Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 20, 2014
Wis 12:13.16-19, Ps 86, Rom 8:26-27, Mt 13:24-43
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
From fertile disciples to fruitful apostles
Last week, Jesus gave us the parable of the Sower, Seed and Soil, to indicate to us how he wants us to receive his Word and his work within us. We know from our basic knowledge of farming what normally occurs once a seed has been implanted in good soil. It starts to grow and eventually produces fruit and those fruit likewise contain within many seeds that can then be planted elsewhere. Spiritually the same thing is supposed to happen. With a hat-trick of different images in today’s Gospel, Jesus describes that transition from a fertile disciple to a fruitful apostle in which we begin to share what God has implanted within us. He teaches us three very important realities about how the kingdom of God grows. Insofar as each of us has been called and chosen by God through the Church to enter into and expand that kingdom, these three parables are deeply relevant to who we are and what God calls us to do. In one parable, Jesus tells us first that the Church, like a mustard seed, starts small but will grow to be huge. In a second, he adds that the members of the Church are meant to function in the world like yeast does in dough; we’re supposed to make everything rise. In the third, he states that the Church’s growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is also “an enemy” in the field, sowing weeds, to try to wreck God’s harvest — in other words to destroy you, me and those we know and love. All three images are meant to guide us at every moment of the Church’s life. Therefore, let’s look at each of them in greater depth.
From Tiny Seed to Huge Shrub
The first parable is that the Church begins like a tiny mustard seed. On the front cover of the bulletin, there’s an image of just how small a mustard seed is in comparison with human fingers. We can ask: What is that seed? Or more accurately, who is it? It is Jesus Christ, the seed, the grain of wheat, who fell to the ground and died (Jn 12:24), but when he rose, his Church began to grow and to extend throughout time to all the places of the world. From the seed of Christ, dead and risen for our salvation, from this one person in Palestine, the God-man, the Church was born and grew, grew into the largest of shrubs, in which countless people throughout the ages, including whole nations, have been able to come and find shelter in her branches. That tree continues to live today, right here and how, and we’re in it. But we’re not only in it branches, but we’re part of that tree, along with all Christians throughout the ages past and to come. Together with Christ, as branches on Jesus the vine (Jn 15:5), we are the Church. The branches of the Church extend throughout the whole world, in areas of great sunshine and of great darkness, with all of us taking our roots in that one event, that one piece of soil on Calvary, that one seed that feel to the ground three times and died, but rose again, like a plant in springtime, giving life to all of us throughout time.
We see this pattern of growth from a miniscule mustard seed into something big throughout the history of the Church. So many religious orders and apostolates that the Lord has raised up to help the Church began small, often with one saint, but over the course of sufferings and patience, they grew to be enormous. So many parishes began with just a handful of poor, committed families, but over the course of years and decades, with sacrifices, time and the help the Lord, grew to be quite large.
The grace of becoming a mustard seed again
Sometimes we can ask ourselves, though, whether what Jesus said about the mustard seed has an expiration date. It seems that many religious orders, many parishes, even whole dioceses, are experiencing not continued growth but shrinkage. Many of the religious orders that were thriving sixty years ago are now aging toward extinction. In the city of Fall River, we’re closing Churches rather than building new ones. Does this parable still have meaning? Of course it does! The Lord gives this parable for every age. If we’ve gotten smaller, the Lord has permitted it so that we can all experience anew the full meaning of this parable, through beginning again, beginning smaller, like the new mustard seed planted from the tall tree. He wants us to experience for ourselves the exhilarating growth of the mustard seed. He wants us to root ourselves ever more in him and experience growth with him. As we do, we have every hope that, just like thousands of times before us in the history of the Church, we’ll get bigger again and many others will be able to nest in the branches that will come from this union in future generations. We just need to trust in him like the first Christians trusted in him. We need to trust in him like the founders of religious orders. We need to trust in him like the first generations of parishioners who sacrificed so much to build Churches on firm foundations.
