Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Power of the Word

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

WIS 12:13, 16-19; PS 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; ROM 8:26-27; MT 13:24-43

Last Sunday’s Gospel emphasized our contribution to conversion. The same Word of God, sowed in different hearts, can bear thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, or else end up snatched away by the evil one, withered by tribulation and persecution, or choked by the deceitfulness of riches. It seems that we make all the difference.

But this week, we hear the three parables that follow, which emphasize the strength of God’s word.

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In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the servants fear that the weeds sowed by the enemy will choke out the good seed. But the master says, leave them be; the only thing that can hurt the good seed is your quickness to intervene: “If you pull up the weeds, you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

In his explanation of the parable, Jesus speaks of those “who cause others to sin and all evildoers.” Yes, evil can “cause others to sin.” But don’t be too worried about the good seed, “the children of the kingdom.” The weeds won’t hurt them. The only thing that can hurt them is your lack of trust in the good seed.

***

Then come two short parables that confirm the point. The mustard seed looks small, but grows large. The kingdom might look fragile, but it is stronger than it seems.

I’m no expert on Middle Eastern horticulture, but one commentary I read says birds don’t nest in mustard bushes. When Jesus says, “It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches,” he’s talking about birds that peck at the tree. Again: don’t worry. The mustard bush is strong enough to withstand those birds.

And the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. You wouldn’t think something so insignificant could accomplish anything. But don’t underestimate the power of God.

We tend to think it all depends on us. Thank God it doesn’t. Like the seeds and the yeast, the Kingdom is vastly stronger than we could imagine.

***

The other two readings give us two practical consequences of this teaching.

The reading from Romans 8 is, “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Note the emphasis on “our weakness.”

True prayer involves a kind of predicament. We pray because we need help from a power greater than our own. But it’s hard to even know what is possible for God. When we’re looking at mustard seeds, yeast, and a field full of weeds, we can’t even imagine the possibilities that God sees. We are inclined to ask for too little.

Romans 8 reminds us that therefore prayer itself is a gift. Divine hope is a gift, parallel to divine faith. Only God himself knows the measure we can ask from God. But his Spirit dwells in us.

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We can be tempted to focus on the irrationality of both hope and faith. Sometimes people dwell on the line in our reading that says, “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” Ah!, we think, the point is that we should pray with unintelligible groans!

But this way of thinking can get it exactly wrong. To the contrary, God tells us, in words, what to hope for. Without the words he speaks to us, we are left to our own hopes, and we hope for infinitely less than what he offers.

Faith and hope are unintelligible in the sense that God’s word leaves us speechless. He claims, for example, that the wheat will survive the weeds, that the tiny seed will grow big and strong, that the yeast can leaven the whole lump, and that his Spirit dwells in us – and our jaws drop.

But to respond by emphasizing just the unintelligibility, however wild it might seem, would leave us with nothing but our too-meager hopes.

The point of the groaning is not a hatred of words, but a longing as great as God’s love. That longing is born from the Word of God.

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Where Romans talks about our own prayer life, the reading from the Book of Wisdom helps us apply the power of God’s word to our view of other people.

“Your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all,” says Wisdom. God is merciful not because he leaves things as they are, but because he is powerful enough to change them. Indeed, his “might is the source of justice.”

If God is so powerful that we can survive among the weeds, we have reason to hope that his yeast in us may even leaven the dead souls around us. There is no need to condemn others, but only to hope in the power of the promise.

How could we better let our view of the world be shaped by the promises God has spoken to us?

eric.m.johnston

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