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

1 comment so far

  1. Stephanie Jensen on

    Such powerful thoughts to ponder as we head to Sunday Mass right now. 🙏


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