SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – July 30, 2017

A reading from the first Book of Kings 3:5, 7-12
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:28-30
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 13:44-52

 

Dear Reader,

As the first words of the Gospel wash over you this Sunday, you might wonder if the proclaimer isn’t on the wrong page.  You might even be tempted to nudge the person next to you and whisper, “Didn’t we hear this one last week?”  After all, for the third Sunday in a row, you will hear the phrase the kingdom of heaven is like several times.  Having heard the phrase so many times already, you might feel yourself inclined to tune out.  After all, how many things can the kingdom of heaven be like?

Actually, what we are experiencing in these Gospels can be likened to gazing at a splendid jewel.  It would be a mistake to think that one glance could take in the whole gem.  Fine diamonds have many facets.  Light glints differently from each one.

Again, the tendency might be to think that when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like, each simile sums up the entire reality.  Listen more closely and you will see that facet is apt.  Jesus is talking about different aspects of one reality.  He taps into human experience and invites us to make a leap into Mystery, the wonder of God working in our lives and of our response.

Do you remember the first moment you began to believe?  Do you remember the first time you took the Good News to heart and decided this was meant for you?  That was the first moment you accepted the wondrous fact of God’s love for you, the first moment you believed that God’s love is your origin, God’s love sustains you, and your destiny is eternally and inextricably caught up in Jesus Christ.  That was the moment you met Jesus and heard his invitation to follow him.  What difference did that make?  Where does the truth rank in terms of importance in your life?

The first two parables in today’s Gospel tell of people, in one case happening upon, and in the other, as a result of careful searching for and finding, something of great value that is worth selling everything else in order to buy the treasure.  Sometimes I think were we to hear God reigns when each time we hear the kingdom of heaven is like, we would zone in on Jesus’ intent and meaning.  These parables are all about God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with the ones God has created, that is, with you and with me, and with all our sisters and brothers in the human family.  If one is searching for that relationship as one does who struggles to find meaning in life that is one thing.  If one has a sudden awakening out of the blue, so to speak, that is another.  The end result is the same.  Each one’s life will never be the same again.  Everything that formerly was held in importance then can seem like so much dross.

What we might miss, however, is that the reaction, the conversion is exactly what God longs to see occur in the human heart.  That is what Jesus expects from those he invites to be his disciples.  Do you remember the encounter between Jesus and the rich person who asked: What must I do to inherit everlasting life?  That one was a searcher.  If you remember their dialogue, you remember that Jesus is amazed at the goodness of the person who has striven all his life to keep all the commandments.  Jesus looks on him with love.  That is another way of saying that the man spoke truth.  Jesus invites the man to take the next step and enter into the perfection of discipleship.  Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and come and follow me!  Remember what happened next?  The man went away sad.  Why?  Because he had much wealth and couldn’t imagine himself without it.  In other words, he found the treasure, he found the pearl of great price, but couldn’t empty himself in order to possess it.

A few years ago, President Obama pardoned a man for crimes committed some 40 years before.  The man was 63 years old.  His crimes and misdemeanors had begun when he was twelve.  One day in prison, he noticed another inmate pouring over a well-thumbed Bible.  He asked the other if he could read his book.  He opened the book and began to read and Jesus entered his life.  That wasn’t what he had been looking for, or what he had expected.  That doesn’t matter.  His life changed that day.  Soon after he began to share faith with the other inmates.  He never went back to the life of crime.  He continues to visit prisoners with his Bible in hand and to preach to them to this day.  He invites them to find the peace that he has found that changed his life forever.

Saint Francis of Assisi, whose witness seems to me to be so important for these times, had a similar experience the day he set out to fight in the Crusades.  He never made it to the Crusades as a warrior.  Instead, he returned to Assisi and spent six weeks in solitary retreat.  In his meditations he concluded that poverty must be part of his response to Jesus’ invitation to walk with him on the way.  Francis emerged from his retreat with the knowledge that the wealth in which he had been raised didn’t matter in comparison with Jesus.  He renounced it all and invited his band of brothers to do the same in service of the Gospel.  And he returned to the Crusades, this time as a healer and reconciler.

