The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time||July 17, 2005|
To begin our reflection on the scriptures today, I think it's important to remind ourselves about how parables are intended to instruct us. They're stories, of course, and these stories can always be applied to various circumstances. What Jesus is trying to teach about is the reign of God; he says, the reign of God is like the story about the farmer who went and sowed the seed in his field and so on, or the mustard seed. He's trying to teach us about the reign of God. But the very important thing about a parable, as Jesus uses this method of teaching, is that there's no one way to understand the parable. They're open-ended stories, and that's what makes them so effective, because they're not just for the time of Jesus. We can listen to the parables, if we listen carefully, and understand what it means for us right now, in our time and place. We have to be careful not to think that there is one application to a parable.
In fact I think with the first parable today, we probably are stuck in the application that the community of Matthew used back 50 years or so after Jesus died, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. Back then they thought this is what the parable meant: The one who sows the good seed is the son of man, the field is the world, the good seed are the people of the kingdom, the weeds are those who belong to the evil one, the enemy who sows them is the devil, the harvest is the end of time and the workers are the angels. Just as the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so will it be at the end of time. The son of man will send angels and they will weed out of the kingdom all that is scandalous and all who do evil, and these will be thrown into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the just will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of God, if you have ears then listen.
That's kind of a frightening application of the parable, and maybe it was what was needed at that point in the development of the Christian community. In Matthew's community perhaps, people needed to be threatened with the idea that you have to be afraid of God, there's going to be a judgment, you may end up going to hell and so on.
But that's not the only way to listen to that parable, and I suggest that we might find a different way to listen today if we kind of put that out of our mind even though it's what we've heard time after time after time probably. Instead, try to listen to the parable as Jesus told it, and see where it takes us.
The story is about this person who goes out and sows good seed. Then an enemy comes and sows weed. His hope is that the farmer is going to see those weeds growing and he's going to try to destroy them right away. But the people who heard Jesus tell this story would have noticed, probably, that he didn't just talk about weeds in general, he talked about very specific weeds. One that actually as it begins to grow looks like wheat growing. The enemy thought: This is the way I can get him to destroy his own crop. He'll see those weeds, he won't be able to tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat, he rips them out, the crop is diminished or even destroyed.
But the farmer is wise. He doesn't rip out the weed. He says: Wait, let them grow together. When it's time for the harvest - he really turns the tables on his enemy - he has two crops, the wheat, a food crop, and the weed, a fuel crop. So he gets double benefit from what he has sown, and what the enemy has sown. He gets fuel and he gets food. What a marvelous story and what lessons it has for us, if we listen to it carefully.
It seems to me one of the first things we would think about is how easy it is for us to make wrong judgments. That farmer was wise; he wasn't going to try to judge between the weeds and the wheat. But very often we're quick to make judgments, and so we do things then that end up being evil actually. I think one of the things we might do if we really listened to this parable is say we must eliminate the death penalty from our country. How often people come to judgment about someone and the person is even put to death and it's a wrong judgment. It happened even within the church. I was reading a history of the 15th century this week. One of the incidents that was brought up in this history was about Joan of Arc. Well we all know Joan of Arc. She was condemned by the church and put to death, executed. Then less than two decades later, we discover she's a saint.
Even more recently, this past week I read in the paper about a prosecutor in one of our states who is re-opening a case of a person who was condemned to death because the evidence is so clear that this person was not the perpetrator of the crime. Only in this case, it's too late. He was already executed, but she's going to open the case anyway, at least to give some vindication, some sense of satisfaction to the family He was executed wrongly.
We make judgments when we can't really know everything. We need to leave judgments up to God, and that's, I think, one of the things we would learn from this parable if we listen to it carefully. The same thing is true in another application.
Look how quickly we as a nation, through President Bush, decide who are good and who are bad in this world. We identified three nations that we called the Axis of Evil: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. And we declared, publicly declared, we have the right to use even nuclear weapons against those nations if we choose to. We've made a judgment about them -- they're evil, they can be destroyed -- yet how foolish, how wrong that is. If we're listening to what Jesus is teaching us about the reign of God, we would not be acting in that way.
