The Wheat and the Tares

In daily Mass we have been pondering the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, from the Gospel of Matthew. In these difficult times for the Church, when there is a legitimate cry for reform, we do well to ponder its cautionary lesson. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching and leadership, the overall lack of self-discipline among Catholics, and the failure of bishops and clergy to discipline those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. The list of concerns is long, and in general I have been sympathetic to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.

However, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares cautions against overzealousness in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. He wants them to wait until the harvest. In many cases there will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now.

This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or to rebuke a sinner. There is certainly the need for discipline in the Church; other texts (e.g., Mat 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5) call for it as well. However, this parable is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to change the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.

We are going to need to depend on God’s patience and mercy if any of us are to stand a chance. People who summon the wrath of God upon (other) sinners may end up destroying themselves as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.

This parable summons us to find the proper balance between reform and patience. The guidance consists of four steps.

I. Wake up. Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”

Notice that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. It is a great mystery as to why God allowed Satan to do this in the first place, but there is far less mystery as to why Satan has been so successful in our times. The weeds are numerous and are vigorously growing. Part of the reason for this is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.

Don’t just blame the Church leadership (although we certainly deserve plenty of the blame). Many throughout the Church have been in a deep moral slumber. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” living unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents don’t know enough about what their children’s lives: what they are watching, what they listening to, where they are surfing on the Internet, and who their friends are. We rarely think of God or His plan for our lives. On the whole, our priorities are more worldly than spiritual. We are not awake and wary of sin and its incursions; we are not outraged. We take little action other than to shrug our shoulders. We seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the ways of the world.

Church leadership has been too inwardly focused. Too many in the clergy have failed to warn of the wolf who wanders about looking to savage us. Clear teaching on moral issues has been sorely lacking in many ways and at many levels in the Church.

It’s time to wake up and go out. There is work to be done in reclaiming the culture for Christ and in re-proposing the gospel to a world that has lost it.

II. Wise up. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”

We must regain sobriety, part of which is understanding that we have an enemy who hates us: Satan. He is responsible for much of the spiritual, moral, and even physical ruin we see around us. We have been dismissive of his presence for far too long, as though he were a merely the villain in a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him—for we connive with him and also suffer from weakness of the flesh and susceptibility to the bad influence of the world—Satan is real. He is our enemy; he hates us, our children, and the Church. He hates anything and anyone holy or even on the path to holiness.

III. Wait up. His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest.”

We have already laid the groundwork for the Lord’s rebuke to these overly zealous reformers. Today in the Church we are well aware of the need for reform; so is the Lord. He says, clearly, an enemy has done this. Yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner and ne’er-do-well, the Lord presents a balancing notion.

The Lord directs us to be prepared, in some cases to wait, and to not be overly anxious to pull out weeds lest we harm the wheat. Remarkably, the Lord says, let them grow together. Notice that now is the time to grow; the harvest comes later. In certain (rare) instances the harm may be so egregious that the Church must act to remove the sinner or to discipline him or her more severely, but there is also a place for waiting and allowing the wheat and the weeds to grow together. After all, sinners may repent; the Lord wants to give people the time they need to do that. Scripture says, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:9).

So, while there is sometimes a need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance it with patience. Wait. Place it in the hands of God. Give the sinner time to repent. Keep working and praying and teaching against all error, but do not act precipitously.

IV. Wash up. Then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”

There is a harvest. Those who have sinned (or led others to sin) and have not repented are going to have to answer to the Lord for it.

The Lord is no pushover; He does not make light of sin. In telling us to wait He does not mean to say that judgment will never come, but His general advice is to leave it to Him. To us He says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready as well. Judgment day is surely coming, and every knee will bend to me. Everyone will have to render an account.”

That’s it. Wash up. Get ready! For now, the wheat and tares grow together, but later the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.

Here is the balance: God is patient, but there is ultimately a harvest. By God’s grace we must get ready for it. To the overly zealous God says, “Wait,” but to the complacent He says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Wheat and the Tares

Parables by Jesus on the Day of Judgment and on Our Need to be Ready

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

credit: Ashland CTC

Jesus was urgent in warning us to be ready for judgment. He did this in many ways, but most notably in the parables. In this post let’s ponder His teachings and hear His urgency.

Most casual readers of the Bible tend to view the parables as merely interesting, entertaining stories. While that is so, they are deadly serious as well; they powerfully portray the drama of human life, the need to make decisions, and the consequences of those decisions. The parables carry weighty messages and substantial warnings. Do not misconstrue their creative, pithy, memorable qualities as signs of superficial teaching.

