16th Sunday Ordinary Time 2017 – a reflection on the readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“We do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.” Romans 8, 26-27

Matthew’s Gospel is notable for the fact that it contains just over fifty references to the kingdom or reign of God. Because of that distinguishing feature, some Biblical scholars refer to Matthew’s Gospel as “the Gospel of the Kingdom”. But for both Matthew and Jesus, the kingdom of God is neither a place nor an identified and named area of land. Rather, it is a way of living and relating, built on practiced values such as justice, compassion, tolerance and reconciliation. The kingdom of God grows out of the coming of Emmanuel – “God with us” – in the person of Jesus, and is made up of people living in communion with one another, respecting one another, living good and decent lives, and reaching out to one another in care, compassion and support. It has nothing to do with temporal power, control or subservience to authority. Today’s gospel offers us three short parables which illustrate different characteristics of God’s kingdom on earth – the parables of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and the yeast, and the first of these parables is not quite as simple as it looks.

The parable of the wheat and weeds strikes me as contradictory, presenting God as someone who is patient and considerate in dealing with evil and those who do it, but, in the long run, dispatching them. So I would like to suggest that the parable is more than an attempt to underline the patience of God. Might it not be a way of reflecting back to us our own desire and tendency to deal with evil things and evil people by trying to exterminate them summarily? After all, they are, at best, obstructive and, at worst, harmful and destructive not only of our growth, but of our very survival. Yet, Jesus himself would probably be urging us to be less hasty and more tolerant, if only to give us time and space to come to the realization that the world is not made up solely of black and white, good and evil, but that there are weeds and wheat existing side by side in all of us. We know that we are equally capable of both heroism and treachery, of the very best and the very worst. Perhaps we might even come to believe in a God, described in today’s first reading from Wisdom, as one who is not hell-bent on taking out revenge on those who do evil.

But, we are still left with the less comfortable parts of today’s gospel which suggest that God will eventually come up with a “final solution” to rid the world of evil and those who do it. The only plausible explanation I can offer is that there is a little bit of Matthew mixed in with the thoughts of Jesus. Matthew was writing for a community struggling with persecution, and, understandably, flagging under the pressure. He wanted to stiffen their faith and assure them that the God of Jesus would eventually triumph over those causing them grief. So, we may need to overlook his zeal to have God come up with a violent solution.

At the same time, today’s gospel challenges us to reflect on the ambiguities that are part of real life, and on a God who is merciful and patient on the one hand, yet impatient and decisive on the other. That might well explain why Paul, in the second reading from Romans, refers to our prayer as sometimes sounding like groaning that simply cannot be put into words. We find of the existence of evil in the world, and, consequently, unable to pray as we would like.

The parable of the mustard seed suggests that God’s kingdom grows out of the smallest, most insignificant and humblest of beginnings, and that we contribute to that growth through very ordinary acts of kindness, care, compassion, affirmation and encouragement.

The parable of the yeast emphasises that we often don’t realise the impact that a very ordinary act of kindness or encouragement can have on those for whom it is done. Just as a tiny quantity of yeast can transform dough into bread, so simple acts of kindness can have an impact for good far beyond what we can imagine.

By way of illustration, I offer a couple of stories for both of which I am indebted to retired parish priest, William Bausch. An elderly parishioner, conscious of her approaching death, penned the following to the usher in her parish church:
“Dear Harry, I’m sorry I don’t know your last name, but then you don’t know mine. You’re at the ten o’clock Mass each Sunday. I’m writing to ask a favour of you. I don’t know the priest too well, but somehow I feel close to you. I don’t know how you got to know my first name, but every Sunday morning you smile and greet me by name, and we exchange a few words – how bad the weather is, how much you like my hat, and how I was late one particular Sunday. I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to remember an old lady, for your smiles, for your consideration, for your thoughtfulness. Now for my favour. I am dying, Harry. My husband has been dead for 16 years, and the kids are scattered. It’s very important for me when they bring me to church for the last time that you will be standing there at the front entrance. It wouldn’t be right if you didn’t say: ‘Hello, Gert. Good to see you.’ If you are there, Harry, I feel assured that your warm hospitality will be duplicated in my new home in heaven. With love and gratitude, Gert.”

The second illustrates how we can all rise to the heights, despite out human frailty:
During the decades when East and West Germany were separated by the Berlin Wall, thousands of people met their death attempting to escape to freedom across the wall. One day a small, chubby boy arrived at the wall, his hands held apart in an expression of pleading. The East German guard who encountered the lad had a reputation for being a thief and a drug-dealer. However, he was so moved by the boy’s pleading that, after checking to see that nobody was watching, he lifted the lad over the wall to freedom. Shortly afterwards, the young soldier was arrested and executed by firing squad for an act of compassion for a young boy to whom he had not said a single word. Nevertheless, they had met heart to heart.