The truth is that when the Church has become as big as a middle eastern mustard tree as seen on today’s bulletin cover, we can forget many of the lessons that God teaches us in this lesson of the mustard seed. When the Church is a tree, an enormous institution, many people can stay on the peripheries and neither share in nor contribute to the growth God wants to bring about. They can convince themselves that there are thousands of potential volunteers so that they don’t need to step forward; that there are dozens of big benefactors to help the parish make ends meet, so they can keep contributing what they always have; that there are multitudes of catechists to pass on the faith to newer generations, so they can keep their Sunday mornings for errands; that there are scores of beautiful voices to sing in choirs, so they can keep their God-given talents for themselve; that there are hundreds of kids to serve at Mass, so their children can continue to prioritize sports; that there are huge quantities of those to spread the faith to others, so they don’t need to work at spreading the faith. But when we become closer to the size of a mustard seed, we can’t pass the spiritual buck in the same way. We need to step forward. All hands must be on deck. This is a grace. But it’s also a challenge.
Many of those who, for example, grew up when a parish was the size of a full tree need to make the transition of greater commitment required when the church has become closer to the size of a mustard seed. It’s not possible to be a spectator and somehow expect that everyone else will provide the necessary resources for a parish to grow. Our parish, like all parishes in Fall River, is closer to the size of a mustard seed than the Old Notre Dame and Immaculate Conception Parishes were in the 1950s when they were jam-packed at every Mass all weekend long. If we’re going to experience the growth that both of our mother parishes witnessed, we need to go back well past the 1950s, to 1874 and the early 1900s, to the time when both parishes were being built, and learn the virtues of those who responded to God’s graces to build both parishes. Like them, God is asking us to contribute the time he’s given us, the talents with which he’s endowed us and the resources he’s loaned us so that we can grow anew from a seed to a large shrub. Today’s parable is a promise and image of hope: if we begin really to live in the kingdom, to allow what God wants to do in us fully to happen, the growth that happened before will happen again. After all, if the Lord could take his mother, a few women and twelve relative nobodies — eleven of whom cowardly abandoned him in his moment of great need — and transform the entire world, then he can clearly do the same with us here in Fall River, if we but have similar faith. The Lord Jesus wants us to be the living 21st century illustration of this parable.
Leaven Lifting Everyone Else Up
The second image Jesus gives us today to describe the growth of his kingdom in the Church is of the yeast in bread. The bread is the whole world and we Christians are called to be the leaven. One Christian in a neighborhood, or one truly Catholic family on a street, should be enough over time to transform that neighborhood and that street if the Christians don’t hide the light of our faith under a bushel basket (Mt 5:15). Similarly one true Christian — or a few of them — in a school or in an office complex should be enough over time to impact all the rest. The true Christian, Jesus is saying, is the opposite of a “bad apple.” We know that one bad apple can quickly corrode a whole bushel. Christians are supposed to be the good apples. We are supposed to be the yeast that can make the whole world rise to God.
During my studies in Rome, I used to love to compare stories and strategies for preaching the Gospel with future priests from around the world. I remember once we were talking about evangelization and an African seminarian told me that, unlike in many parts of Europe and North America, when they want to spread the faith they don’t concern themselves with producing slick fliers, books, videos and CDs for people to read, watch, listen to and devour. Rather they ask for a family to volunteer to move into another village and just live the faith with joy, spreading it as good news through friendship, or, on occasion, being willing to spread it through becoming a martyr for it. And in these parts of Africa, the faith is growing by leaps and bounds. They become the yeast that the Lord places in the dough of surrounding cities.
There’s a simple application off the same principle I’m asking of all parishioners this weekend. I’m not going to be asking you to leave your house and move to a town in northern Canada. All I’m going to do is ask you to change your seat at Mass so that you can be leaven for others and others can be leaven for you. In the bulletin I’ve written an article with seven reasons why we as a parish family should be sitting together when we come to Mass. I ask you to take that article to your prayer. But if we, collectively as a parish community, are going to be leaven for each other and then for others coming, we need to be and behave as a family, as a true community, and we all know that families who love each other sit together when they come to Mass. So I’m asking everyone beginning next week, to start to come forward to the center pews up front. The bulletin article will explain the reasons why this will help us grow in faith, but, based on today’s Gospel, I’ll simply say that the leaven can’t raise the dough if the leaven remains on the opposite side of the kitchen from the dough in the oven. You can’t be leaven for others if you sit far away from others and you can’t receive the leaven of others’ faith either. Presently if guests come and see us scattered all over the Church, we look like a Church that doesn’t care about each other, a community of acquaintances rather than a family of faith. How different it would be if they came and saw all of us sitting together, worshipping together, getting truly to know each other, lifting each other up as leaven always does. That would be a community they would want to be part of.