Some of Jesus’ starkest warnings come in the form of parables. In them, the drama of human life in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14) is vividly proclaimed. Indeed, the parables are mostly about the drama and decisions of human life and the stance we take in the cosmic battle that rages around us. Our decisions point to our destiny. Of Jesus’ 37 parables, 20 are ones that remind us that our decisions can bring blessing or curse, rise or ruin, salvation or condemnation. Let’s review some of them, in order of increasing intensity:

  1. The rich fool (Luke 12:16–21): This is a parable of a rich man who hoards the surplus yielded by a bountiful harvest rather than being generous with it. God calls him a fool and claims his life that very night. In this parable Jesus warns us of the foolishness of living for passing, worldly things, cautioning that total loss is coming for those who are not rich in what matters to God.
  2. The wise and the foolish builders (Matthew 7:24–7; Luke 6:46–49): This is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount; in it the Lord describes the dramatic difference between those who follow His teachings and those who do not. Those who heed His Word are like those who build their houses on solid rock and are thus able to endure the storms that come. But the foolish, who do not heed His Word, are like those who build their houses on sand. For them, the result is total loss and destruction when the storm of judgment comes.
  3. The sower (Matthew 13:3–9; Mark 4:3–9; Luke 8:5–8): Though God sows the seed of His Word abundantly, some of it falls on the path, where it is consumed by birds. Other seed falls among thorns, which choke it off. Still other seed falls on rocky soil and withers due to the lack of roots. This is a dramatic warning to those who harden their hearts to God’s Word or who allow the soil of their heart to be thinned or choked off by the world. The warning is this: you will not bear the necessary fruit. Some seed, however, does fall on rich soil and it yields an abundant harvest. There is a dramatic difference in the results and it is rooted in the disposition of our hearts.
  4. The wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24–30): God’s field of wheat is threatened by the weeds of Satan. (This is a dramatic description of the two armies in this world.) Angry field hands propose pulling up the weeds, but the owner cautions that doing so might harm the wheat. He instructs them to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest. There is a harvest, at which time the wheat will be gathered in but the weeds will be thrown into the fire. So there is a day of judgment, though not yet. Although the drama must still unfold, the final verdict will ultimately be rendered.
  5. The barren fig tree (Luke 13:6–9): This is a parable about patience. In it, extra time is given to an unfruitful fig tree, but the day of judgment is set. If fruit is not found on the tree on that day, it will be cut down. This is the drama of our life: if we do not manifest the fruit of righteousness we will be removed from the Lord’s field.
  6. The dragnet (Matthew 13:47 –50): The kingdom of God (the Church) is compared to a dragnet, which captures all sorts of things. The drama unfolds when the net is hauled ashore and there comes the judgment. Only what is good is retained; that which is unclean and worthless is cast aside.
  7. The counting of the cost (Luke 14:28–33): In this parable, Jesus warns that discipleship is costly; some are not able or willing to finish once started. He uses the images of a building begun without the resources necessary to finish it and of a king going to war knowing that he is greatly outnumbered. Similarly, some will set off to be disciples but later realize that they do not have the resources or willingness to continue. Thus the Lord sets forth in this parable that discipleship is costly and that the warfare is real. The implication is that some are willing to accept the cost while others are not. The road to salvation is narrow and few find it. The narrow way is the way of the cross. Many turn back from it, preferring the wide road that ultimately leads to destruction.
  8. The unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35): A man who owes a huge debt to the king has it forgiven, but then refuses to forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow servant. The king then calls the man back and applies the same unforgiving standard to him that he used on his confrere. Thus the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us. Merciless is the judgment on one who has shown no mercy. Further, if we do not forgive the sins of others, neither will we find forgiveness from the Father. The choice to forgive and show mercy is a dramatic and crucial decision for us, one that will affect our final judgment in a powerful way.
  9. The prodigal son (Luke 15): A sinful son returns to and is reconciled with his father. But in a dramatic twist, the “obedient” son becomes bitter and refuses to enter his father’s house. Even more dramatically, the parable ends without us knowing whether or not the obedient son ever entered. This is because you are that son and you must decide for yourself if you will enter the Father’s house on His terms or stay outside, brooding that God doesn’t do everything on your terms.
  10. The dishonest steward (Lk 16:1-13): An unscrupulous steward has been discovered embezzling funds. In the end, though, Jesus praises his craftiness even though it is wrong. The point being made is that most sinners are far more dedicated to their world than Christians are to the Kingdom. This parable is another example showing that too many are simply not willing to fight for and with the Kingdom; they are thus lost as much through apathy as through wickedness.
  11. The rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31): In this parable, a rich man who has been insensitive to the poor ends up in Hell. Through this we are taught that such insensitivity is a damnable sin. In the great drama of his life, the rich man preferred to be wealthy in the world rather than to store up treasure for himself in Heaven. So hardened is his heart that even though he is now in torment in Hell, he does not ask to come to Heaven, but rather that Lazarus be dispatched to Hell to bring him water. In this, the rich man shows that he has not changed; he still looks down on Lazarus and prefers creature comforts to God and His kingdom. The rich man’s heart is hardened and so can ours be if we let sin, neglect, and insensitivity go unchecked.
  12. The wicked vineyard workers (Mat 21:33-41): The owner of a vineyard sends his representatives to collect his share of the produce, but the wicked workers beat some and kill others. Finally, they kill the owner’s son. Next the owner comes and submits them to a bad end. In the drama of this world, there are many who reject God’s call for a share in their hearts; they beat or even kill those who prophetically call them to give glory to God and to live holy lives. In rejecting His appointed prophets, they also reject Christ and will come to a bad end.
  13. The great banquet (Matt 22:1-14; Lk 14:15-24): A king holds a wedding feast for his son, but the invited guests are too involved in worldly affairs to bother coming, even to so great an event. The king grows angry and burns their town. He then goes off to invite others until the banquet is filled. There is one man in attendance who refuses to wear the provided wedding attire. For this, he is thrown into the outer darkness. Through this parable we are taught that while many are called, few are chosen. Our decision to accept or reject God’s invitation is critical. Either we accept it and enter the feast or else face a fiery end. Even those of us who accept must wear the robe of righteousness that God provides us or else risk being cast into the outer darkness. Our decisions are dramatic and they determine our destiny.
  14. The wise and the foolish virgins (Mat 25:1-13): Ten bridesmaids await the groom’s arrival. Five were wise and carried extra oil; five were foolish and thus unprepared when the groom arrived. The wedding went on without the foolish bridesmaids and when they finally returned, the groom said to them, “Depart from me; I know you not.” This parable depicts the drama of our lives. We must live in readiness. The oil of our holiness must always be replenished and be kept ready through prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and fellowship with the Church (Acts 2:42). Judgment day is coming. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
  15. The sheep and the goats (Mat 25:31-46): In a scene of the great judgment, the Lord welcomes the righteous sheep on his right to the glory of Heaven, but consigns the wicked goats on His left to the fires of Hell. While the passage emphasizes the corporal works of mercy and indicates that to neglect them is a damnable sin, the passage should not be taken to mean these will be the only matters adjudicated. Again, note how dramatic are the decisions in our life, including how we choose to care for the poor and needy.

