Seventeenth Sunday – Selling All for the Kingdom

This Sunday we complete the sermon on parables.  The last four parables teach us to be smart, and so to repent.

Searching the Scriptures

The Lectionary pairs them with Solomon’s prayer for wisdom.  Two notes on how the Hebrews, and the Hebrew language, thought about these things:

First, in our translation, Solomon asks for “understanding.”  The Hebrew word, though, means listening.  He wants, needs a listening heart.  This is a good thought to pair with the sermon on the parables, the theme of which is, “he who has ears ought to hear.”

Second, he wants to be able “to distinguish right from wrong.”  This word, distinction, is key to the Old Testament.  You need to be able to tell the difference.

Pope Francis (using an old Ignatian idea) talks a lot about discernment.  Make sure you know which are tares and which are wheat.  You have to be intelligent.  And to do that, you first need to listen to God’s Word.


In our first parable this week, a man finds a treasure hidden in a field.  The key phrase, of course, is, “he sells all that he has and buys that field.”  The wise man – the listening, discerning man – knows that God is worth everything.

The second parable, the pearl of great price, is so like it that we need to look for the difference.  On the one hand, Jesus is doubling down on the punchline: “he goes and sells that he has and buys it.”

The main difference is what they’re doing.  The treasure in the field seems to be a surprise, but the merchant is “searching for fine pearls.”  The digger “hides again” the treasure so that the owner of the field won’t know why he’s buying it, but the merchant is buying the pearl itself, so it appears that someone is selling it.

Sometimes we stumble on the kingdom of heaven where we least expected it.  Sometimes we are searching.  Together, the two parables seem to say that it makes no difference.  Like the parable of the eleventh hour (which is not in this sermon), whether you deserve to find it is irrelevant.  What matters is if you will sell everything to keep it.


And so the third parable, the last one about the kingdom itself, says the kingdom is also like a net thrown into the sea.  Our translation says it “collects fish of every kind.”  But the Greek doesn’t say fish, and the word it uses for “kind” is the word for “the nations,” the goyim, the gentiles.  And when the net “collects” them, the word is “synagogue”: the gathering place.  The double meaning is that all nations are drawn into the community of Israel.  The kingdom can find everyone.

And do we find the kingdom, or does the kingdom find us?  Are we searching, or are we caught in a net?  Well – both.

But in another twist on the same theme, the lovely are brought home and the rotten are thrown out.  Jesus ends his sermon with those terrible words about a fiery furnace and weeping and gnashing of teeth.  We have to say it: contrary to the idea that a snuggly Jesus overcomes the mean God of the Old Testament, far and away the scariest threats of the Bible come from the lips of Jesus himself.

Because always the message is: repent.  Give up everything and follow.  If you don’t appreciate the pearl, you don’t have to have it.  That seems to be the central theme.


At the end, parallel to our “ears to hear” in previous sections, Jesus asks the disciples if they understand.  Then he adds one more parable, not about the kingdom, but about the disciples.  In fact, when it says, “who has been instructed,” the word is the word for disciples.  But our translation is right to emphasize that the word for disciple is not so much about moral formation as about listening.  We are formed, we grow in discernment, by listening.

Then the parable says, the good student of the kingdom “is like the head of a household who brings form his storeroom both the new and the old.”

The “head” here is not a servant, not the butler.  You’re going to have to do this yourself.  And the Greek has less to do with “bringing” than with “casting out.”  One way of reading this parable is that, with the discernment we gain from hearing the word, we learn not to cling to what is old or new, but to reject whatever is contrary to the Gospel, old or new.   The kingdom means cleaning house.

Crucified with Christ


Our reading from Romans has the comforting words, “all things work for good for those who love God.”  But how?  No, he will not buy you a Cadillac.  Rather, we are “conformed to the image of his Son” – the crucified.  Love casts out all things contrary, and so gains the beloved, though all else may be lost.

What is the Gospel calling you to get rid of?

Sixteenth Sunday: The Good Seed is There

Our readings this week continued with the theme of hope.  We continued to read Romans 8, the charter

Searching the Scriptures

of hope, and the sermon of parables in Matthew 13, on the hidden power of God.

We got three parables this week.  The main one was the wheat and the tares.  Subordinate to it are short ones on the mustard seed and the yeast that leavens the whole lump.  Paired with these readings is one from the challenging Book of Wisdom.


A central line for all these readings is in the parable of the wheat and the tares.  When the field begins to bear fruit, the servants ask the householder, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?  Where have the weeds come from?”

