16th. Sunday of Year (A)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, among those regarding themselves as devout Jews in the time of Jesus were at least two groups who claimed to be the ‘holy remnant’, alone faithful to the commands of Israel’s God-given Law in its fullness, and who thought they would, exclusively, usher in the coming Kingdom of God. Outsiders were, in the eyes of these two groups, ‘beyond the Pale’. They formed, so to speak, ‘closed’ remnants, small gatherings of those alone worthy to belong to God’s Chosen People because of their strict obedience to the Law of Moses, their passionate adherence to and observance of all their groups’ requirements for liturgical purity and traditional piety, and also for their own personal asceticism.
One of these two groups, the Pharisees, separated themselves from other people’s popular society but not from their physical proximity; the other, however – the monastic community of the Essenes at Qumran, near the Dead Sea -- carried out this separation to most stringent extremes. The Pharisees set out to represent the priestly character of God’s chosen ones in their spiritual practices; but the Essenes expressed this claim even in their clothing: each member of the order, even the laity, wore a white linen robe, the ceremonial dress of priests in office. The Pharisaic movement demanded ritual washing of hands before meals from all its members; the Essene community accentuated, and indeed exaggerated, this requirement to the extent that it demanded a full bath before every meal, in order to achieve the highest possible standards of purity.
And how exclusive these groups were! Even the physically handicapped were not allowed to belong to the assembly of the Essene community. So what hope was there for sinners?
Now, such separation from outsiders was utterly foreign to the community of the Church founded by Jesus, as was patently clear from the way in which He recommended His disciples to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to their table; and from His own sitting at table with the friends of Levi/ Matthew, the former tax-collector become a disciple, and uttering those most famous words of public reprimand to critical Pharisees:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:31s.)
What distinguished Jesus from these groups was the universality of His message of salvation: proclaiming the Father’s will to save all – without exception -- who would turn to Him; offering unlimited grace, uniquely able to bring about the eternal salvation of each and every person willing to repent in accordance with Jesus’ own proclamation of truth.
Of course, Jesus was aware that there would be a division between sinners and those ultimately chosen, for He preached a call to repentance, and not all want to repent from the evil of their self-promoting and self-satisfying practices which ultimately and inevitably destroy their hosts and perpetrators. In Jesus’ public and popularly-understood parables there were five wise virgins with five foolish ones, there were goats and sheep that needed to be ultimately separated. However, the final manifestation and separation is not for this world, and so there was and is still a chance for all who hear the Lord’s message, now become the teaching of His Church, to open themselves up to His boundless and all-powerful grace, and bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.
And so, in the field of the Church wheat and tares live side by side, not as in the parable, just for the exclusive good of the wheat, but also for the ever-possible improvement and benefit of the human tares; for the fruitless, sinful, and stupid members of the Church receive and can profit from countless blessings percolating down to them because innumerable saintly men and women have lived, and are still living, holy but largely inconspicuous lives … unknown to those around them but not unnoticed by God, Who for the sake of such fruitful and much-loved disciples of Jesus, pours out His innumerable blessings on all in the Church. We cannot know how much each of us may owe – perhaps even something of decisive significance – to some simple, holy person we neither knew nor would perhaps have sufficiently appreciated if we had known them. Conversely however, and we should never forget this, every time we knowingly sin, we harm the whole Church by impeding the full flow of grace throughout the whole Body, just as when some cell or organ fails to function appropriately in our own physical bodies.
But the wheat and the tares growing together are not only to be found in a farmer’s field as in Jesus’ parable, not only in Mother Church, but also in our individual lives; and some saints -- for example, the Curé of Ars -- are known to have asked God to let them see their sins as they really were. The holy and humble Curé, however, was unable to bear the horror of the sight allowed him, and he immediately besought God, of His great mercy, to withdraw the vision.
Even the so-called, at times self-styled, ‘little sinners’ – massively insensitive as they are to the grace of God -- find their lives pretty intolerable under stress, as a very famous French philosopher, Blaise Paschal, wrote centuries ago:
‘Whoever fails to see the vanity of the world must be vain himself. For who does fail to see it except those young people surrounded with noise, distractions, and dreams of the future? Now, take away their distractions and you will almost see them dry up with weariness; they then feel their nothingness without recognizing it; how unfortunate it must be to find oneself in unbearable sadness as soon as one is forced to think about one’s self, one’s own state, and not to be distracted from that thought.’
Again Paschal wrote: ‘If our condition were really happy, we would not find it necessary to seek our happiness in distractions. How many people – especially young people – can endure a quiet night, day, week? And yet, if we really were happy we would not want distractions, amusements, all the time.’
Well, that is what Christian life is all about. It is meant, in God’s great goodness, to give us real happiness, true love and fulfilment, deep peace, and unshakeable hope; it is meant to make us fully human, more human than any irreligious life – no matter however charismatically endowed and successful -- could ever make us; for Jesus Christ alone was and is Perfect God and Perfect Man possessing the keys of life and love both here on earth and in heaven.
This week-end we have some very topical and comforting teaching concerning Mother Church in Our Blessed Lord’s three parables.
First of all note that God puts good seed in His field of the Church by drawing souls to Jesus through the discipline of faith and the obedience of love. The enemy (the devil, do not forget him!) slyly puts in some pseudo-seed of his own, and such seed can – and, as Jesus tells us, is allowed to -- grow to maturity with the wheat, and even at times to stand upright alongside it, proclaiming to all the world, ‘Look at me, how tall I have grown, just like wheat; look how good and holy I am too!’. The devil can also produce other weeds by perverting some initially good seed or making it disfunctional. This presence of weeds in Mother Church should not cause alarm – Where have the weeds come from? -- it is sad indeed when friends or loved ones are involved, it is also humbling at times to our pride and/or indolence, but it is always a clear warning for Mother Church that her true seed needs to be further protected and more deeply cherished against something about which Jesus has warned us from the very beginning, and about which the Apostles, especially Paul and John in their letters, who -- following the Lord and Love of their lives -- were not afraid to serve His memory with such a commitment to His pure teaching and so ardent a love for the spiritual well-being of His disciples and children, that led them to speak with a clarity and decisiveness often considered too risky and unpopular for some politically over-sensitive prelates and priests of today.
Dear People of God, reverence, respect, and whole-heartedly trust Mother Church for the good seed sown in her and growing to maturity through her teaching and sacraments; that good seed which is still bringing forth good fruit for the Lord and which -- when left standing and shining in its sunlit and golden splendour after the weeds have been collected and burnt -- will be found ready and worthy to be ‘gathered into the Lord’s barn’.
There are also many in the world looking for and aspiring to Mother Church. The mustard seed parable tells of the little birds, not flying to the ‘mountains’ for human help:
In the Lord I take refuge, how can you say to me, ‘Flee like a bird to the mountains’? (Psalm 11:1)
but finding shelter and rest from storms and predators in the shelter of the Kingdom: for the sceptical, so insignificant and powerless; for those of faith and self-commitment, so comprehensively sustaining, protecting, and inspiring.
The parable of the leaven shows us yet another essential aspect of the Kingdom of God here on earth in which the power of Mother Church’s teaching, worship, and fellowship can not only illuminate some of the pressing human questions and resolve certain of the immediate personal difficulties we encounter daily, but which can penetrate to the very core of our being and raise up the whole tone of our life to transcendent aspirations and blessings that lead ultimately to heavenly and eternal fulfilment and joy.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ we owe such much to our Blessed Lord for this time of His glory and our refreshment! To Him be glory, honour, and our whole-hearted and most grateful thanks now and for ever.