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THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A

1 Kings 3:5, 7-12
Romans 8:28-30
Matthew 13: 44-52

When the first words of the gospel wash over you this Sunday you might for a moment wonder if the proclaimer isn’t on the wrong page. You may poke the person next to you and whisper, “Didn’t we hear this one last week?” After all, for the third Sunday in a row, the phrase the kingdom of heaven is like occurs several times in the pericope. And having heard the phrase so many times you may be tempted to tune out. After all, how many things can the kingdom of heaven be like? What we are actually experiencing in these gospels is akin to gazing at a splendid jewel. We would make a mistake were to we to think that one glance could take in the whole gem. Fine diamonds have many facets. Light glints differently from each one.

We might be tempted to think that when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like, each simile sums up the entire reality. But listen more closely and you will see that facet is apt. Jesus is talking about different aspects of the one reality. He is tying into human experience and inviting us to make a leap into mystery, the wonder of how God works in our lives and how we respond.

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 it 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 you were purchased at a great price, and that your destiny is eternal. 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 today tell of people, in one case happening upon, and, in the other, finding as a result of careful searching, finding something of great value that is worth selling everything else in order to buy the trove. Sometimes I think that were we to hear God reigns when each time we hear the kingdom of heaven is like, we would be closer to Jesus’ intent. These parables are all about God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with the ones he has created, with you and with me. If one is searching for that relationship as one is who is struggling 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, that life will never be the same again. And everything that formerly was held in importance can seem like so much dust. What we might miss, however, is that that reaction, that conversion is exactly what God longs to see in the human heart. That is what Jesus expects from those he invites to be his disciples. Think of the encounter between Jesus and the rich person who asked: What must I do to inherit everlasting life? 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 the commandments. Jesus looks on him with love, which is another way of saying that the man spoke truth. Jesus invites the man into the perfection of his ways: Go sell what you have and give to the poor and come and follow me! And remember what happens next. The person goes 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 sell everything else in order to possess it.

Do you remember the song from Oklahoma? The line reads: With me it’s all or nothing/ it’s all or nothing at all. That is not far from what Jesus is saying. Poverty must be part of the response. That’s what Francis of Assisi discovered and invited his band of brothers to learn as well. Add to the idea of poverty the challenge Jesus issues to those who would be his disciples to take up their crosses everyday and follow him and you begin to see how demanding Jesus’ call is. And how little sense it makes – in worldly terms. Which my also explain why so often people who had heard Jesus went away shaking their heads and muttering: Who can do this? Jesus’ response? With humans it is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

That brings us to the other side of the kingdom of heaven is like coin. God’s coming reign is like that net thrown into the sea. All kinds of fish are caught in it and hauled to shore. The more evidence the Church gives of being select in terms of who is welcome at the table, the clearer this aspect of the parables 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 and make them unacceptable apply. All. As soon as we say surely Jesus doesn’t mean him, her, or them, we aver that we haven’t learned the lesson and probably place ourselves outside the pale. Come to me all of you is that net again. All kinds will be caught up in the wonder of the telling. It’s up to God to make the determinations who are the wicked and who the righteous. And I suspect we might gasp at the recognition of some in either camp.

It amazes me that when Jesus asks: Do you understand all these things, the response is such a ready “Yes.” Perhaps that’s why Jesus then says, maybe not. The hearer has to ponder and pray over these parables in order to decipher their meaning and determine the response. The hearer has to put the parables in the context of God’s actions from the beginning and ask: How shall I respond? The more daunting the response seems, the more one is tempted to wonder who can do this, the closer one is to standing in amazement at the call and recognizing the wonder of God’s grace that empowers.

That’s why we move to the table of the Eucharist to give thanks and experience the transformation. It is not just the bread and wine that are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, but so also are the assembly transformed into the Body of Christ. The Eucharistic Bread will be broken and distributed to be taken and eaten. A caution. Those who do so must allow the same things to happen to them. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Romans 8:26-27
Matthew 13:24-43

The teacher finished the last line of the story and paused. The students sat in the silence. She said nothing. Finally, a lad 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. A couple nodded in agreement with their classmate’s question. Finally, she said to the young boy at the rear of the room: “Why don’t you tell me what the story means to you?”

We have Jesus telling three stories to two distinct audiences in today’s gospel. Parables are stories richly laden with meaning and open to multiple interpretations. I would venture to say that the equivalence 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 to hear Jesus. They are distinct from those others present we call disciples. The difference between them? The former are watching, listening, judging perhaps, but 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: .

