In the news this morning I read about a man in Tennessee that claimed a lottery prize of over 200 million dollars. I allowed myself a moment to fantasize about the man’s experience. What would it be like to realize that suddenly you were a rich man and that poverty would no longer be an issue? What would it be like when it dawned on you that suddenly you had moved up to a more elite status in society? But then, what would it be like when all the friends you hadn’t heard from in ages began to call to see how you are doing – nothing else in mind, of course? It’s fun to fantasize about something that is not likely to happen ever in your life? I’ve never bought a lottery ticket.
Fantasize about the readings for this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word. In reality we are supposed to do that every time we sit under the proclamation of the Word. How would I respond to the experiences related in the Book of Kings? What would my reaction be, were I a disciple listening to Jesus tell parables? How would I react were God to make me the offer made to young Solomon? What would I do if I found the treasure in the field or the pearl of great price?
The young Solomon we meet in the first reading obviously has values different from those typical of today’s young people. God speaks to him and invites him to ask for something and to know that for whatever he asks, it will be granted. Wealth. Power. Triumph over enemies. Name it. Solomon, seeming to realize the magnitude of the charge that will be his as king after his father, David, dies, and perhaps not feeling up to the task, asks God for wisdom. And God, who is amazed to hear what is sought, and who is always generous in response, promises Solomon that he will be given a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you. The blessing cup overflows.
It is not enough to hear this account and, as it were, to look on in awe. That serves only to distance and shield you from having to respond. If we believe what our faith professes, even without having to ask for it, like Solomon you have been gifted with the Spirit poured out on you in your Baptismal moment. The Spirit lives in you and is the source of wisdom and understanding, and of all the other gifts that animate us and empower us to imitate Christ in our lives of faith. That is true, of course, if we yield to the Spirit and let the Spirit lead. It is the Spirit that enables you to love as you are loved, to recognize the unity you have with the Body of Christ, the Church, and to pour yourself out in service in imitation of Christ.
So, animated by the Spirit, we sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to the tales he tells, tales that are always told to elicit a response. There are always problems with the parables Jesus tells. That is the case in today’s reading, too. Finding a treasure in a field, hiding it, and buying the field without telling the owner what the field contains is less than honest. But that is not the point on which Jesus wants us to focus. Jesus is not endorsing fraudulent behavior. He is talking about the recognition of the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign in our lives; acquiring that is worth any price we have to pay or any means to secure it. The rewards far exceed any price paid. Think of how Peter and his brothers responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus. Remember the woman at the well or the leper who knew the source of his cleansing. Do you remember the first moment you knew that you believed?
Don’t forget that God has a role to play in all of this. God is the one who throws the net into the sea to collect fish of every kind, good and bad. In God’s kingdom the good and the bad cohabit. But notice, that it is not until the end that the bad are separated from the good and that it is angels that cast out the wicked. The ones in the swim, so to speak, are not the judges. The judgment is God’s. Ours is to rejoice in and respond to the gift of faith that tells us in Christ we also are God’s beloved ones. All we have to do is imitate the One we follow and exercise the priesthood that is ours through Baptism into Christ. It is a case of all this and heaven besides.
Decades ago it was my privilege to visit the site dedicated to the memory of the Ugandan Martyrs. It was in that place that 23 young men, most of them catechumens, that is, not yet baptized and therefore new to the faith, were put to death by a horribly gruesome means. Wrapped in reeds and strung out as if on spits, fire burned slowly from their feet along the rest of their bodies. Death came slowly. Many witnesses attested to the fact that none of the martyrs cried out in anguish. None cursed those that tortured them. Instead they were heard singing hymns and rejoicing proclaiming that they knew that they would soon be with Jesus in the Kingdom. The men did not die as a group, but individually and on different days. So it wasn’t mutual support that strengthened them but their conviction that they were loved by God in Christ. Their suffering was the price they had to pay. They paid it willingly.
In this context of newly discovered faith, Dorothy Day comes to mind. In her early life she professed Communism and had an abortion. Then she found Christ and the Church, was baptized, and embraced a life of poverty, prayer, and service of the poor. Thomas Merton as a youth was a bon vivant. Through the witness of one of his professors he found faith in Christ and like Dorothy Day, left everything to embrace a life of poverty in community and witnessed for the rest of his life as a Trappist monk.
You have found that same faith. Or rather, that same grace has embraced you, emabling you to believe. You know you are loved by God in Christ. Now comes the response, the price you are willing to pay.
Pope Francis is a beacon in our times. Trace the history of the church down through the ages and you will know that there have been dark times when loving service was not the first thing people thought of when they encountered the powerful church. No need to recount the horrors here. Poverty wasn’t often evident in the hierarchical leaders. Many outside the church experienced judgment and condemnation. People were told they were not welcome at the Table.
Now Francis calls for a poorer church to serve the poor. He challenges the hierarchy to put aside splendor, live humbly, and walk among the people and even smell like them. The invitation is to love and serve and do what Jesus does. I pray this doesn’t sound like hubris, but it seems to me that the only way Jesus can act today is through those who are his disciples and act in his name.
Hear Paul in the second reading today. We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. Rejoice in your faith and live by it whatever the price is you might have to pay.
So, we will gather as church, as the Body of Christ to hear the Word. Strengthened by the Word we will gather around the Table as the Priesthood of the Baptized to celebrate Eucharist, to renew the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine and to give thanks to the Father through Jesus. Then we will take and eat as Jesus urges us, and we will take and drink in the same manner. Thus transformed we are sent to be that presence in the world, living Christ’s love, embracing and lifting up the poor until all know Christ’s love. That’s when God’s Kingdom reigns.
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.