The Lord repeatedly sets before us the great drama of human life and the importance of our decisions. Our choices matter and they build to a fundamental, final destiny. Thoughts beget deeds, deeds beget habits, habits beget character, and character begets destiny. This is the drama and dignity of our life.

Though consistently preached by Jesus in the parables and in countless other texts, this theme is rarely mentioned in preaching today. We preachers must change this if we are to announce the Gospel authentically. For those who hear and heed the message, blessings await. For those who stubbornly refuse or who sinfully neglect the message, doom awaits. This is the drama of every human life.

Here are two final passages; The first contains a warning, the second a blessing.

Jesus said, “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (Mk 13:33-37).

Therefore, you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing (Mat 24:44-47).

In the next post in this series, on Monday of next week, we will ponder some ways to be ready.

Saint or Ain’t? A Homily for the 16th Sunday of the Year

We live in difficult times for the Church; from many sectors the very legitimate cry for reform goes up frequently. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching, lukewarm and nominal Catholics, an overall lack of self-discipline among Catholics, and a lack of disciplining by the bishops and clergy of those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. The list of concerns is long, and in general I have been sympathetic on this blog to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.

The Gospel this Sunday, however, featuring the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, cautions against overzealousness in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. He wants them to wait until the harvest. There will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now.

This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or to rebuke a sinner. There is certainly the need for discipline in the Church; other texts call for it as well. But today’s Gospel is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to turn the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.

We are going to need to depend on God’s patience and mercy if any of us are to stand a chance. People who summon the wrath of God upon (other) sinners may end up destroying themselves as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.

Let’s allow today’s Gospel to give us some guidance in finding the right balance between the summons to reform and the summons to patience. The guidance comes in four steps.

I.  WAKE UP. Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”

Notice that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. It is a great mystery as to why God allowed Satan to do this in the first place, but there is far less mystery as to why Satan has been so successful in our times. The weeds are numerous and are vigorously growing. Part of the reason for this is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.

Don’t just blame the Church leadership (although we certainly share plenty of the blame). Many throughout the Church have been in a deep moral slumber. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” living unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents don’t know enough about what their children are doing: what they watch, what they listen to, where they are surfing on the Internet, and who their friends are. We rarely think of God or His plan for our lives. On the whole, our priorities are more worldly than spiritual. We are not awake and wary of sin and its incursions; we are not outraged. We take little action other than to shrug. We seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the ways of the world.

Church leadership, too, has been inwardly focused. While the culture was melting down beginning in the late 1960s, we were tuning guitars, moving the furniture in the sanctuaries, debating about Church authority, engaging in gender wars, and having seemingly endless internal squabbles about every facet of Church life. I do not deny that there were right and wrong answers in these debates and that rebellious trends had to be addressed, but while all this was going on Satan was sowing seeds and we lost the culture.

We are just now emerging from 50 years in a cocoon to find a world gone mad. We who lead the Church (clergy and lay) have to admit that this happened on our watch.

It is long past time to wake up to the reality that Satan has been working while we’ve been bickering and singing songs to ourselves.

Blaming one side of the Church or the other, faulting this kind of liturgy or that, is not very helpful because the focus is still inward.

It’s time to wake up and go out. There is work to be done in reclaiming the culture for Christ and in re-proposing the Gospel to a world that has lost it.

Step one in finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wake up.

II.  WISE UP. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”

Part of the sobriety we have to regain is the understanding that we have an enemy who hates us—Satan. He is responsible for much of the spiritual, moral, and even physical ruin we see around us. We have been dismissive of his presence for far too long, as though he were a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him, for we connive with him and also suffer from weakness of the flesh and susceptibility to the bad influence of the world, Satan is real; he is an enemy and he hates us. He hates our children. He hates the Church. He hates anything and anyone holy or even on the path to holiness.

We have to wise up and ask the Lord for an anointing. We need not utterly fear the devil, but we do need to understand that he is at work. We need to learn his moves, designs, tactics, and tools. Once we can recognize him, we need the grace to rebuke him at every turn.

