The teacher finished the last line of the story. Closed the book, and gazed out at the class. The students sat in silence with confused looks on their faces. The teacher said nothing. Finally, a youngster at the back of the room raised his hand. The teacher seemed not to notice the boy and he began to fidget. When he could not tolerate being ignored a moment longer he said in a voice loud enough for the rest of the class to hear: “But what does the story mean?”
The teacher surveyed the other students and observed quizzical looks on the majority of the faces. A few turned back to the questioner and nodded in agreement with their classmate’s question. Finally she said to the lad at the rear of the room: “Why don’t you tell us what the story means to you?”
In this Sunday’s Gospel we encounter Jesus the storyteller. His stories are called parables, tales richly laden with meaning and open to multiple interpretations. I would wager that the equivalent of major tomes have been written in commentary on these three parables each of which begins: The kingdom of heaven is like…” Primarily, the parables are addressed to the crowds gathered around, listening to Jesus. The crowds are distinct from those others present we call disciples. The difference between them? The former watch, listen, and perhaps judge, but remain undecided about the role Jesus will play in their lives. They are not yet convinced about his mission or meaning. On the other hand, disciples have made the decision to be with Jesus on the Way and consider him Lord and Master.
There is something common to each of the parables Jesus told, not only these but others in the Gospels. What is common to them are the puzzling elements, the images or ideas that should make the audience scratch their collective head and wonder if Jesus could possibly mean what they just heard him say.
When the Gospel is proclaimed we stand in respectful silence and listen to the telling of twice-told tales. Unfortunately familiarity robs them of their shock value. Often their impact is dulled. Some of them you may have heard often enough to have committed them to memory. What is unfortunate is that familiarity can result in our building up barriers to the Word to the extent that we are not vulnerable to it, and therefore not as likely to be converted by it. Remember, most of us are still on a faith journey and are not yet finished products in the faith.
I think Jesus would rather we listen as though we are hearing the pericope for the first time so that we can hone in on the puzzling aspects, struggle with them and plumb them for meaning that can change our lives. Jesus is like the teacher and always asks us what the parable means to us.
Before you read on, I would suggest that you pause and reread the parables in this Sunday’s Gospels. Take you time. If you are sharing this reading with another, take a few moments to share your perceptions. Don’t be surprised if their perceptions are different from your own. Go ahead. I’ll wait until you return.
There is one common element to these parables, two that I can see. You might have found more. Certainly they are about the Kingdom of Heaven. How often was Jesus asked if this was the time he would restore the Kingdom? But when isn’t Jesus’ main concern. What is looked for in posing the question is a parameter, a time line. How long will it before it happens. The questions should be about the surprising elements, those that you might not expect to find in the Kingdom of Heaven. The man sows generously with the best of seeds. The woman puts her leaven (better translation than yeast) in three measures of flour, which is enough to make 40 huge loaves. And there is a type of excess when the mustard seed grows into the largest of shrubs – large enough that birds of the air can come and dwell there.
Wouldn’t you think that everything would be perfect in the Kingdom of Heaven? Yet each of these parables puts a problem before us. An enemy sows weeds amidst the choicest of wheat. When they sprout the two types look very much alike. The owner lets them co-habit until harvest time. The whole mass of dough begins to rise. How could that much dough be kneaded? The birds that nest in the huge mustard bush will be the predators on the seeds the farmer plants in the field. Often times it is the case with the parables that we are brought to a worse state than the one with which the story began.
What should we expect to find in the Kingdom of Heaven? Shouldn’t those who are part of that Kingdom find peace and tranquility there, the perfection of community and fraternity? Here’s news, perhaps. The Kingdom is here on earth. Perhaps you should change Kingdom of Heaven to Church. Does that open the door to some implications that you might wish were not part of your Church experience? As a beloved of God, you are planted in that field. You are in a community with others of like type. But there are others, too, that might seem to be weeds. The operative word here is seem. (Think of those of the wrong race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or religion.) You might be tempted to make the judgment and exclude them from the company. But what if they are not the weeds? What if that is not a judgment for you to make? What if you are supposed to leave the final outcome to God? And in the meantime you must love even those that seem weed-like to you. Who can do this? Pope Francis’s desire for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor seems to apply here. There is a reason why no minister of the Eucharist has the right to turn away one who approaches to receive. That is against Canon Law.
You can ask all kinds of questions about the huge mass of dough raised by the small amount of leaven. Who would be so foolish to do such a thing? Wouldn’t this situation result in a terrible waste? On the other hand, perhaps Jesus wants the hearer to imagine the impact the few can have on the many as seen in the tremendous transformative power that just a little bit of leaven has on the mountain of flour. Dough rises. A few giving themselves in loving service can change the many feeling unloved and abandoned. Just a thought.