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 ought to make the audience scratch their collective head and wonder if Jesus could possibly mean what he is saying. We stand in respectful silence and listen to the proclamation of twice-told tales. Familiarity robs them of their shock value. Certainly their impact is dulled. If you have heard them often enough you can even read along, so to speak, and quote the passages by memory. In stead, I think Jesus would rather we hear then for the first time again, hone in on the puzzling aspect, struggle and plumb for meaning that can change our lives. Jesus would be like the teacher above and ask us what the parable means to us.

There is one common element to these parables, two that I can see. You might find more. Of course 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 you were looking for in posing the question was not what you learned in the content of the parables. And what you do learn will be surprising elements that you might not expect to find in the kingdom of heaven. The first common element? 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’s enough to make 40 huge loaves. And there is a type of excess 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? Yet each of these parables puts a problem before us. An enemy sows weeds in with the choicest of wheat. When they 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 predators on the seeds the farmers plant in the field. Oftentimes, it is the case with parables that the last state is worse than the first.

Is that what you would 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? That kingdom is here on earth, by the way. Maybe 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? You are planted in that field, you, a beloved of God. You are in a community with others of like type. But there are others, too, that might seem to be weeds. The operative word is seem. You might be tempted to make the judgment and exclude them from the company. But what if they are not weeds? What if that is not a judgment for you to make? What if you have to leave the final outcome to God? And in the meantime, you have to love even those that seem weed-like to you. Can you do that?

You 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.

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 insignificant and you might be closer to the point. We’re talking about a weed’s seed, after all. And allowed to grow, something beneficial might result – shade in the heat of the day. Yet some of those who rest from the heat might turn on the provider and cause damage. There is a problem here, isn’t there?

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 there to assist in mining meaning from the parables?

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

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Isaiah 55:10-11
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23

This Sunday’s gospel is a tad on the longish side and may tax the attention span of many listeners. That’s too bad because the message is important. Sad to say, with that fear of over-taxing in mind, in many churches an abbreviated version will be proclaimed. It’s summer, after all. Golf or the beach might be waiting. Pastors don’t want to irritate the flock. So do yourself a favor and read the whole text beforehand. It won’t take that long. I promise, you won’t be sorry. Actually, that is a good idea 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 waiting the sowing of the seed.

This week’s first reading and gospel continue the theme begun last week. Remember that audience gathered around and listening to Jesus. Little ones, not the learned and the wise (by their own estimation) hunger for the meaning coming from Jesus’ lips. 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. If you do, your defenses will be down and you will be vulnerable to the word. Don’t 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 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 because it describes the attitude of those assembled. Crowd stands for those who are seeking, those who are observing Jesus, those well aware of their needs and even shortcomings, but those also who have not yet made a decision about Jesus. They are to be distinguished from disciples, from those who have heard and have decided to follow Jesus. And here’s an added note: My dictionary says a disciple is not only a follower but also one who decides to help spread the Master’s teaching. Not bad.

Now look at the crowd either as one standing apart or as a member according to your mood. As you do you will soon become aware of the various conditions of mind and body that are present. Pay attention also to your own. Then, as you listen to the parable’s description of the various places where the sown seed falls, you become immediately 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 and will go to any length to enchant the beloved. Remember the Burning Bush? The Red Sea divided? The pillar of fog by day and fire by night? And don’t forget the Lord not found in the storm, the earthquake, the forest fire, but in the gentle evening breeze. This is the Lord whose love is being sown now in those various fields wanting only a place, a heart in which to abide and flourish.

Then why not be blunt with the message? Why couch it in a parable? That’s 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 his/her 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 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.

Over the years I have witnessed various responses to the message. Do you remember the first time you wondered about God’s love for you, 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, seeking meaning for their lives. RCIA is a long process, a journey through a Liturgical Year, a time to journey and pray in the midst of a believing community and let the seed take root in one’s heart. (Jesus preached from the boat. Remember: in the gospel, the boat is a symbol for the Church.) The whole community is involved, praying with and for those on the journey. They listen to the Word as one assembly. They experience the Word being broken and shared for their ongoing conversion. The process can change not only those preparing for Baptism, but the whole parish.

Pardon that digression. What I meant to focus on was 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? But 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 go on with their life as it was before. Others will persist and become intrigued with the idea of Baptism, 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 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 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. But that’s when you remember that the strength is not your own but in the grace that is God’s love for you. Rely on that. And so you gather at the table, having digested the Word, and you pray over the bread and the wine. And the transformation goes on as your very life becomes the message.

Sincerely,

Didymus