Power and mercy

We're getting into state fair season, and for three weeks we're hearing parables of farming, fields and food preparation. Though many of us may know little about baking and even less about farming, that's not the biggest problem we face with this week's readings. We're dealing with parables: The one sure thing is that message is not going to be what we would expect.

In the first parable, God is depicted as a farmer who looks out at a field of wheat and exults, saying, "What great soil I've got here! Look, the weeds are growing as well as the crop I planted!"


Sixteenth Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Psalm 86
Romans 8:26-27
Matthew 13:24-43

Well, actually, the planter didn't go quite that far. In fact, he sensibly deduced that some enemy had collected weed seeds and then sneakily planted them under cover of darkness. Perhaps his logic for not weeding was that if the unnamed enemy had gone to that much trouble, nothing would stop him from repeated incursions or even something worse. Whatever his reasoning, he forbade his enthusiastic servants to fix the field according to their specifications.

Second, we hear of God the gardener planting a mustard seed. What we may not realize is that for a first-century audience, Jesus might as well have been talking about planting kudzu, the rapidly spreading plant that has been known to take over power lines and highways in the deep South. Likewise, the mustard plant was invasive and deadly to its garden-mates. Its prodigious growth was rarely considered a blessing.

Finally, we hear of God the baker-woman who starts with three measures of flour -- a mere 50 pounds! She might have been worried, but, the bacteria (leaven) did its trick, fermenting it all. Not one of these parables is dealing with the "ordinary."

Our reading from the Book of Wisdom is an extraordinary prayer of praise. It extols God, the powerful judge of humanity. So far, so good. But, to disabuse us of our well-measured sense of justice, listen to how God is described. The God praised here wields power through lenience.

This God sounds a bit like that crazy landowner who left the weeds to grow. Room to grow may be the very divine gift these readings talk about. Just look at the last line of the Wisdom reading: "You gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins."

Idolatry was one of Israel's perennial problems, and although we may not think it tempts us, Wisdom is here to challenge our theologies. One of the great temptations to idolatry is the assumption that God agrees with us: the temptation to make God in our image and likeness.

Today's Gospel and the reading from Wisdom call us to recognize that God is different from what we might expect or want. While we'd like to police the world and eliminate the wrong, if not all the wrongdoers, these readings say that's not our job. The Gospel tells us that God can tolerate weeds far better than we can; and comes close to forbidding us from taking punishment into our own hands. (Sounds a little like Pope Francis, no?)

Does this mean that we are to sit back and pick daisies while the innocent suffer? Not at all. We are called to trust that the kingdom grows like a weed, that it leavens the dough, not because we understand the chemistry, but because we were willing to do the work to put them together. Today's readings call us to believe in God the all-merciful revealed in Jesus, then to trust in God's creative goodness, not usurping God's role as judge.

That may seem beyond us -- especially when evil seems both obvious and overwhelming. That is when we need to pray as Paul taught us to. Paul challenges us to believe that the Spirit can bear the burden of our weakness and can pray in and for us, leading us in the kind of prayer that opens us to God's will.

Parables are designed to disconcert us. Today, they promise that God's kingdom is coming, and not in the way we would have expected, maybe not even in the way we want. God, the lenient farmer, the gardener who goes against logic, the woman who prepares a village-nourishing banquet of bread, has promised that the Holy Spirit will work like that in us as well, if we allow it. The more we open ourselves to that Spirit, the more we will appreciate and learn to be more like God, the merciful. So, as summer hits its peak, look at the fields as signs of our prodigal God, or check out the lawn and ponder how nourishing dandelion greens can be.

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA, a charitable foundation that supports work with people with disabilities in Ecuador.]

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