And the mustard seed? It is an exaggeration to say that it is the smallest of all seeds. It is not. But change that word from smallest to least significant and you might be closer to the point. We’re talking about a weed’s seed, after all. Can you imagine the comments of those walking by that field and seeing a huge mustard plant growing there? Imagine their conclusions about that farmer. Yet allowed to grow, something beneficial results – shade in the heat of the day, shelter for the birds of the air.
In the end, according to the spinner of the tales, it is God who sorts all things out and brings the blest to their heavenly reward and the sinister ones to the eternal fires. When all that is sorted out, the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
Whoever has ears ought to hear. It is all gift. It is all grace. That is why the word Eucharist translates as thanksgiving. We gather around the altar to give thanks to the Father through the dying and rising of the Son, united by the Spirit.
Another thought. Maybe you should go back to the first reading from the Book of Wisdom. And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind; and you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins. Might there be some implications in that text to assist in mining meaning from these problematic parables?
“Why don’t you tell us what the story means to you?”
Here is an alert. This Sunday’s Gospel is long not as long as a reading of the Passion, but long nonetheless. The attention span of some of the listeners may be taxed. That is too bad because the message is important and open to many interpretations – depending on the hearer – and all of them significant. Sad to say, that fear of over-taxing some in the Assembly will mean that this Sunday in many parishes an abbreviated version of the Gospel will be proclaimed. It is summer, after all. Golf or time at the pool might be waiting. Pastors don’t want to irritate the flock.
Do yourself a favor and read and ponder the whole text beforehand. It won’t take that long. You won’t be sorry. I promise. To tell you the truth, that is a good practice to follow before every Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word. Reading the text and praying with it are the best ways to ensure you will be the fertile field awaiting the sowing of the seed.
This week’s first reading and Gospel continue the theme begun last week. Think of that audience gathered around and listening to Jesus. There were Little Ones – those who did not think of themselves as learned or wise in their own estimation. They hunger for the meaning of what comes from Jesus’ mouth. Whom did Jesus invite to feast on the Word? Come to me, all of you who labor and are burdened. Don’t be afraid to number yourself among them. To do so is to let down your defenses and become vulnerable to, able to be penetrated by the Word. Don’t be afraid. Jesus promises to refresh you, after all, and make your burdens light. Imagine how freeing this experience can be.
In the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord says that the word that goes forth, the word the Lord speaks will not return void but will achieve the end for which the Lord sent it. Of course, this sets the stage for the Gospel and Jesus who is the Word come forth from God’s mouth, the Word made flesh. The vast numbers of people gathered on the lake’s shore are described as crowd. Hear that term and know that it describes the attitude of some of those assembled. The crowd is made up of those who are seeking, those who are observing Jesus, those well aware of their needs and even their shortcomings. They are also the ones who have not yet made a decision about the place Jesus will occupy in their lives. They are to be distinguished from disciples, from those who have heard and taken the message to heart and have decided to follow Jesus. Here’s an added note: My dictionary says a disciple is not only a follower but also is one who determines to help spread the Master’s teaching. Not bad, that thought.
Now see yourself in relation to the throng either as one standing apart, or as a member in keeping with your mood. As you do you will become aware soon of the various conditions of mind and body that are present. Pay attention to your own also. Then, as you listen to the parable’s description of the various places where the sown seed falls, immediately you will become aware of how well Jesus assesses those before him then and now.
The human condition is constant. So, notice the generosity of the sowing. Dare we use the word lavish in terms of the sowing? Don’t forget this is the Lord that is not found in the storm, the earthquake, or the forest fire. This is the Lord that is found in the gentle evening breeze. This is the Lord whose love is being sown now in those various fields and wants only a place, a heart in which to abide and flourish.
Then why not be blunt with the message? Why does Jesus couch it in a parable? That is the question the disciples ask. Because the message is in a parable does not make it hidden. A parable is not a hidden message. Certainly a parable may have problematic elements, but its essential meaning is clear. The genius of the parable is that each hearer can interpret it to meet his/her own needs and experience her/his own call to conversion – or not. Here, what is common is the need, recognized or not. Jesus knew the need, the hunger, and responded by getting into the boat and beginning to teach. Everyone hears the same story. Yet each one hears the story uniquely. Some respond. Some do not. Some will decide they need more information or time before making a commitment. Be careful not to fault the sower. It is the field that determines the results. The same seed is sown in each area.
