PRE-NOTE: Welcome to the latest email recipients of "First
Impressions," those who participated in the retreat directed by
the Dominican Laity of Raleigh, NC
The Gospel has two parables in it and caution flags must be
raised for the preacher. We need to remember what parables are not,
before we begin interpreting them. The first tendency we have when
we read a parable is to make it into an allegory; so for example, we
try to figure what the "seed" represents, what the "ground" is and
who the farmer might be. Parables are not allegories even though
sometimes in the Scriptures a parable is "explained" later by
Christ. Such moments
are the exception. When Jesus "explains" the parable, it is probably
a case of the Gospel writer adding a later interpretation suited for
his own community and its particular needs.
Mostly, the parables are not explained in the gospels because
they are stories. Frequently they are introduced, as today's is,
with Jesus', "This is how it is with the reign of God." In other
words, Jesus is trying to describe for us what it's like when God is
in control of things, or what it's like when people are living under
God's rule. That's what the parables hold for us today, a way of
seeing our lives through another lens, through the lens of the
parable. We have our own ways of measuring our lives, we have
standards of "success" influenced by our environment, upbringing and
education. But these ways of seeing might even be in opposition to
the way Jesus would have us look at life and his rule. The parables
reveal Jesus' perspective and his followers need to give them a
Another approach, or tendency, we have when we read parables, is
to moralize them, i.e., to see them as instructions for how we
should behave. A better way to think of them, is as descriptions of
how God behaves and that they offer clues for how and where to find
God in our lives. Chapter 4, from which these parables were taken,
begins with a huge crowd gathering to hear Jesus. The crowd is so
large that Jesus gets into a boat to speak to them in parables and
says to them, "Listen carefully to this." (4:3) That's the
disposition we need today, to "listen carefully to this."
The chapter opening tells us that Jesus spoke these parables to a
large crowd. The end of today's section says he kept explaining
things to his disciples privately. Jesus' offer was to anyone who
had ears to hear; but not everyone got his message--- in fact, it
seems that only a few did. The parables demand a great deal from us
who listen, most basically, they require an attachment to Jesus and
an ability to trust his words and wisdom, despite immediate
appearances. In other words, to understand the parables requires a
previous tie to Jesus through faith in him.
To those who really heard him: Jesus seems to be saying, in these
two parables, that the great enterprise of God, has begun in Jesus –
but in small, almost imperceptible ways. These two parables are
called "transitional parables," i.e., something new is happening,
and the old is passing away. God is entering the world. God's reign
is breaking in. What kind force will it have with its arrival? We,
Jesus' early followers and the audience of the gospel writers, might
want a forceful beginning, a rapid overthrow of the world's powers –
immediate signs of
progress and triumph. All this would be very satisfying to us, after
all, we who like to watch sporting events frequently ask, if we are
late, "Who's winning?" As a nation, we pride ourselves on being
winners. Our citizens demand that when we act as a nation we get
things done – quickly and expediently. We want the evil powers of
the world overcome and are less patient with prolonged engagement.
We don't like complex processes that take time – like peacemaking.
We expect God, who is more powerful than any other power on
earth, to also be "efficient." Certainly God has it within God's
power to get things done. What's taking God so long? Why do we have
to put up with so much, for so long? Why aren't we seeing big
results in the world and in our personal lives? Jesus is addressing
these questions and doubts in story form through these parables.
The first parable – the farmer who scatters seed and goes off –
suggests that the beginnings of God's reign seem small and
insignificant, like seed spread on the ground. Notice that the
farmer does a minimum amount of labor, he scatters seed and then
forgets about it till harvest time. Anyone who has planted even a
backyard garden knows that's not how a crop gets to grow to harvest.
It takes a lot of work from us throughout the process to get fruits
from the earth. But that's not how this parable is told by the
Teller of parables. This parable would frustrate
workaholics like us and it is one we need to hear. There are
plenty of bible passages about how much we have to do; but at least
here is one that tells us there is another element at work in the
reign of God and it is a life force that will reach fruition, even
when we don't seem to have done enough to bring it about.
This is a consoling parable when we look at the results of our
efforts and wonder, "Just how effective am I?" This parable balances
the tendency in us to measure our efforts and look for proportionate
results. It seems to promise that, despite our efforts, failures and
successes, there will be a harvest – it doesn't all depend on us.
The first parable has no doubt in it. We can trust that, while we
are "scattering seed," there is set in motion an ineluctable force
that will come to fruition.