Now be careful here. To wise up means to learn and understand Satan’s tactics, but it does not mean to imitate them in retaliation. Upon waking up and wising up, some want to go right to battle—but in worldly ways. The Lord often proposes paradoxical tactics that are rooted in the wisdom of the cross, not the world. Wising up to Satan and his tactics does not typically mean to engage in a full frontal assault. Often the Lord counsels humility to battle against pride, love to conquer hate, and accepted weakness to overcome strength.

To wise up means to come to the wisdom of the cross, not the world. The Lord is not nearly as warlike in His response to His enemy as some reformers propose to be. It is fine to be appropriately zealous for reform and to want to usher in change rapidly, but be very careful what wisdom you are appealing to. Scripture says, Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Cor 3:19-20).

Step two in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wise up.

III.  WAIT UP. His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest …”

We have already laid the groundwork for the Lord’s rebuke to these overly zealous reformers. Today in the Church we are well aware of the need for reform; so is the Lord. He says, clearly, an enemy has done this. Yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner, ne’er-do-well, and bad theologian (and there are many), and who call for a severe clampdown by bishops across the board, the Lord presents a balancing notion.

There is need for discipline in the Church and even for punitive measures from time to time. The Lord himself proposes excommunication in certain instances (e.g., Matt 18:17); St Paul does, too (e.g., 1 Cor 5:5). Yet these texts need to be balanced by texts such as today’s Gospel. Fraternal correction is an essential work of charity but it must be conducted with patience and love.

The Lord is patient. In today’s Gospel, He directs us to be prepared to wait, and to not be overly anxious to pull out weeds lest we harm the wheat. Remarkably, the Lord says, let them grow together. Notice that now is the time to grow; the harvest comes later. In certain (rare) instances the harm may be so egregious that the Church must act to remove the sinner or to discipline him or her more severely, but there is also a place for waiting and allowing the wheat and tares to grow together. After all, sinners may repent; the Lord wants to give people the time they need to do that. Scripture says, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:9).

So while there is sometimes a need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance such notions. Leave it be; wait. Place this in the hands of God. Give the sinner time to repent. Keep working and praying for that but do not act precipitously.

We have had many discussions here on the blog about whether and how bishops should discipline Catholic politicians who, by their bad example and reprehensible voting patterns, undermine the Gospel and even cost lives through their support of abortion and euthanasia.

While I am sympathetic to the need for them to be disciplined, it remains a judgment for the bishop to make as to who, how, and when.

There are Scriptures that balance one another. In the end, we cannot simply make a one-size-fits-all norm. There are prudential aspects to the decision and the Lord Himself speaks to different situations in different ways.

In today’s Gospel the Lord says that we should wait. Generally, this is good advice to follow. After all, how do we know that we don’t or won’t need more time? Before we ask God to lower the boom on sinners we ought to remember that we are going to need His patience and mercy too. Scripture says, The measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Matt 7:2; Luke 6:38). Be very careful before summoning God’s wrath, for who may endure the Day of his coming? (Mal 3:2)

Step three in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wait up” and balance zeal with patience.

IV.  WASH UP. Then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”

So you see there is a harvest. Those who have sinned or led others to sin, and have not repented, are going to have to answer to the Lord for it.

The Lord is no pushover; He does not make light of sin. In telling us to wait, He does not mean to say that judgment will never come, but His general advice is to leave it to Him. To us He says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready as well. Judgment day is surely coming and every knee will bend to me; everyone will have to render an account.”

That’s it. Wash up! You’re either going to be a saint or an “ain’t.” For now, the wheat and tares grow together. But later the tares and all the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.

Step four in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wash up,” to get ready.

So here’s the balance: God is patient, but there is ultimately a harvest. By God’s grace we have to get ready for it. To the overly zealous God says, “Wait,” but to the complacent He says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up.”

Here is a great exposition on this Gospel by Fr. Francis Martin. Don’t miss it!

Why Would God Sow Seed He Knows Will Bear Little or No Fruit?

Parable of the Sower, by Marten van Valckenborch

At Sunday Mass we heard the parable of the sower.  Afterward, someone asked me the following question: “Since the sower is the Son of Man, Jesus Himself, why would He, who knows everything ahead of time, sow seed He knew would not bear fruit?”

First, let’s review the text:

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matt 13:1-9).

So why would God waste any seed on rocky ground, thin soil, or the path?

Perhaps we can only propose some possible “answers.” I use quotes around the word because we are in fact touching on some mysteries and can only speculate. Here are some possibilities:

I.  God is extravagant. It is not just seed He scatters liberally; it is everything. There are billions of stars in billions of galaxies, most of them seemingly devoid of life as we understand it. Between these billions of galaxies are huge amounts of what appears to be empty space. On this planet, where just one species of bird would do, there are thousands. Likewise, there are vast numbers of different sorts of insects, mammals, fish, and trees. “Extravagant” barely covers it! The word “extravagant” means “going or wandering beyond.” God has gone vastly beyond anything we can imagine, but He is love and love is extravagant. The image of Him sowing seed in an almost careless way is thus consistent with the usual way of God.

