16th Sunday in OT: Parables of the Kingdom (I)

The famous parable of the Sower that we read last week is followed by a series of parables through which Jesus explains to his disciples the kingdom of God. We read three this Sunday—the parable of the weeds among the wheat; the parable of the mustard seed; and the parable of the yeast—and two more next week.

It is important to realize that when Jesus is speaking about the kingdom, he is not explaining heaven, he is rather talking about what “earth” would look like if it would function with the values of the gospel. Actually, a better translation of the word used in the original Greek would have us speaking of “kingship” (or “realm”) rather than “kingdom.” Moreover, Matthew is the only one among the gospel writers that uses the term “Kingdom of Heaven” when the rest refer to the “Kingdom of God.”—using the latter would more easily make the point.

The first parable we read today is the one of the weeds and the wheat. It is a parable that deals with the pervasive existence of evil, understood as a power that is there to offer resistance, to hinder the building of the kingdom. In the parable, Jesus explains that the wheat and the weeds are very similar while they are growing. While our tendency would be to quickly eliminate the weeds, as the slaves propose, the master prefers to wait. Because evil can be very subtle, the master prefers to wait. It takes patience to build the kingdom. And, unlike the way we tend to think, reality is difficult and not as black and white, good vs. evil as we would like. We could also recognize how this battle between good and evil happens even inside ourselves.

The second parable is a very famous one also. The mustard seed is an image that calls us to learn to discern how unspectacular, unassuming realities can give tremendous fruit. We have to learn to recognize the mustard seeds while they are seeds. It has always caught my attention also that Jesus does not say that the mustard seed will become the largest of trees, but the largest of plants. The kingdom will always be of human dimension, never a huge, overwhelming reality.

The third parable, intimately connected to the second one, conveys a similar idea. The kingdom will be built silently, without fanfare, from within, based on the power of slow transformation, which is the way yeast changes and activates the wheat.

I personally like the second and the third parables the most, as they offer beautiful images—the mustard seed and the yeast. But interestingly, the disciples only ask Jesus about the first one—perhaps they were obsessed, like many of us, about the final judgment. But I do not see judgment in today’s gospel, I see a guide on how to build the kingdom.

We are called to be builders of the kingdom, and one of the places where we are to do this is in our own faith communities (at and through our faith communities.) At Sacred Heart we say it explicitly in our mission statement: “Sacred Heart recognizes our engagement in the Mission of Jesus to build the Kingdom of God here and now.” These parables become a guide for us (certainly for me) on how to build the kingdom: with the patience of the one who knows that it is not that easy to separate good from evil; knowing that realities are always a mix of good and bad, useful and useless; with a discerning eye to identify people and ideas with the potential to become realities of the Kingdom; with the humility of knowing that we will never become a super mega-church; promoting the kind of transformation suggested by the image of the yeast: effecting change silently, from within, one person at a time, without publicity.

Blog pic, parable of the mustard seed

15th Sunday in OT: The Parable of the Sower Applied to Us

This Sunday we read the parable of the sower. As we have said before, there are some gospels, some stories and parables we have heard so many times that it is difficult to listen to them as if it were the first time.

Let me try. I would begin by saying that Jesus was many things. For instance he was an excellent storyteller, as we can attest in today’s gospel. He was also a great teacher, a great discerner of character. From today’s parable we can probably say that he knew about agriculture. Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen has a song in which he says that Jesus was a sailor. I believe Jesus also had the heart of an artist. Artists know that once you produce something – a painting, a poem, a sculpture, a text – it is not theirs anymore. It is all left to the receiver of the piece, including whether the intended meaning will be understood, appreciated. Even if it is a simple pass and fail in the test of beauty.

I felt this way when listening to Jesus’ parable. The word of God is something that once delivered will be received differently, just as if it was a piece of art. The parable describes four different ways to receive the same seed depending on where it falls: the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, the rich soil. Jesus himself explains the parable, thus saving the preacher some work.

