then, it was just venial.

That meant we Catholics could miss the entire liturgy of God's word throughout our lifetime and it would never be seriously sinful. I presume Jesus and Isaiah would have a great problem with that morality.