Thus God’s extravagant love is illustrated by His sowing the seed of His word everywhere. Love does not say, “What is the least I can do?” It says, “What more can I do?” Love does not say, “I will give only if I get something back.” If a man loves a woman, he does not look for the cheapest gift to give her on her birthday. Rather, he looks for an extravagant gift. God is love and He is extravagant.

II.  God loves and offers the seed of His Word even to those who will reject Him. Remember, as Jesus goes on to explain, the soil that fails to receive the Word is a symbol of those who allow riches, worldly preoccupation, persecution, and the demands of the Word to draw them away from God. Even knowing this, God still loves them. He still wills their existence. Scripture says elsewhere, But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:44-45).

Yes, God loves even those who will ultimately reject Him. Despite knowing this ahead of time, He will not say, “You cannot have my word; I refuse to provide you sufficient grace.” No, He scatters that seed even though He knows it will not bear the fruit He wishes. Further, He continues to send the sun and rain even on those who will reject Him.

This parable shows forth God’s unfailing love. He sows seed even knowing it will not bear the fruit He wants. He wills the existence of all, even those who He knows will reject Him.

III.  God is just. Were the Lord to take back the seed that fell in unfruitful places, one could argue that He withdrew His grace and that people were lost as a result. In other words, one could claim that God manipulated the process by withdrawing every possible grace. But God, in justice, calls everyone and offers everyone sufficient grace for them to come to faith and salvation.

IV.  God respects our freedom. The various places the seed falls is indicative of human freedom more so than illustrative of God’s intent. God freely offers the grace of His word, but we must freely receive it into the soil of our life. Some of us insist on having stony hearts or immersing ourselves in the cares of the world. God will offer the seed, respecting our freedom to be receptive or refusing. Were He to condition His offer and blessings on us offering the right kind of soil, one could reasonably argue that he was pressuring us or manipulating our freedom.

V.  God wants us to persevere, to sow faithfully rather than merely harvesting. Sometimes we can become discouraged when it seems that our work has borne little fruit. The temptation is to give up. There’s an old saying, “God calls us to be faithful, not successful.” In other words, it is up to us to be the means through which the Lord sows the seed of His Word. By God’s grace, the Word is in our hands, but the harvest is not.

This parable teaches us that not all the seed we sow will bear fruit. In fact, much of it will not.

The simple mandate is that we preach the Word. Go unto all the nations and make disciples. St. Paul would later say to Timothy, Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (2 Tim 4:2). In other words, sometimes the gospel is accepted; sometimes it is rejected. Preach it anyway. Sometimes the gospel is popular, sometimes not. Preach it anyway. Sometimes the gospel is in season; sometimes it is out of season. Preach it anyway. Sow the seed; don’t give up.

Discharge your duty! St. Paul goes on to remark, sadly, For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Tim 4:3-5). Once again the message is the same: preach anyway; sow the seed of the Word; persevere; do not give up; do not be discouraged. Discharge your duty and be willing to endure hardship; just preach! Some of the seed will yield a rich harvest, some will not; preach anyway.

So, permit these “answers.” God sows seed He knows will bear no fruit because He is extravagant, because He loves and wills the existence even of those He knows will reject Him, because of His justice, because He respects our freedom, and because He wants to teach us to persevere regardless of the outcome.

Parables Aren’t Just Stories, Many Are Riddles – Here Are Two

blog11-5To most of us, parables are stories told by Jesus to illustrate and clarify what He teaches. We have read the parables in the context of two thousand years of a tradition that interprets them in a certain way. But in their original context, parables are really more like riddles. The apostles noted that while Jesus would speak to the crowds in parables, when He retreated into the house with the apostles He would explain the meaning (cf Mat 13:36). Plain teaching is given “in the house,” in the Church, but among the crowds it’s parables.

To experience the riddle-like quality of a parable consider this made-up parable (without millennia of preaching tradition to explain it):

A man went out to wash his car. He took with him a bucket filled with soapy water and some sponges. As he washed the car, some of the dirt came off at once. Some of it came off only after much scrubbing. Some of the dirt didn’t come off at all. Let him who has ears to hear, take heed.

Hmm… It’s a bit of a riddle. You sort of get it, but much is also unclear. Perhaps there are several interpretations. But what does the author really want us to learn here? In a sense we are left with more questions than answers, but at least it makes us think.

This was likely the first reaction to many of the parables. Frankly, some of them still puzzle and admit of various interpretations.

Take for example the parable of the man with a hundred sheep, or the woman with ten coins (which we read at daily Mass on Thursday). In one sense the parables clearly emphasize God’s care for even one lost sinner.

But the stories in themselves don’t make a lot of sense. They challenge our conventional thinking; they are quirky and describe people doing things that we most likely would not do. Who would ever do what the shepherd of the lost sheep or the woman with the lost coin did? No one, really. One one level, they’re just plain crazy.

Perhaps that is one of the most fundamental points Jesus is making here. Our heavenly Father’s love for us is just plain crazy. By using the word “crazy,” I do not mean that it is irrational, but it does stretch the limits of our human thinking. So permit a preacher’s hyperbole so that we can enter into the astonishing quality of God’s love and mercy. It cannot be understood or really explained in human terms. Who really understands unlimited and unconditional love? Who can really grasp the depths of God’s mercy? His grace is amazing in that it goes completely beyond our ability to comprehend; it transcends human concepts. Thank God! If God were like us we’d all be in trouble. Frankly, we’d all be in Hell!

