Sunday, July 20, 2014

God is kindness and mercy

Readings: Wis 12:12.16-19; Ps 86:5-6.9-10.15-16; Rom 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-43

Most of the attention in the ambo (i.e., pulpit) this weekend will no doubt be given to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. With the Gospel reading being rather long, the other readings and even the remaining two parables contained in the Gospel are likely either to receive short shrift, or be completely ignored. This is not a complaint. As a preacher, I grasp that you can't preach everything.

A single mustard seed

Since I invoked our second reading from St Paul's Letter to the Romans in the post immediately preceding this one, I will focus on the other readings.

Towards the end of our first reading, we hear "that those who are just [righteous] must be kind" (Wis 12:19). One of the most difficult things to "get right" is balancing mercy with justice. Humanly speaking, at least in my view, striking a perfect balance between mercy and justice is impossible. The main reason it is impossible is because we are never aware of all the factors that need to be known in order to make a "spot on" determination. Contrary to the view of some, if we err, we should err on the side of mercy. Is this just my personal opinion? No, it is scriptural: "For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13). The person I should judge most is myself. But I only judge myself in order to receive God's mercy, which is nothing apart from a brand new pledge of His great love for me.

Turning to the parable of the mustard seed, it's important to note that Jesus here is not talking about personal faith. His use of the example of a mustard seed to teach about faith comes a bit later in St Matthew's Gospel (Matt 17:20). Being part of what New Testament scholars identify as the "Q" document ("Q" being shorthand for the German word "quelle," meaning source), which is posited to account for the material that the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke have in common that they did not derive from St Mark, is also found in St Luke's Gospel (see Luke 17:6). In this passage, the Lord is talking about establishing the kingdom of heaven, which, like the mustard plant, starts out improbably small, but will ultimately fill the earth. I believe that this is the kind of thing Bl Teresa of Calcutta had in mind when she said, "God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful."

Jesus makes very much the same point by using the example of how a little bit of yeast leavens an entire loaf of bread as He sought to make in the Parable of the Mustard seed. It is difficult for us, being a people constituted by the Eucharist, to hear Jesus teach using bread as an example and not be put in mind of the Eucharist. I don't think it'd be stretching things too much to say that our receiving communion is precisely what is supposed to make us into the leaven our Lord calls us to be: the leaven at work bringing about the kingdom of heaven.

So, connecting these two parables to that of the wheat and the tares, I think we can conclude that the Church, at least the Church on earth, cannot be taken as co-terminus with the kingdom of heaven, which is yet to come. But it is not my job, or your job, to determine or decide who is in and who is out. Nonetheless, I think we'd be less than honest if we did not frankly admit that we are sometimes tempted to do just this, both generally and in particular cases. One way to avoid this temptation is to call to mind the wisdom expressed in our reading from the Book of Wisdom- "that those who are just must be kind" (Wis 12:19). Kindness, which is perhaps best described as love in action, is the leavened and baked loaf. Kindness is the full-grown mustard plant. Love expressed in word and deed, is the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven.

Last night I attended the memorial service for a wonderful man who, in a moment of pitch black despair, took his own life. I was extended the privilege of making a few remarks and offering a prayer at the end of what turned out to be one of the most beautiful memorial services I have ever attended. Inside each program was a card that read, "Be gentle with yourself & with others." Let's not forget that God is gently and kindly disposed towards each of us without exception. In other words, this includes you, whoever you may be, or wherever you may be, either geographically or spiritually.

In our first reading we heard these words, addressed to God almighty- "For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved." This is followed by Psalm 86, the reponsorial for which is, "Lord, you are good and forgiving" (Ps 86:5). Let's not forget that God's might was most powerfully shown, not in punishment and harshness, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

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