In taking the name Francis, the current Bishop of Rome proclaims the same message.  He has renounced the splendors attached to the office.  He lives in simplicity, reaches out to the poor and desperate, and proclaims God’s love for all.  He washes feet.  He practices table fellowship with street people.  He challenges the church to embrace poverty and serve the needs of the poor.  That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Not everyone wants to hear it.

Add to the idea of poverty the challenge Jesus issues to those who would be his disciples, that they take up their crosses everyday and follow him.  Now you begin to see how demanding Jesus’ call is.  And how little sense it makes – in worldly terms, i.e., in light of today’s commonly accepted values.  That may also explain why so often people then and now who heard Jesus went away shaking their heads and muttering: Who can do this? Jesus’ response?  With people it is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

That brings us to another facet of this gem that is the kingdom of heaven.  God’s reign is like that net thrown into the sea.  All kinds of fish are caught in it and hauled to shore.  Something to ponder.  What is said about the kingdom of heaven must describe the action of the church.  The more evidence the church gives for being select in terms of who is welcome at the table, the clearer that facet of the parable is denied.

Jesus said: Come to me all you who are weary and I will refresh you.  Notice that he said all.  None of the categories into which we cast people, making some unacceptable applies.  All.  As soon as we say surely Jesus doesn’t mean him, her, or them, we proclaim that we haven’t learned the lesson.  If we haven’t learned the lesson we place ourselves outside the pale.  Come to me all of you is that net cast out into the sea again.  All kinds will be caught up in the wonder of the telling.  It is up to God to make the determinations of who are the wicked and who are the righteous.  I suspect we might gasp as we recognize some in either camp.

It amazes me that when Jesus asks: Do you understand all these things, the response is such a ready, “Yes.”  That might be why Jesus then says, in effect, maybe not.  Not yet, at least.  The hearers must ponder and pray over these parables in order to decipher their meaning and their application in their lives.  They have to determine their responses.  Each hearer has to put the parables into the context of God’s actions from the beginning and ask: How shall I respond?  The more daunting the response seems, the more one might be tempted to wonder who can do this.  The closer we come to standing in amazement at the call and recognizing the wonder of God’s grace that empowers, the closer we come to understanding the realization of wonders we could not have dreamed or imagined.  After all, that is what it means to be the beloved of God.

We move to the Table of the Eucharist, there to give thanks and experience transformation.  It is not just the bread and wine that are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Assembly presents and offers itself and so is transformed by the Spirit into the Body of Christ.  The Eucharistic Bread will be broken and distributed in order to be taken and eaten.  The Cup will be shared to be taken and drunk.  A caution.  Those who do take and eat, and those who take and drink must then go forth from the feast and allow all the same things to happen to them.  They must be bread broken.  They must be cup poured out.

Who can do this?  Don’t forget.  All things are possible with God who strengthens us.  That is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Sincerely,

Didymus

SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – July 23, 2017

A reading from the Book of Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:26-27
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 13:24-43

The teacher finished the last line of the story and paused.  The students sat in silence.  She said nothing.  Finally, a boy at the back of the room raised his hand.  She didn’t seem to notice the boy and he began to squirm.  When he could not stand 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.  Some nodded in agreement with their classmate’s question.  Finally, she challenged the boy at the rear of the room: “Why don’t you tell me what the story means to you?”

In this Sunday’s Gospel we have Jesus telling three stories to two distinct audiences.  The parables Jesus tells are stories richly laden with meaning and open to multiple interpretations.  It seems safe to say that what would amount to major tomes have been written as commentary on these three parables, each of which begins: The kingdom of heaven is like…” The multitude gathered around to hear Jesus and his parables could be separated into two groups.  The first group is termed crowds.  The others are disciples.  The difference between them?  The crowds watch, listen, perhaps even judge, but remain undecided about Jesus, his mission and meaning.  Disciples, on the other hand, have made the decision to be with Jesus and consider him Lord and Master – at least for now.

There is something common to each of the parables Jesus told – these and the others in the Gospels.  There are always puzzling elements, images, or ideas that make the audience scratch their collective heads and wonder if Jesus could possibly mean what they just heard.