Let’s look at both parables. The full texts can be found here: Luke 15.

I. The Parable of the Lost Sheep – The Lord speaks of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to search for one that is lost. Would a shepherd really do this? Probably not! The passage drips with irony, even absurdity. Perhaps if the shepherd thought that the lost sheep was likely nearby he might venture over the next hill, but the average human shepherd would probably cut his losses and stay with the ninety-nine. Many of us might even consider it irresponsible to leave ninety-nine in order to search for one.

Some people try to make sense of this parable by appealing to possible shepherding practices of the first century. Many of the Fathers of the Church postulated that the “ninety-nine” were the angels in Heaven and we, fallen humanity, the straying sheep that God goes off to find. The angels in turn rejoice when the “lost sheep” is found. Perhaps.

But what if trying to “solve” the parable or have it make sense misses the point: that God’s love for us is extravagant, personal, puzzling, and just plain “crazy.” Maybe it is teaching that God loves us for “no good reason.” He seems to love us even more when we stray. He intensifies His focus on the one who strays. To us this is not only crazy, it is dangerous and possibly enabling. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze it too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

II. The Woman and the Lost Coin – A woman loses a drachma, a small coin. It’s not worth that much, really, perhaps one day’s wages. In modern terms, it would equate to less than a hundred dollars. It’s not insignificant, but not really a huge amount either. She sweeps diligently for it. So far, this seems reasonable. I’d probably look around a while for a missing “Benjamin.”

But then it gets crazy. She finds it and rejoices to such an extent that she spends most, if not all of it, on a party celebrating the found coin!

But that is exactly the point. God doesn’t count the cost. He doesn’t weigh His love for us in terms of whether it is “worth it.” Some try to explain the craziness away by suggesting that perhaps the coin had sentimental value as part of her dowry or a ceremonial head-dress of ten coins. But here, too, overanalyzing and trying to explain or make sense of it may well miss the point.

This woman is crazy because God is crazy. He is crazy to love us this much. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze it too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

Some will object to this reading of the parables, preferring the authority of the Church Fathers or of other traditional readings. But these interpretations are not dogmatic and parables of this nature may admit of various interpretations.

Remember, too, that Jesus addressed this parable to: the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:1). These were men who thought they had it figured out: God loves us because we keep the precepts of the Law. Isn’t it possible that to them, Jesus gives this retort: “What if God loves you for no human reason at all? What if God loves because God is love and that is what love does: it loves? What if you cannot simply account for God’s love in human terms?”

You can take this theory or leave it, but at least allow it to illustrate that many of the parables had and still have a riddle-like quality, and that simply settling in on one explanation may sacrifice that. Jesus gave us parables in order to challenge us and to provoke conversation both among and within ourselves. Don’t end the conversation too quickly. Even after hearing the usual explanation, consider asking, “What else could this parable mean?”

A Powerful Parable Against the Premises of Unbelief

blog 062115There are many reasons for the unbelief rampant in our times. Among them is the claim by some that because they do not see or hear evidence of God or an afterlife, our belief in these is just wishful thinking on our part so as to avoid the conclusion that everything ends with our death, that this world is all there is.

A parable currently circulating on the Internet addresses this sort of unbelief. A Facebook friend (Vicki) called it to my attention. I have adapted a bit and will present it to you here. Some sites indicate that the original author is Útmutató a Léleknek, while other sites are silent as to the source. I am only adapting it here because I have seen various forms of it and am not sure of the original. Nevertheless it is an effective parable in its essence.

Prior to having you read it please recall the nature of an analogy or a parable. An analogy presents a thing or a scenario that is “like” another one, but not exactly the same. The word parable comes from the Greek word para (alongside) + bole (to throw). Thus a parable is something that is expressed in terms of something else. It is “thrown alongside” in the sense that it is not exactly the same, but similar to what is described. The comparison discloses both the strengths and weakness of what is compared.

Many today misunderstand this and so when an analogy or parable is presented, dismiss it since it is not an exact fit. But as we’ve seen, an analogy or parable is not intended to be a perfect fit; it is intended to compare things that are merely similar.  In the story that follows, we who live in the world are compared to two babies in the womb of their mother. The babies debate whether there really is anything or anyone outside the womb.

Now it is true that this world is “like” a womb, but not identical to it. Further, God is not a mother gestating us in her womb. He is Father and Creator, raising His children. But the story you are about to read is not about the nature of God per se, but about the argument that God and life after death do not exist merely because we cannot see them or because no one has verifiably claimed to have returned from Heaven to tell us all about it. So the analogy is about the argument over the existence of God and the afterlife, not about the nature of God.

So please consider this before commenting (in the comment box) that God is Father, not mother. Whether the original author meant this or not, I do not mean it in presenting the story.

With all that in mind, I present the story. The paragraphs are numbered for reference.