Today is our Sabbath. The day has ancient roots in the Jewish
faith: a day when all labors ceased, the Word of God was listened to
and God was praised. Maybe we need to acknowledge the Divine's
interest in our good works and efforts. Maybe this Eucharist, at
least, might be a celebration of Sabbath rest. It could be our
chance to renew our faith that God is part of our efforts, and in
fact is in charge of them. We are not in charge. We know that
because we get a parable about seed growing with minimal human
involvement – except to scatter and later to reap a harvest. It's
good to know it isn't all in our control; it's good to know another
force is present, causing growth and invested in the results.
If you want to focus on the mustard seed parable: the preacher
might invite hearers to call to mind those people who planted seeds
in our lives that caused surprising results. They might be those who
spoke words at a crucial time in our lives; those who, by their
example, were models throughout our lives; those who taught us in
school and got us excited about a subject or vocation; those who
taught us to pray, or have faith, etc. These examples certainly are
our own parables of the mustard seed, a small planting, a few words
or gestures, that had an abundant harvest for us.
for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
add my prayers to the warning given you about going on
too long in your sermons. We see from experience that
such wordiness hinders their good effect and serves only
to try the patience of the listeners, whereas a short
moving talk is often followed by good results.
---from the writings of St. Vincent de Paul
put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.
The use of nature as symbols for God’s action is often used in
scripture to describe how the Kingdom of God works. The Hebrew
language does not have words to express abstract concepts so objects
from nature are chosen for particular characteristics to convey
abstract ideas. The tall, majestic cedar is hard, close grained, and
takes a high polish. It is full of resin which preserves it from rot
and worms. Its oil was used as a preservative for parchments and
garments. The cedar has been revered for its spiritual significance
for thousands of years and thought to be an entrance to higher
realms. Its wood was used in construction of temples and burned in
cleansing ceremonies for purification. Cedar trees are everywhere
mentioned with admiration in the Old Testament. Solomon made cedar
the first of trees for the new temple (1 Kings 5:19-20). They are in
particular God's trees (Psalm 104:16). In today’s Psalm 92, the
cedar symbolizes how God’s just one will grow.
In building the Kingdom, God invites us to participate in divine
action to care for creation. In his newest book, They Will
Inherit the Earth (Orbis, 2018), John Dear writes, "Jesus
respected Mother Earth and pondered her mysteries as indigenous
peoples have always done--to find hidden clues about the will of
God. His peaceful, respectful, loving attitude toward the earth, her
creatures, and all human beings sets the norm for human life and the
way out of our madness. . .we need to return to that same kind of
nonviolent living and respect for one another, the earth, and all
her creatures. In Jesus, we find our way out, our way forward, our
way to peace." Pope Francis’ historic encyclical, Laudato Si:
On Care for Our Common Home, is a plea for humanity
to wake up to the environmental damage we are doing and to become
responsible stewards for future generations.
John Dear also give guidelines for living in solidarity with
Mother Earth that begins with grieving "for suffering humanity and
suffering creation." The more mindful we become of this suffering
"the more nonviolent and compassionate we will become, and the more
empowered we will be to take public action for justice and peace"
Will you become like the majestic cedar, "vigorous and sturdy"
and "bear fruit even in old age" (Psalm 92:15)?
Join Care for Creation Ministry at
Director of Social
Holy Name of Jesus
Cathedral, Raleigh, NC
Mini-reflections on the Sunday scripture readings designed for
persons on the run. "Faith Book" is also brief enough to be posted
in the Sunday parish bulletins people take home.
From today’s Gospel reading:
[Jesus said: "The kingdom of God is like...]
mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground
the smallest of all seeds on the earth.
once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of
We call to mind people who planted seeds in our lives that had
surprising results. They might have been our teachers who got us
excited about a subject or vocation, which lasted and grew
throughout our lives. They are our own parables of the mustard seed,
a small planting, a few words or gestures, that have produced much
So we ask ourselves:
- Who are the "mustard seed people" who have shaped our lives
by their words and actions?
- Are they still available to thank and tell them how
important they were for us?
POSTCARDS TO DEATH
"One has to strongly affirm that
condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that
humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out."
Inmates on death row are the most forgotten people in the prison
system. Each week I post in this space several inmates’ names and
addresses. I invite you to write a postcard to one or more of them
to let them know we have not forgotten them. If you like, tell them
you heard about them through North Carolina’s, "People of Faith
Against the Death Penalty." If the inmate responds you might
consider becoming pen pals.
Please write to:
- Lawrence E. Peterson #0320825 (On death row since 12/12/96)
- Henry L. Wallace #0422350 (1/29/97)
- Terrence Taylor #0539901 (2/18/97)
----Central Prison 4285 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC
For more information on the Catholic position on the death
penalty go to the Catholic Mobilizing Network:
Also, check the interfaith page for People of Faith Against the
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