I feel the same way when I preach. Preaching is the art of conveying a message, and there is a transmission and a reception. The transmission is on me, and I do what I can (probably not enough!) from my side of things to make sure the message is understandable. But then there is a reception. The same message will produce different reactions to different groups of people.

I continue my reflection applying the gospel to my own reality, and how I apply it to my own parish. For me, the most important lesson of today’s parable is that it is about context, environment. The parable shows that the right reception of the seed (the message) depends on where it falls. More than focusing this homily/reflection on the “enemies” of the message—the thorns, the birds, etc.—which would make a very useless and passive-aggressive homily, I prefer to focus on what can we do to provide for the right environment – what can we do so Sacred Heart (or your own parish) is, or becomes, rich soil where the seed can grow and produce fruit.

We have been working on making the parish more welcoming by having teams of people volunteer on the weekends to receive, accommodate, help parishioners and visitors; we will continue to strive to provide meaningful adult and children’s formation; we will continue to preach about the necessity to “live out” our faith through our present human concerns ministries—also discerning what else or how else should we do this in the future.

Yes, there are many thorns that suffocate anything we can try. I read in a book that the NFL and children’s weekend sports, are the real enemies of faith these days (or at least, of mass attendance.) We acknowledge the difficulties, but we focus our energies on making sure we make our faith experience as good as we can, instead of becoming bitter and resentful about people’s choices. If a parish is not welcoming, if a homily is not compelling, if people do not celebrate mass meaningfully, if there is no opportunity to bring our faith into practice, then yes, the NFL, children’s activities, in fact, anything will be more important to people than what we propose.

Blog Pic, Sower

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A Burden Worthy to Be Carried

Internet connection problems bring you this post after the weekend. Our apologies, in the hope that it is still useful to you.

The gospel for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time gives us a very unique opportunity to actually “hear” Jesus praying. We know Jesus prayed, and he prayed often, but the gospels usually tell us Jesus departs to a deserted place and prays to the Father in solitude. Not this time: Jesus prays out loud giving us a unique window into his relationship with the Father. The prayer shows how different Jesus’ faith may be compared to ours.

Before we dissect this prayer, I believe it is important to note that it is a prayer of thanksgiving, “I give praise to you, Father”… We often understand prayer as an intercession: we ask something from God, through the intercession of His Son. We seldom pray in thanksgiving, beyond the typical blessing before a meal.

Jesus gives thanks because God “has hidden these things from the wise and the learned.” Is Jesus saying that it is good to be un-wise and ignorant? No, Jesus is using irony. Jesus is speaking about the “men of religion” of his time — people who had all the answers, who lived faith as a burden, and who made sure faith became a burden to everybody else. There are the “wise” and the “learned,” the Pharisees and the Scribes. They were there in the time of Jesus and we have them with us today.

All throughout history, the temptation has been there to reduce the faith experience to the fulfillment of difficult laws; to the preaching—but not always the keeping—of difficult moral standards. The Pharisees of then and now resort often to the issuing of condemnations, as there has always been a connection between religion and condemnation. For instance, we know it took the Church 20 centuries before a Council was celebrated in which no condemnation was issued against anything or anybody (the Second Vatican Council, you guessed right.)

Jesus lived his faith in a very different way. His only condemnation was precisely against those who felt they had the authority to burden the “little ones,” against those who loaded the shoulders of the humble with burdens that they were not willing to carry themselves. Jesus’ faith was about encouraging others to live the implications of our faith, and do what he did: give light to those in darkness; hope to those in distress; a voice to the speechless; power to the powerless.

Jesus does not say there is no burden in faith, indeed there is a responsibility. But it is the burden of helping others, not the burden of fulfilling difficult religious laws and rituals, of adhering to norms of purity, all fulfilled without joy… The yoke of Jesus is the responsibility we have towards “the other,” especially those most in need. This is a yoke whose weight is worthy to endure, one we share in community.

Our faith communities have to be places where this holy burden is shared — places where there are more questions than answers, places that attract those who “labor and are burdened” instead of shunning or straight-rejecting them.  It is a burden, but Jesus promises this burden, his burden, is a light and easy one.