File:Hortus Deliciarum, Der Sämann.jpgWhen Jesus explains the parable, he says that the servants are the angels.  We can imagine the angels looking down on our world with furrowed brow.  “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”  This world – at least the human part of it – does not look like God’s creation.  If you aren’t tempted to wonder if God is sowing evil, or maybe not in charge at all, maybe you aren’t paying enough attention.  The story is a parable, not literal truth – but on some level, the angels must be appalled at what they see.

And we too.  We should ask ourselves how many less-honest ways we have of saying, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”  At least that question puts the asker in contact with the Lord.  Instead, I get angry at the world, I set out to fix things, I try to take charge.  Because, so often, I have a hard time believing that God has sowed good seed.


The two short parables begin to answer the question.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  It is a hidden power.  We should be amazed at the power of the seed.  It doesn’t make much sense that trees can grow from tiny seeds.  And sometimes it makes even less sense to look at this world and think that God is strong, and good, and paying attention.

In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Dostoevsky (who didn’t like the Roman church) imagines a cardinal telling Jesus he is foolish to abandon worldly power.  How is anyone going to be converted by love?  How can that foolish little mustard seed produce anything?  Jesus, don’t you have something more powerful?

And in the third parable, the key word is “hidden.”  Our translation says the women “mixed” the leaven in – but the Greek says she “hid” her leaven in a whole lot of flour – and found the whole lump leavened.

God has sowed good seed.  He is at work, in us and in our world.  But the seed he sows is tiny, and hidden, and takes time to produce its fruit.


In the Gospel, the seed is the Word.  In our reading from Romans, the power in that Word – the breath behind the word, the life within the seed – is the Holy Spirit.

“We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”  Now, some other time I need to talk about anti-intellectualism; a great danger of our age is Apse Saint Peter's Basilica Vatican City.jpgto think that God is wherever thinks don’t make sense.  I can’t tell you how many problems there are with that problem.  The seed is hidden, and we don’t understand – but the seed is the word.  It’s not that God makes no sense, it’s that we don’t.  It’s not that he is mindless, but that we are.

God “knows what is the intention of the Spirit,” or “sees what is the mind of the Spirit.”  In our weakness, we don’t see, but the Spirit does.

He intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.  Don’t of this as mindless groans.  Think of it as subtle whisperings.  The workings of God are so much more subtle than we think.

Yes, says the Gospel, there are the evil ones, and the scandals, and at the end of time it will all be sorted out.  But in the meantime, it is subtle, and we need to trust the Spirit, not our gross eyes, to show us where God is at work.


The reading from Wisdom tells us what to do.  First, trust: his “might is the source of justice,” and the reason he doesn’t crush the evil ones is because he is strong, not weak: “your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.”  So trust.

And trust makes us gentle: the reading repeats God’s clemency, his lenience – and then says, “those who are just must be kind.”  Kind because God is strong, and we don’t need to crush evil.  And kind because we don’t know where he is at work.


The parables all point us back to the Word itself.  And so our reading ends, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”  Because we don’t see, we must listen, to the gentle whisperings of the Spirit, to the unexpected teachings of Jesus.  Listen, and trust.

In what ways do you find yourself doubting that God has sowed good seed?

Fifteenth Sunday: Receiving the Word

For the next three Sundays, we will be reading Jesus’s sermon of parables, in Matthew 13.

The parables are the third of five sermons around which Matthew orients his account of the Gospel.  He begins on the Mount, setting out the Christian way (cc. 5-7).  In the next sermon, he calls his twelve apostles and tells them how to spread the message (c. 10).  Chapter 13 is in a boat, again speaking to the crowds, but from some distance; the heart of the message, we will see, is that they hear but do not understand.  The fourth sermon turns inward, talking about the life of the community (18-19).  And the last proclaims the coming destruction and judgment (23-25).  At each step the gate seems to be narrower.


This week’s parable, the first, about the seed sowed on different kinds of ground, introduces the genre of parables.  He gives the image, but before he interprets it, the disciples ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  He responds, “Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but . . . they look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand.”  A parable is a way of teaching that only some people understand – or rather, it manifests how all of Jesus’s teaching makes sense only to a heart rightly disposed.

Then he explains the parable.  Watch how the word “hear” dominates the transition. “Lest they see with File:Birds from the parable of the sower.jpgtheir eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted . . . .  Many prophets and righteous people longed . . . to hear what you hear but did not hear it. . . . Hear then the parable of the sower.  The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it.”

The first parable is about parables: we can all hear the same word from Jesus, but it doesn’t bear fruit in all of us.


Martin Luther used the image of cow manure to explain his understanding of grace.  You stink.  Grace is like snow that covers up your stink.  But you are not changed.  That, of course, is the opposite of the Gospel as Catholics understand it.