The Lord wants us at St. Bernadette to be the yeast of this entire city. He wants us to be leaven here inside the oven of the Church and he wants us to be leaven as we go and announce the Gospel, taking it out and living our faith in a way that, like yeast in dough, lifts everyone else up to God. Through our joy, through our conversation, through our Christ-like self-sacrificial love, through our modesty and morality, the Lord wants to use us to transform all of society from within. One person can do so much.
Just think about what Blessed Mother Teresa did in Calcutta. One small Albanian nun in a city sprawling with millions. She just started caring for people left to die in sewer drains. Soon others joined her. And she and they have had a dramatic impact not just in Calcutta but throughout the whole world, including here in our Diocese, where her sisters continue to be missionaries of charity in New Bedford.
We can look at the example of so many other saints who have been similar instruments for the Lord, like St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus to which Pope Francis belongs. When St. Ignatius was a young knight convalescing in a castle after having his left leg shattered by a canon ball during battle, he read the best knight romances that one could find in the early 1500s. Bored by them, he asked what else there was, and when given a choice between a Life of Christ and the Lives of the Saints, he decided on the latter, because he wasn’t much interested in the life of Christ at that point. But after reading about the lives of these saints, the ambitious young knight was filled with a holy ambition and he began to ask, “Why can’t I do what Francis has done? What I can’t I do what Dominic has done?” He knew that with God’s grace, he, too, could do something great for God, that if he said a similar yes as they did, that if he allowed God to use him as leaven, God would be able to do great things through him. And that’s what God did, founding through his yes the largest religious order of priests in the world.
We should ask the same question. If the Lord was able to use Francis, and Dominic, and Ignatius, and Mother Teresa as leaven, then why can’t he do the same with us on the scale of our family, or workplace, or school or neighborhood. But to carry out this mission, we need to be willing to take the Gospel into unleavened areas and live our faith with joy to the full. This is, of course, how the mustard tree continues to grow.
Good seed and bad
But we need to grasp that this growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Jesus’ third parable concerns the fact that while the Lord wants this growth to be occurring, there is an enemy trying to sabotage his plans. Jesus identifies the enemy straight out as the devil. At the same time that the Lord is trying to sow good seed — who are “children of the kingdom,” you and I if we’re truly in his kingdom giving the King the homage he is due — the devil is sowing those who are beholden to him and to his lies. They are the anti-yeast, the bad apples, who rather than lifting everyone up toward God, bring people down, to behave without faith or supernatural vision, to behave more like proud devils, to behave morally sometimes like animals. Jesus describes that the weeds are “children of the evil one… who cause others to sin and do evil.”
Does anyone deny that these weeds exist in our world and that the field of our nation is becoming more populated with them, from those pushing abortion and the redefinition of marriage and the family, to those getting states to sell drugs, to television channels and websites pushing pornography, to politicians seeking to eliminate religious freedom, to celebrities exhibiting irresponsible, materialistic and hedonistic lifestyles? Whether they realize it or not, they are under the sway of the evil one, living by principles antithetical to the Gospel. These weeds, and many others, affect others’ spiritual growth. Some of these weeds are even in the Church, those who are more attuned to the spirit of the age than to the Holy Spirit, who oppose what God is trying to do, who speak or act contrary to Church teaching or the ways that the Holy Spirit is bringing about a revitalization if it goes contrary to their own tastes and preferences.
The good seed and bad seed exist together and grow up together. Any farmer today might ask why in the parable Jesus didn’t let them take out all of the weeds. The reason given was because that we might also lose the good seed. As you can see in the graphic I’ve placed within this weekend’s bulletin, the weed and the wheat Jesus is talking about in the middle east are indistinguishable during the early phases of growth. Not even expert farmers can tell the difference between them. When they grow enough to distinguish between them, their roots are so intertwined that you can’t separate them without ripping out the wheat by the roots as well. So one needs to let them grow, take them all out and then separate them on sifting tables, lest the good wheat be contaminated by the toxic fruit of the weeds. By this parable Jesus is saying that the same patience and prudence have to be exercised with the proclamation of the kingdom. The good seed and the bad seed, the children living according to the kingdom and those living outside the kingdom, grow up side by side. We really can’t tell the difference between them, especially early in life. We can’t judge by present appearances. We need to wait until the end when Jesus himself will judge.