We stand in respectful silence and listen to the proclamation of what amounts to, for us, twice told tales.  Familiarity robs them of their power to unsettle.  Their impact is dulled.  If you have heard them often enough you can quote the passages by memory.  Jesus would rather we hear them as though for the first time and hone in on the puzzling aspect, struggle and plumb for meaning that can change our lives.  Jesus is like the teacher above.  He asks us what the parable means to us.  What do we hear and take to heart.

There is one common element to these parables, two that I can see.  You might find more.  They are about the kingdom of heaven.  How often was Jesus asked if he would restore the kingdom at this time?  This I would wager.  What they were looking for in posing the question rose out of what they had taken from the content of the parables.

If you listen, as though for the first time, you will hear surprising components that you might not expect to find in the kingdom of heaven.  The first component?  Excess – at least in the first and third parable.  The man sows generously with the best of seeds.  The woman puts her leaven (better translation than yeast) in three measures of flour.  That is enough to make 40 huge loaves.  And there is a type of excess described when the mustard seed grows into the largest of shrubs – so large that birds of the air come to dwell there.

Wouldn’t you think that everything would be perfect in the kingdom of heaven?  But no, each of these parables puts a problem before us.  An enemy sows weeds in with the choicest of wheat.  When the two types of seeds sprout, the two varieties 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?  And the birds that nest in the huge mustard bush will be the predator on the seeds the farmer plants in the field.  Often times it is the case with parables that the last state can be worse than the first.

Is that what you would expect to find in the kingdom of heaven?  Rather, shouldn’t those who are part of that kingdom find peace and tranquility there, the perfection of community and fraternity?

That kingdom is here on earth.  Perhaps you should change kingdom of heaven to church.  Does that open the door to some implications that you wish were not part of your church experience?  You are planted in that field, you, a beloved of God.  You are in a community with others of like type.  But there can be others, too, that might seem to be weeds.  The operative word is “seem”.  You might be tempted to make the judgment and want to exclude them from the company, because of their race, their gender, their gender orientation, their country of origin.  But what if they are not weeds?  What if God loves them just as God loves you?  What if their being weeds is not a judgment for you to make?  What if you have to leave the final outcome to God?  And in the meantime, Jesus commands you to love those that seem weed-like to you.  Can you do that?  (The same commandment applies to those who might think of you as a weed.)

Does this parable help us to understand more clearly Pope Francis’s insistence that the church is to embrace all, serve all, shepherd all, especially the poor and the least significant in society.  Our elitist society can tend to look at the needy ones as weeds and their poverty a result of their own shortcomings.

We can ask all kinds of questions about the huge mass of dough raised by the small amount of leaven.  Who would do such a foolish thing?  Wouldn’t this situation cause a terrible waste?  On the other hand, perhaps Jesus wants the hearer to imagine the tremendous transformative power that just a little bit, or rather, just a few can have on the masses.  Dough rises.  Love changes people.  Just a thought.

The mustard seed?  It is an exaggeration to say that it is the smallest of all seeds. It is not.  But change the word from smallest to insignificant and you might be closer to the point.  We are talking about a weed’s seed, after all.  Allowed to grow, something beneficial might result – shade in the heat of the day.  Yet some of those from the heat might turn on the provider and cause damage.  There is a problem here, isn’t there?  And imagine the judgement of the neighbors regarding a farmer who would allow the mustard to grow in his field in the first place.

I am sure that as you read these reflections other thoughts occur to you.  Sit with them.  Ponder them.  As they become part of the Gospel’s call, how do those thoughts change you and conform you more closely to Jesus as his disciple?

Another thought.  Perhaps 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 there to assist in mining meaning from the parables?

“Why don’t you tell me what the story means to you?”

And so the Assembly gathers at the Eucharistic Table to transform and be transformed, all by the Spirit.  The Bread and Wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Assembly into the Body of Christ.  And when we have eaten and drunk, the transformed are sent into the world to be that yeast that lifts up the masses and, loving them, gives them hope.