Over the years I have witnessed various responses to the message. Think of the first time you wondered about God’s love for you and about your redemption in Jesus Christ. I have treasured memories of experiences in RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). People new to the faith come asking questions and seeking meaning in their lives. The RCIA is a long process, a journey that should take a whole Liturgical Year. It takes time to journey and pray in the midst of a believing community and so let the seed take root in their lives. (Jesus preached from the boat. Remember that in the Gospel the boat is a symbol for the Church.) The whole community is involved to pray with and for those on the journey. Together they listen to the Word as one Assembly. They experience the Word being broken and shared as food for their ongoing conversion. The process can change not only those preparing for Baptism, but the whole parish.
Pardon that digression, but we are focusing on the various responses of the seekers. The initial enthusiasm in RCIA is usually universal. Everything from, Wow, this is wonderful, to, Can this really be true and for me? Then responses begin to vary. Some will find the time commitment too much. They are busy people with many demands. After the initial enthusiasm they will begin missing meetings and then desist and continue with their lives as before. Others will persist and become intrigued with the idea of Baptism and go through the wonder of the Easter Vigil experience and rejoice as new Catholics. But again, routine becomes monotonous. Enthusiasm wanes. Conversion has less and less impact on everyday life. They may live by obligation for a time. But then the light dims, the enthusiasm cools, and they conclude it was all too good to be true.
What is the real issue? Conversion means change. One has to let go and be vulnerable to the seed that is sown. The initial enthusiasm at its sprouting always tempers, but that is so that the roots might run deep and the stalk strengthen so that the plant that is faith might flourish and mature. I am humbled by those who hear the word and understand it, who indeed bear fruit and yield a hundred or sixty or thirty-fold. These are the ones who become disciples and are committed to passing the story on to others.
You are blessed because you hear the story. Each Sunday the seed is sewn anew in your heart. Each hearing brings with it the challenge to believe and continue to respond to the invitation to live in a relationship of love with God in Christ who dwells in you and who gathers with you as the Assembly celebrating the Priesthood of the Baptized.
As the roots deepen and the stalk strengthens you may wonder if you can change as you are challenged to conform yourself more and more closely to the one who planted the seed. But that is when you remember that the strength is not your own, but comes in the grace that is God’s love for you. Rely on that as you gather at the table, having digested the Word. Now pray over the Bread and the Wine, one with the Presider and with the Assembly. Then take and eat. Take and drink. And go forth.
The transformation goes on and your very life becomes the message.
Sometimes it is hard to believe. If the truth were known, that is true probably most of the time. And as difficult is the virtue of hope. Take these times for example. More and more often I hear people say that they are not going to watch the evening news any more. They are staying away from the printed news, too. Who can blame them? There is just so much bad news one can absorb. How do you deal with the statistic that says there have been seventy-seven high school or college campus shootings in as many weeks? Then there are the numbers of those living in abject poverty in an affluent country. How many accounts of violent acts against children, or between spouses, or against priests in rectories can we tolerate? And we haven’t even mentioned the insurrections and wars, the inter-tribal wars and the abduction of young women for sexual slavery. Where are the signs to support faith in the coming Kingdom of God and the hope to see it realized?
Chances are that Zechariah stood in the midst of a despairing people that had returned from the exile to rebuild the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem convinced that they would see their Kingdom rise again to the splendor of David’s era. But rather than succumb to their despondency that the Kingdom would only be restored at the end of time, Zechariah’s prophetic posture rekindles hope. He urged daughter Zion to rejoice heartily. Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! The prophet proclaims the message God wants the people to hear. That message is always about finding hope and clinging to it in spite of everything to the contrary. Of course sometimes expectations have to be altered, especially here, those having to do with the Messiah. Your king shall come to you, a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass.
It might be easier to comprehend the challenge to accept that prophesy if we had heard it in the midst of the Holocaust of the last century. Where is there reason to hope? What would support faith in that setting? How does a parent cradling her daughter’s battered body believe? How do siblings hope as they are told their brother has been murdered in the high school locker room?
In practically every age, true believers have believed in spite of everything they perceived to the contrary. Perhaps that is why, as it was for Israel, periods of suffering are also periods of strongest faith. That may be why for Christians, our sign of hope is the Cross. Is there anything stronger or more final than death? That may be why Paul always insisted that even to believe was dependent upon God’s grace. No one can say Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit. The Cross is the sign we believe in Resurrection.
Zechariah promises that God will be faithful. Just as God led Israel out of the slavery of Egypt and into the desert toward the Promised Land, and God restored the exiled people to Jerusalem, so God will banish the Roman chariots and the warrior’s bow from the land (Israel) as peace is proclaimed to the nations (Gentiles). Of course peace will reign in Jerusalem because God’s dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. Do you believe this? That is the question Zechariah poses.