  1. In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other, “Do you believe in life after delivery?”
  2. The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. It seems we are obviously here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later and that we have capacities that are meant for something greater than here.”
  3. “Nonsense!” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What makes you think there is?”
  4. The second said, “Well, I am going to suppose that since we have eyes and legs and mouths that there is a world outside that has more light than here so that we can see, and where will walk about with our legs, and eat with our mouths. I mean, why would we have legs if we weren’t ever going to walk, or eyes if we weren’t ever going to have light and see?  Maybe there will be many other things that we can’t understand now.”
  5. The first replied, “That is absurd. Your are just engaging in wishful thinking and hoping that things will get better. This is all there is. Who needs to walk? And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. And since the umbilical cord is so short, life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
  6. The second insisted, “Well I think there is something more than this, outside and beyond this womb. Some sort of longing is in my heart to see and walk freely and to eat and enjoy things. I mean, why would we have these legs and eyes and mouth and hands? And where did we get the longing to use them if we weren’t meant for something more? Indeed, maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
  7. The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
  8. “No,” said the second, “Surely we will meet our mother and she will take care of us.”
  9. The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in a mother? That’s laughable. If a mother exists then where is she now?”
  10. The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are from her and it is in her that we now live. Without her this world we are in now would not exist.”
  11. Said the first, “Well I don’t see her, so it is only logical that she doesn’t exist.”
  12. To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when I am in silence and I focus and really listen, I can perceive her presence, and hear her loving voice, calling down from above.”

Not a bad analogy in parable form (remember, no analogy is perfect)! Here are a few thoughts on how to apply it more specifically to our situation.

In sentence #2 the believing infant says, It seems we are obviously here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later and that we have capacities that are meant for something greater than here. This translates to the fact that, as Scripture says, God has put the timeless in our heart (Eccles 3:10). In other words, we can universally imagine concepts outside of the physical word and our experience, such as the timeless, and the concept of perfection is an indication that we are called to know, see, experience, and “walk” in these one day. The infants in the womb have eyes that are made for the light, but they cannot see while in the womb. But their eyes point to the purpose for which eyes are made. Their legs are made to walk, and thought they cannot walk now, their legs point to the reality for which they are made. That our desire is infinite points to the fact that there is some One who exists to fill that desire. This logic of a capacity pointing to a fulfilment of its object is taken up in sentences #4 and #6 as well.

Sentence #5 addresses the “wishful thinking” charge. The fact is that so-called “wishful thinking” imposes demands that move beyond merely trying to please myself with wishful thoughts. Thus, if I have legs and can one day walk, I must develop that skill and then take the risk of walking. If I can see, then I must accept the responsibility of one who sees and make changes in my life based upon it. Thus the Christian vision of eternal life and a higher call are not just wishful thoughts; they are demanding thoughts. They impose on us a requirement to prepare for and strive for higher things.

Sentences #9 and #11 take up the argument that if I can’t see something with my physical eyes or weigh it on a scale then it doesn’t exist. But of course many things exist that cannot be seen. I cannot see my thoughts per se. Neither can I see justice with my eyes. I can see their effects, but I cannot see them. It is like this with God. His effects are everywhere evident in what He has made, as is the intelligence and reason with which He made them. That things work predictably and in an orderly way is the basis of the scientific method. Some intelligence ordered all this with logic and suffused it with an intelligence that is intelligible. So I do not see God, but I see His effects, just as I do not see my intelligence or thoughts but do see their effects.

Sentence #10 reminds us of the fundamental question that most materialists and atheists refuse to answer: Why is there anything at all? We argue that things exist as coming from the One who is Existence Itself. But how does an atheist argue the effect of existence? Whence its cause?

Sentence #12 reminds every believer that he must be able to render an account for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). Indeed, I will testify that when I still my soul, I do hear God’s heartbeat. I see Him in what He has made. And when I pray, I am heard. He is changing my life and I cannot account for the new man I am except that God lives and is changing me, molding and fashioning me into the man He has made me to be. I have tested His word and found it to be true. He lives and so I live!

How say you?

 

Going Deeper with the Parable of the Good Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is often read by many in a rather single manner to mean that we ought to be more generous to those in need or that we ought to not neglect those who suffer. Perhaps too, that racial and ethnic boundaries must be overcome as we broaden what it means to consider some one a neighbor.  All of this is fine enough, there are plenty of social justice themes at work here to permit such a reading and they ought not be neglected. But as is always the case with scripture, there is more at work here than the merely obvious interpretation. In effect the whole passage before us goes a long way to show some of the deeper drives we have regarding the pride and self-righteousness, along with a stubborn tendency we have to reduce holiness to something “manageable” and merely human. Let’s take a look.

1. There was a scholar of the law  who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  (Luke 10:25) – On the face of it this question is absurd. It is rooted in self-justifying notions. What must I DO to obtain eternal life….The simple fact is that we cannot save ourselves. We do not have the resources to obtain eternal life. No amount of human flesh power could even come close to paying the debt we owe. We do not have a rocket ship powerful enough to fly to heaven. We have no ladder tall enough to climb there. The lawyer’s flawed question sets him up for a series of misunderstandings about salvation and the absolute need for grace. Because he thinks that eternal life is somehow in his power to obtain it he looks more and more foolish as the interaction goes on.