But as Ratzinger liked to point out, Luther usually has a point worth considering.  I am told the following response comes from Teresa of Avila, though I am not sure:

Yes, we are like manure.  But in the Bible, grace is not like snow.  Grace is like a seed.  As much as manure stinks, it is the material that a seed can turn into a fruit-bearing plant.  Manure is fertilizer.  In fact, it is better fertilizer the more it has been chewed up and broken File:Hortus Deliciarum, Der Sämann.jpgdown and excreted as waste.  In this week’s parable, we want to be like manure.  Snow, well-tended ground, solid rocks, even jewels – none of these can become part of a flower or tree.

Now, an important part of that metaphor – and our Gospel’s metaphor – is that the life force is from outside of us.  It is the seed that brings life, not the manure.  The manure is lucky to be incorporated into something better – just as the life that grows in us is Christ’s life, turning us into members of his body, branches on his vine.

That might be the genius in Luther’s image: we can become nothing until we realize that we are nothing.  The only way the dirt “cooperates” with the seed is by letting the seed take over.


Last week I said that Romans 8 is the great charter of hope.  This week we get another installment.  “Creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

It’s not quite right to think of ourselves as manure.  Manure is a side-effect, a reject.  But all of creation was made for this.  All the emptiness, all the frustration, is part of a plan: the making of the good earth that can receive the seed of God’s word.


And while the Gospel parable emphasizes the many people who are not good ground, our reading from File:The sower went forth to sow.jpgIsaiah emphasizes the power of God’s word, which “shall not return to me void.”  Here the word even “gives seed to the one who sows” and then “bread to the one who eats.”  Where the Gospel focuses on one point, our reception of the word, Isaiah emphasizes that God is active at every point: he is the rain, he is the seed, he is the bread, his Sacred Heart will triumph.


For one more image of our receptivity, return to the Gospel.  The seed is the word, something with shape and intelligence.  The receiver is the one who hears, with or without understanding.  The human mind – not so separate from the heart – is an amazing potentiality to hear and understand and follow the Word of God.  Pretty fancy manure.

What kind of thing are you, than can receive the Word?

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Hidden Strength

In this past Sunday’s readings, we entered a new section of Matthew’s Gospel.  Chapters 11-13, concluding with the sermon of parables, talk about the Church’s hidden strength.

This week we skipped to 11:25.  The beginning of that chapter talked about how the Pharisees reject both the austerity of John the Baptist and the mercy of Jesus.  Neither one fits worldly standards.

Then come woes, “For if the powerful acts which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago”: we ought to embrace the hidden strength.

And that is the set-up for the two sections of this week’s Gospel: “You have hidden these things form the wise” and “Come to me and I will give you rest.”


Our first two readings give us an idea of the kind of strength Jesus is talking about.  This year from weeks 9 to 24, our epistle is from Romans, that central articulation of the Gospel – and this week it is Romans 8, one of Scripture’s main passages on the Holy Spirit.  A great priest used to tell people who struggle with hope to memorize Romans 8.

“The Spirit of God dwells in you”: that is the first thing we need to know about this strength.

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The Transfigured Christ

He is “the one who raised Christ from the dead”: that’s the second thing.  The Spirit is powerful – powerful enough to work not just in some flighty “spiritual” world, but in the real world where bodies die.

“By the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.”  Now, the Spirit who raises bodies is not anti-body.  Paul’s point is not that bodies are evil.  His point is twofold.  On the one hand, we can’t trust in bodily strength: our strength to live in the body comes from beyond the body.  The great gift of marital sexuality, for example, is a glorification of the body, but it requires spiritual strength.  It is the Spirit that raises the body, not the body itself.

On the other hand, on its own, the body falls into a whole realm of thinking that is evil.  Elsewhere Paul explains: “the works of the flesh” include not only “adultery, fornication, impurity, lustfulness” – obviously bodily sins – but also “idolatry, sorcery, hatred, fighting, jealousy, anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies,” etc.: sins not because they are in the body, but because they are based on fleshly calculations.


Our Old Testament reading gives another angle on the same teaching.  “Your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass,” and not even a full-grown ass, but “on a colt, the foal of anBurrell CollectionDSCF0340 02.JPG ass.”  He will bring “peace to the nations,” but not by earthly means.

Our king rules from the Cross.  Our fleshly calculations of how to win through worldly power are all wrong.  His is a different kingdom, a kingdom of the Spirit.

Again, it is lived in the body, the Spirit conquers in the body and glorifies the body – but it is not based on bodily calculations, not measured by earthly strength.


So the first part of our Gospel says, “you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to little ones.”

The “learned” are in Greek the “put together.”  The people who have their acts together, by worldly standards – those are not the ones who know the hidden power.