Pope Francis commented this morning in his Angelus reflection that there is a sharp “contrast between the impatience of servants and the patient waiting of the owner of the field, who represents God. We are sometimes in a hurry to judge, classify, place the good here and the bad beyond. But God knows to wait. He looks at the ‘field’ of every person’s life with patience and mercy. He sees much better than us the dirt and the evil, but He also sees the seeds of good and looks forward with confidence for them to mature. God is patient, he knows to wait.”
The lessons of this parable should fill us with two reasons for hope. First, Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t be surprised or overly discouraged when we find “bad seed” in the Church, those who, for example, live contrary to the Gospel, even those among the Catholics of our family and neighborhood, even those who teach, even those who, as clergy and religious, are supposed to be living by the highest standards of all. Jesus tells us in this parable that there is going to be some bad seed. But he also tells us that while such weeds can provide frustration for the farmer or for the Christian, they ultimately can’t stop the growth of the good seed! He tells us that we need simply to keep growing until harvest time, to keep living our faith with zeal until the end, asking him to help us bring about much more good seed.
The second point of hope is that we never know whether even those who seem to be weeds may, in the final analysis, turn out to be wheat. We need only to think of St. Paul who as Saul opposed the kingdom but after his conversion became one of that kingdom’s greatest apostles of all time. We can also think of great St. Augustine, who when he was young fathered a child out of wedlock, cohabitated with his girlfriend, lived in a morally dissolute way, but then, after the prayers of his mother for so long, converted and became one of the greatest teachers of the faith. Even someone we know who is passionately living contrary to the kingdom may be given the grace of conversion and become one of the great saints, bearing much good fruit what once seemed to be just weeds.
Becoming Good Seed, Leaven and Growing into a Tree with Jesus at Mass
At this Mass, through these inspiring parables, the Lord wants to strengthen us to carry out this crucial mission of the spreading of his kingdom and the salvation of the world. He does so not just through planting the seed of his word through our ears into our hearts, but by planting himself, the mustard seed, into our mouths and digestive tracks through Holy Communion. From within, he wants to grow on good soil, so that others, in seeing us, may see more and more of his fruit on our branches. He wants us to root ourselves ever more in his passion and death, and experience the mustard seed’s growth within so that we might share that exponential growth with others. He wants us to become his yeast, leavening all around us, both inside and outside our parish. And he wants us to realize that unless we work with him for the salvation of others, many will be lost. There will be a harvest when the wheat and the weeds will be separated forever and he wants us to do all we can, together with him, for that harvest to be rich in good fruit. Jesus wouldn’t be calling us to this mission to be good seed, mustard trees and leaven unless he were prepared to give us everything we need to fulfill it. He gives us that “miracle gro” fertilizer here at Mass, where he tells us anew, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear!”
The readings for today’s Mass were:
WIS 12:13, 16-19
that you need show you have not unjustly condemned.
For your might is the source of justice;
your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.
For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved;
and in those who know you, you rebuke temerity.
But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency,
and with much lenience you govern us;
for power, whenever you will, attends you.
And you taught your people, by these deeds,
that those who are just must be kind;
and you gave your children good ground for hope
that you would permit repentance for their sins.
PS 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16
You, O LORD, are good and forgiving,
abounding in kindness to all who call upon you.
Hearken, O LORD, to my prayer
and attend to the sound of my pleading.
R/ Lord, you are good and forgiving.
All the nations you have made shall come
and worship you, O LORD,
and glorify your name.
For you are great, and you do wondrous deeds;
you alone are God.
R/ Lord, you are good and forgiving.
You, O LORD, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in kindness and fidelity.
Turn toward me, and have pity on me;
give your strength to your servant.
R/ Lord, you are good and forgiving.
Brothers and sisters:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened
to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.
When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.
The slaves of the householder came to him and said,
‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?
Where have the weeds come from?’
He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’
His slaves said to him,
‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds
you might uproot the wheat along with them.
Let them grow together until harvest;
then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters,
“First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning;
but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”He proposed another parable to them.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed
that a person took and sowed in a field.
It is the smallest of all the seeds,
yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants.
It becomes a large bush,
and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”
He spoke to them another parable.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast
that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour
until the whole batch was leavened.”
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables.
He spoke to them only in parables,
to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation
of the world.
Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house.
His disciples approached him and said,
“Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man,
the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom.
The weeds are the children of the evil one,
and the enemy who sows them is the devil.
The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire,
so will it be at the end of the age.
The Son of Man will send his angels,
and they will collect out of his kingdom
all who cause others to sin and all evildoers.
They will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun
in the kingdom of their Father.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”