Or even the terrorists, those young men who perpetrated those terrible crimes in London, a week and a half ago, how quickly we condemn every one of them. And of course they did something horrendous. I'm not trying to excuse that, but when you begin to read about who they were, how they came to the point where they did, perhaps we might see that some of the things we've done as a nation have caused terrorists like that to grow up within other people, other groups. We condemn them so quickly, so definitively, and yet part of what made them do what they did probably was a result of how we have treated them and their peoples.
We need to be more careful not to be quick in making judgments. Try to understand more deeply. Try to see that there's good in every person. And that that good can be developed and brought forward, increased, if we respond to the good in people, instead of condemning.
One other example that I suggest for our reflection today is how if we listen to this parable that Jesus tells us, we might be more open to other people. Isn't it true how quickly we can identify people according to their ethnic group? Or their racial make up? Or their sexual orientation? And we can identify people as evil because they belong to this group or that group. How often in our nation there's been discrimination against people because of their race, or because of their ethnicity, or also now, if we are aware, because of their sexual orientation. We make a judgment, we think they're evil. They're not. We need to be more open.
One of the things that makes me want to mention this is a beautiful article that I've read this week about someone who I think is going to be known in the history of the U.S. Catholic church as one of the great bishops in our church, and that's Bishop Terry Steib from Memphis. He's one of the African-American bishops whose picture we have at the back of the church. Very recently you may remember he was in the news because instead of closing schools in the inner-city of Memphis, he re-opened every school that was closed.
Well more recently, he's done this: "Reflecting on the church as home, and on recent meetings with Catholics who feel unwelcome in their home, Bishop Steib announced the beginning of a diocesan ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics." He says,
As I have reflected on the church as home I have become more acutely aware of the number of people, the number of Catholics, who are no longer comfortable in their home. In fact some are no longer certain that the church is their home. Sometimes it is the circumstances of life that cause people to feel estranged or separated. Occasionally it is a misunderstanding of the church, it's teaching that keeps people away. Often individuals hide a deep pain that is rooted in knowing that for whatever reason their lives do not conform to other people's lives, or worse, they feel that who they are is unacceptable. Recently I met with such people. Many of them were born into Catholic families, baptized as Catholics, attended Catholic school; they have embraced the faith handed on to them. Others, through the example of friends, and having felt called by God, became Catholic through the Rite of Christian Initiation. For all of them, being Catholic is at the core of who they are. But at the same time they are people who are not sure of their place in their home. They are people, wonderful, good, Catholic people who are gay and lesbian."
And so Bishop Steib has now instituted a special ministry in the Diocese of Memphis to reach out and to embrace people who otherwise so quickly are judged and condemned just because of who they are. If we listen to what Jesus tells us in the parable today, we would be aware that we can't know the goodness or the evil that is within a person. We can easily misjudge people who are very good and exclude them, push them away, make them feel not welcome in their own home. If we listen to what Jesus teaches us today, we would understand that the reign of God is a place where that does not happen. God does not rule out anyone for who they are. And that's a lesson that's very important for us to hear, and to heed and live by.
With the other parables of today, we could do the same thing, listen to them with a new awareness of what God is trying to teach us, what Jesus is trying to teach us. The little mustard seed how it can quickly become a huge tree. The leaven, which is thought of as corrupt, can produce such marvelous results as it transforms dough into marvelous bread. We won't take the time here to try to draw these out, but any one of us can continue to reflect on these stories of Jesus. Try to listen to them with a new awareness. Try to hear what Jesus is really saying, and let his teaching enter deeply into our hearts to change us, to help us, to be more fully aware of who Jesus is, what he teaches, and what he says the reign of God is. Perhaps if we listen deeply enough, and heed what Jesus teaches, we can help to make the reign of God happen right here in our parish, in our community, in our world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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