Rather the “little ones,” in Greek, “the wordless ones.”  (In-fant is from roots that mean no-speech.)  We are into the theology of spiritual childhood.  One way to think of it is this: we have all our “words,” our categories, our ways of thinking – and those are not God’s ways.  But that doesn’t mean we should be stupid.  Rather, like infants, we need to learn to speak – learn the categories in which we think – from our Father.

Little children are always listening.  When we read Scripture, we learn how to speak and so how to think.  There is nothing child-like about ignoring the language of our Father.

And so he adds, “No one knows the Father except the Son.”  We can’t know him as Father until we know how to be children, to receive from him the hidden strength.  And we can’t learn that except by hiding ourselves in Jesus: in the Sacraments, in Scripture, in the Cross.


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St. Anthony and St. Francis

“Come to me all who labor and are burdened.”  Everything else we have read helps us read these words.

There is a yoke and a burden.  Jesus calls us to repentance, to a new way of life, to put off the deeds of the body, “For if the powerful acts which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.”

It is an impossible burden by worldly standards, as impossible as rising from the dead.  But like rising from the dead, the hidden strength makes it easy, the strength of the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

Where are worldly calculations standing in the way of your repentance?

Thirteenth Sunday: To Love with His Heart

We are back to Ordinary Time – the Lectionary returned last Sunday, but I was not able to write then.  We are reading through Matthew’s Gospel, and for most of this year, from weeks nine till twenty-four, the letter to the Romans.  Great as all our feasts and liturgical seasons are, Ordinary Time is awesome.

Searching the Scriptures

Matthew’s Gospel is arranged around five great sermons.  We are now (and were last week) in the second one, Matthew 10, the Sermon on Mission.  Jesus has seen the crowds scattered like sheep without a shepherd, so he sends his twelve as laborers into the vineyard.  This week we read the end of his instructions to them.

Just before our reading he has warned them, “Do not fear those who kill the body,” and, “I did not come to send peace, but a sword.”  Mission will cost us.

Now he says, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” but “Whoever receives you receives me.”  He has said earlier, “A disciple is not above his master . . . it is enough for his disciple that he is like his master.”  Mission means being identified with Jesus, who gives all for his sheep.


The first reading, from the section on the prophet Elisha in Second Kings, gives a positive spin to the Gospel.  A woman offers hospitality to the prophet.  He sees her generosity, investigates her needs (his servant Gehazi points out that she is childless), and prays for her to have a son.  The moral seems easy: if you do good, you will receive good.

But the story is harder than than that.  Our translation says she was “a woman of influence”; others go further, and say she is rich.  It sounds easy, like rich people can buy babies from God.  But the Hebrew just says she is “big”; one of the main meanings of the word elsewhere in the Old Testament is “old,” which makes more sense in this story, where her husband is “getting on in years” and they can’t have a baby.

It’s not clear that the woman is rich.  She makes a “little room” for Elisha – on her roof.  In the next story, we read that her husband was a field worker.  She was generous not out of her abundance, but from her poverty.

And the baby she “will be fondling” soon – I was meditating on this passage while holding my baby late at night in the hospital NICU – is not a prize, but another demand for generosity.  In the next story, the child dies, and the woman cries out to Elisha against the pain he has brought her.  Elisha raises the boy from the dead – but the first point is, parenthood brings suffering, draws us out of ourselves.

It is not that we throw to God a couple coins we didn’t need, and he buys us a Mercedes Benz.  Rather, if we enter into his generosity, he draws us deeper in.


Our reading from Romans 6 glosses the issue in a similar way.  In Baptism, we have died with Christ.  “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.”

On the one hand, Baptism gives life.  On the other hand, the life it gives is the life of Christ, who laid down his life.  It gives life only to those who will pass through death.  It gives a specific kind of life, one in which we “died to sin once and for all.”


I like to ponder, in the Hail Mary, the phrase, “Holy Mary . . . pray for us.”  Mary is Mother of God, a pretty effective choice of advocate – or rather, God’s choice to become a child indicates his openness to hearing our prayers.)  “Mother of God” means we can ask God for things and he might listen.

But “Holy Mary, pray for us” is dangerous words.  Maybe we would rather have someone not holy pray for us, another sinner, with our set of values.  The Hail Mary doesn’t even specify what she should pray for.  We’d better look out, because she will pray for the things a holy person cares about, not the things we care about.

God provides for us.  But he provides according to his scale of values, not ours.  He provides to bring us to his values.


“Whoever finds his life will lose it.”  Better to give a cup of water to someone in the name of disciple than to cling to our own values, even our natural love of father, mother, son, and daughter.  Of course, Jesus wants us to love them as he loves them.  But that will demand a transformation of our love, a hunger and thirst not for our rights, but for righteousness.

How is Jesus calling you to a greater sense of mission?