The Readings for the 16th Sunday
Tempus per Annum
ALL OF THESE PARABLES in Matthew 13 begin “the Kingdom of God is like…”and they always leave me wondering, is the Kingdom like the whole image in the story or like the first symbol in the story the actor or the one to which things happen. In today’s collection of parables each “main thing” is
– a man who sowed good seed in his field;
– a mustard seed;
There are actors in each story – men and women – and they do things like planting a seed or making bread, but which part of the story is the kingdom?
Each of these parables also addresses what should be the action of the Church (God’s Kingdom) in the world. They address evangelism and “church growth” in ways that are unexpected but are very necessary in today’s situation. The actors in the story could each be Jesus (even the woman making bread) or the Holy Spirit, but they are also us, the Evangelists who announce the Good News in the world.
The Mustard Seed is probably the most familiar one in our post-Christian culture. Everyone knows if you have faith “like a mustard seed” you can get a car on Oprah’s show or earn money like Joel Oralsteen. The open secret is, of course, that’s not what Jesus is offering us here. Jesus says the Kingdom starts small and then grows into something huge that even protects others.
The Parable of the Yeast is even more exciting: the woman, of course, is not using dry, powdered yeast from the grocer, but rather sourdough starter. When you mix that with three measures of flour and let it rest the entire thing becomes starter which you can use in the next batch. (The normal thing is to save only a bit of the dough as the yeast for the next batch, but the whole mix is the same thing.) Thus, the Kingdom starts as this small thing – that changes everything! You can take any part of the Kingdom from here and set it over there and it will grow more!
The first being last, the series opens with the Wheat and the Tares or Weeds. You can’t tell the tares from the wheat, the food from the garbage. Tares are, in fact, poisonous and look like wheat so much so that they often get saved, ground as flour and baked. In a small dose can just make the bread taste bad – they can also make you sick. The experience of the Church can be like that: there are bad places where you can get quite sick. There is sexual abuse, yes, but there are also well-meaning folks who just water the faith down enough to be dangerous. There are rigorists who make it so hard to enter the Kingdom that they damn everyone. There are politicians who claim the name of Christian only for their political ends. And there are clergy who play the same game for the sake of power. Yet (especially from the outside looking in) it’s heard to tell the wheat from the tares, until you taste and your stomach is turned.
As Jesus was speaking the Church was 12 men (one of whom would turn traitor), the Blessed Mother, and a handful of other men and women. By the middle of the First Century, there were only a few thousand out of the entire world. There were – at each stage – already some who were tares. No less then than now. Jesus tells us not to worry. Yes, there are tares, but don’t be one of those. There’s a whole process here that is really none of your concern: God’s working this all out. But there is also hope: the whole thing will be leavened. The entire world will be changed, the kingdom will shelter even the birds of the air.
The Church now fills the whole world but truth be told she seems to reflect the world as much as she leavens it. How can she fill the world with hope? Can she purge out the tares so that the crop is pure? The Gospel says she can’t: for they – like the poor – will always be with us. Only at the end of the age… but Jesus puts an interesting spin on it: it’s not only sinners that are tares. He says the angels “will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin.” That’s actually pretty strong language: for we can all do that if we’re not careful. Even in what we imagine to be righteous acts we may cause others to sin. The Greek word used there is σκάνδαλα skandala. The Angels will gather out of the kingdom all the skandala. It literally means “trigger” or “bait”. Jesus is telling us don’t trigger each other.
Saint Paul will later tell us don’t do anything that will make the weaker brethren stumble. He acknowledges that some people might stumble because he eats meat. He said he would rather give up meat than keep others from entering the kingdom. How often do we do things – even things which might be good, in and of themselves – that cause other people to stumble? How often are our actions scandals? The Byzantine Rite has a prayer asking for forgiveness for sins we did not know we had committed: “things known and unknown, voluntary and involuntary.” These are called venial in the Latin rite (CCC ¶1862) “without full knowledge or without complete consent”. Yet they damage a relationship with our weaker brothers and sisters – and so with God. I don’t think God will keep out of his kingdom those who feel compelled to run away by our scandals. On the other hand, those of us who are scandals may have trouble.
The reader may or may not know that sometimes Orthodox monastics can be viewed with suspicion by lay people or by parish clergy. This is a cultural thing in the East. I remember that the late Metropolitan Philip, may he rest in peace, once said, “I don’t want monastics in my church they cause trouble.” I remember hearing of two Orthodox nuns were visiting a parish on behalf of their religious community. One member of the parish took it upon herself to follow the two Sisters around to make sure they didn’t “do anything”. I’m sure that they did nothing, but this member of the parish accused them of stealing food out of the kitchen, since there was a lot of food in the Parish’s kitchen and certainly none at their convent. She called several other members of the parish together to hear the accusation. One of the nuns offered a defense, saying that they had done no such thing. The other nun fell to the ground prostrate and begged forgiveness of the member of the parish for whatever she had done to cause such a scandal.
That prostration, my brothers and sisters, is not causing the weaker Brethren to stumble. In the Gospel the only Sinners we’re given to know is our own self in the first person. Everyone else reacts to my sins, but they are not sinners: I cannot know the state of their heart. So when we see churches burnt, or statues torn down. We should not be like the first nun or the tares amidst the wheat. We should wonder what our sins are: what did we do to trigger this? We should pray for forgiveness – as well as beg forgiveness of the others against whom our sins were committed.
We should evangelize in love.