2.  Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”  He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”  (Luke 10:26-28) In way Jesus is humoring him and drawing him out. The man has suggested that salvation is in his power to accomplish. So, in effect Jesus says to him, “Since you think such a thing is possible, explain to me how you think so with your legal background.” The lawyer quotes the great Shema, the summary of the whole law contained in Deuteronomy 6. Now there is nothing wrong with the Law, and so Jesus says, “You have answered rightly.” But what IS wrong is thinking that this law is within my own unaided flesh power to keep. To love God with our whole heart, mind, being and strength is a remarkable call that should not be taken lightly or reduced a few ritual tokenary things. The honest truth is that most human beings do not love God this way and NO human being apart from grace even stands a chance of getting close. The human mind and heart apart from grace have been so wounded as to make such a law unattainable. The fact is not only do human beings (apart form grace) not love God with their whole heart, they barely give him leftovers. The usual human approach is to serve myself and the world and then, from whatever is left, I’ll throw a few scraps to God. I’ll pray, if I have time left over at the end of my busy worldly day. I’ll read scripture if it doesn’t interfere with my watching of the sports event or soap opera. I’ll put money in the collection plate after I pay my mortgage, Sears bill, magazine subscriptions and see what is left over. I’ll follow the teachings of God so long as they don’t interfere with my politics or worldview. So God barely gets leftovers from most people and that includes many who describe themselves as religious. For us to think we, by ourselves,  are really going to pull off loving God with our whole heart, mind, being and strength or even come close is absurd on the face of it. And we haven’t even considered loving our neighbor yet! Jesus answers the lawyer (probably with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek) “Do this and you will live.” 🙂  He might as well have told him to leap a tall building in a single bound or to define the universe and give three examples. Does the lawyer really have any idea what it means to “do this?!” Surely not, as we see next.

3.  But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) And now we surely have reached the endgame of legalism and trying to be justified by our own flesh power. In effect the Lawyer says, “OK, if I have to love my neighbor as myself, let’s keep the meaning of neighbor as minimal and manageable as possible.” In other words if there are too many neighbors running around, with the requirement that I love them as myself, I might not be able to pull the thing off. So let’s dumb down and minimize what and who is meant by neighbor. This is what the flesh does. It salutes God’s law but doesn’t really take it seriously. The usual tactic of the flesh is to argue about meaning (e.g. the famous, “That depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.”) and then to minimize the observance as much as possible by all sorts of legalistic minimalism. Hence the lawyer seeks to quibble over a precise definition of “neighbor” and keep that category as small and minimal as possible. He has to do this because he wants to accomplish the Shema on his own, by his own merit and power.

4. Jesus doesn’t take the bait and goes on to tell the well known parable of the Good Samaritan. With it he devastates the concept of a small manageable notion of neighbor. Neighbor cuts across national, ethnic, religious and political boundaries to encompass…..everyone. Jesus will not accept the reductionist demands of the flesh and its legalism.

5. He also sets aside another form of reductionism in the parable, that of religious reductionism. A priest and Levite pass also and refuse to help to victim by the roadside. Perhaps they were afraid, perhaps they had concerns about blood which would render them unclean and unfit for Temple duties. But whatever their reasons they also represent the human tendency to think we can buy God off by religious observances. If I go to Church, pay my tithes, and say a few prayers I can check off the “God box,” consider myself righteous and to have met all my duties. It becomes all too easy to walk past the needy, to walk past injustice, to tolerate evil, to remain silent and protect my hide and ego and all the while think God won’t mind because I sat in the pew last Sunday. This is just another form of reductionism and the Lord’s parable makes it clear that he is not impressed. We can’t buy God off. We ought to be in Church every Sunday, financially support the word of God, pray and so one. There is no excuse for not doing these things. But they are not the end of faith, they are the beginning of faith. If I really sat in the pew last Sunday to any real effect that I cannot walk on past the needy, ignore injustice, tolerate evil or remain silent in the face of error.

6. Thus in the end the love of God and neighbor are expansive loves that go beyond the ability of the unaided flesh to do. Without the healing of grace we are simply too selfish, greedy, egotistical, thin-skinned, resentful, envious, bitter, lustful and revengeful to even come close to loving God and our neighbor the way that is described. We have to stop playing games with God’s Word and stop trying to explain it in a way that makes it manageable. God’s word means what it says. And, with our unaided flesh it is impossible to fulfill it.

7. What then are we to do? Seek lots of grace and mercy. This parable is about more than caring for the poor. It is also about the absolute need for grace. Only with tons of grace and mercy do we even stand a chance in coming close to what the Shema sets forth. Only God can really give God the love he deserves. Only God can really love the poor as they ought to be loved. That is why we have to die to our self and allow Jesus Christ to live his life in us. He does this through the sacraments fruitfully received, through faith mediation on his Word and through prayer. Those who faithfully attend Mass and regularly receive communion worthily, those who confess their sins frequently and fruitfully receive the graces of that sacrament, those who faithfully and thoughtfully meditate on God’s Word, begin to experience a transformation that enables them to love. They receive a new heart and a new mind, the heart and mind of Christ. As Christ lives in them they see the Shema come alive, they begin to love God above all things and their neighbor as their very self. And it is not they who do it. It is Christ who does it in them.

8. What must I do to inherit eternal life? I must decrease and Christ must increase (Jn 3:30). I must die so that Christ may live in me (Gal 2:19-20).

The audio version of my homily is here: Going Deeper with the Good Samaritan

This song says, “When you see me trying to do good, It’s just Jesus in me….Loving my neighbor like a Christian should, It’s just Jesus in me.”