Dare I be so bold as to say that if someone finds it easy to believe chances are s/he has taken in the wrong message? In the realm of faith, security and wealth can make those who live with such luxuries delusional. What can be more attractive than to conclude that those favors are signs of God’s special love, or that believing in Jesus results in temporal wealth that foreshadows eternal bliss? Just as easily might such believers translate natural disasters and other human generated catastrophes as signs of God’s judgment on sinners and God’s displeasure. You’ve read about the placards that small group of believers carry as they travel around the country to demonstrate at funerals of veterans or homosexuals and others they deem to be sinners and therefore damned. For them, these deaths are signs of God’s judgment. Repent or perish! That’s what Job heard in the midst of his sufferings from those believing sages that commented on his torments. And Job’s response? The Lord gives. The Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!
What class of people do you suppose formed the majority of those listening to Jesus in today’s Gospel? Who are the little ones? They have the same standing as children, next to widows as the most desperate stratum of that society. You could put lepers among them, too. And prostitutes. Maybe tax collectors. In short, anyone who stands on the brink of hopelessness are the ones to whom Jesus preaches. I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Do not take from Jesus’ words that God hates the wise and the learned and the wealthy and any others deluded into thinking they are gods in their own right. Perhaps they would never be crass enough to claim godship, so to speak. But there may not be too strong a sense of complete and utter dependence upon God. It’s easy to be distracted by wealth in this age that idolizes youth, power, position, and wealth. Why is a great goal held up to youngsters today, Keeping Up With the Kardashians? It is that distraction that hides the truths revealed to the Little Ones.
To the Little Ones gathered to hear him, to drink in his every word, to trust him, Jesus reveals the wonder of relationship. Jesus knows the Father as no one else does because of their unique relationship. The word Father says it all. In the great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his hearers how to pray. When you pray say Our Father…. Those who believe in Jesus share the relationship that Jesus has with the Father. Jesus is the source. But be careful to note that the relationship is not between Jesus and me, the Father and me. The relationship is mutual and shared by all who are so graced. God is our Father. Jesus is our brother. We are all sisters and brothers in the Lord.
What makes the burden light for all who labor and are burdened? The relationship with Jesus. Jesus is telling us that he shares the labor and the burden. We are in this together. Remember Paul’s words: I can do all things in (Christ) who strengthens me. The relationship lightens the burden and eases the labor. We rest in love, Jesus’s love for us; God’s love for us. Grace gives us strength.
Such language can translate into lush romanticism if we are not careful. As we ponder those words we must ponder the heroes in our faith. Thomas More must have remembered those words as he stretched his neck and cleared his beard for the blade of the axe. It is said that Jeanne d’Arc kissed the crucifix as the flames enveloped her. Stephen looked heavenward and was blessed with the vision as the first stones pounded into him. The Ugandan Martyrs rejoiced and sang hymns of praise as the flames inched up their bodies. They knew where they were going. The canon of saints is replete with those who embraced the cross in desperate straits and died believing death would not conquer.
We may be soothed by the message, but we had better not miss its force. Jesus does say: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. In another place he will say: Take up your cross every day and follow me. We will only hear those words and take them to heart to the extent that we number ourselves among and identify with little ones. The world of the Church resonates with Pope Francis’s urging a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. Not everyone in the Church rejoices with the message. For some the Church has been a means to splendor as they climb the hierarchical ladder.
These days I am much fascinated with Archbishop Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day. They challenged to identify with and be among the poor. The archbishop was martyred because of his proclamation of the dignity and worth of the little ones. Dorothy Day embraced poverty and identified with the poor and the disenfranchised. Each of them is the epitome of what the Church should be in our time. Again, listen to Pope Francis and observe what he does. If we hear the Gospel this Sunday, it won’t be enough to remember the icons of our faith. We have to change our lives.
Many of the wealthy upper crust in our country don’t want to hear of our responsibility for the poor. Opposing Pope Francis, they think Trickle Down economics is just fine. The poor wouldn’t be poor if they just worked harder. It is our responsibility as the Church, as the Body of Christ to voice the message: Come to me, all of you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.
Now does it begin to become clear why there is one Bread and one Cup? See why we gather around one Table? That is why the Second Vatican Council called the faithful to full, active, and conscious participation in and co-celebrants of the Liturgy. There are no divisions and classes in the Body of Christ. We are one in him. Pope Francis said that he is not over us in the Church, he is along side us. We are equals. Can you hear the teeth grind? There are no divisions and classes in the Body of Christ. Brothers and Sisters, we are one in Christ. That is why if we share in the meal, truly share in it, openly and with vulnerability, we will never be the same again. Nor will the work ever be finished until we see the Lord’s dominion stretch from sea to sea and hear peace proclaimed to the nations.