Sincerely,

Didymus

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – July 16, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 55:10-11
A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans 8:18-23
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 13:1-23

Dear Reader,

This Sunday’s Gospel is a bit on the long side and may tax the attention span of many listeners.  That is too bad because the proclamation is important.  Sad to say, with that fear of over-taxing in mind, in many churches an abbreviated version will be read.  It is summer, after all.  Golf or the beach might be waiting.  Pastors do not want to irritate the Assembly.  So, do yourself a favor and read the entire text beforehand.  It will not take that long.  I promise, you will not be sorry.  Actually, that is a practice to follow before every Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word.  Reading and praying with the texts are the best ways to ensure there will be a fertile field awaiting the sowing of the seed.

This week’s first reading and Gospel continue the theme begun last week.  Do you remember that audience that gathered around and listened to Jesus?  Described as little ones, they were not the learned and the wise, and they hungered for the meaning coming from Jesus.  Who did Jesus invite to feast on the word?  Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened.  Do not be afraid to number yourself among them.  Let your defenses down and allow yourself to be vulnerable to the Word.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus promises to refresh you, after all, and make your burdens light.

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.  That sets the stage for the Gospel.  Jesus 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, because it describes the attitude of those assembled.  The term crowd represents those who are seeking, those who are observing Jesus, those well aware of their needs and perhaps their shortcomings, but those also who have not yet made a decision about Jesus.  Crowds are to be distinguished from disciples, from those who have heard and have decided to follow Jesus.  Here is an added note: My dictionary says that a disciple is not only a follower, but also one who decides to help spread the Master’s teaching.  That’s important, too.

Now look at the crowd either as one standing apart, or as a member, according to your disposition.  As you do, you will soon become aware of the various conditions of mind and body that are present.  Pay attention to your own also.  As you listen to the parable’s description of the various places where the sown seed falls, you will become aware of how well Jesus assessed those before him then and now.  The human condition is constant.

The other thing to notice is the generosity of the sowing.  Dare we use the word, lavish?  God loves lavishly.  God will go to any length to enchant the beloved.  Think of the Burning Bush.  The Red Sea divided.  The pillar of fog by day and of fire by night.  Do not forget that the Lord is not found in the storm, the earthquake, or the forest fire; the Lord is manifest in the gentle evening breeze.  This is the Lord whose love is being sown now in those various fields that wants a place in the heart, there to abide and flourish.

If all that is so, why isn’t Jesus blunt with the message?  Why couch it in a parable?  That is the question the disciples ask.  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 from there, beginning to teach.  On the water, the words travel farther and reach more listeners.  Each one hears the same story.  Yet, each one hears it uniquely.  Some respond.  Some do not.  Be careful not to fault the sower.  It is the field that determines the results.  The same seed is sown in each person.

Do you remember the first time you wondered about God’s love for you and about your relationship with Jesus?  I have treasured memories of experiences in RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults).  People new to the faith come asking questions, seeking meaning for their lives.  RCIA is a long process, a journey through a Liturgical Year, a time listen and pray in the midst of a believing community, a time to let the seed take root in one’s heart.  The whole community is involved and prays with and for those on their faith journey.  The seekers in the midst of the community listen to the Word as one Assembly.  They experience the Word being broken and shared for each one’s ongoing conversion.  The process can change not only those preparing for Baptism, but those already baptized.

Pardon that digression.  Focus now on the various responses of the seekers.  The initial enthusiasm is generally universal.  Everything from, Wow, this is wonderful, to, Can this really be true and for me?  Then the responses may begin to vary.  Some will find the time commitment for the process to be too much.  They are busy people with many demands.  After the initial enthusiasm, they may begin to miss meetings and then stop attending as they go on with their life as it was before.  Others will persist and become intrigues with the idea of Baptism, go through the wonder of the Easter Vigil experience and rejoice as new Christians.  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.  Those who hear the word and understand it, who indeed bear fruit and yield a hundred or sixty or thirty-fold, humble meThese are the ones who become disciples and are committed to passing on the story.

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 to continue to respond to the invitation to live in a relationship of love with God in Christ whose Body gathers with you as the Assembly.  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.  That is when you remember that the strength is not your own but comes from the grace that is God’s love for you.  Rely on that.  Having digested the Word, you gather at the Table of the Eucharist where the assembled in union with the Presider, pray over the bread and the wine.  You will take and eat.  You will take and drink.  And the transformation goes on, as your very life becomes the message.

Sincerely,

Didymus