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The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
during the coronavirus pandemic
July 19, 2020

Click here to watch Father Ryan give this homily. The homily begins at 26:00.

    Today’s scriptural menu is quite rich, I think. The gospel presents us with not one, not two, but three parables -- each of them a perfect illustration of the scriptural wisdom that God’s ways are not our ways. First we hear of a field where wheat and weeds grow side-by-side, then of a tiny mustard seed buried in the ground, and lastly of some yeast planted in a pile of dough.  And Jesus says, if you want to know about God’s kingdom and how God works in this world of ours, look at the weeds and the wheat, look at the mustard seed, look at the yeast.

     These parables, like all parables, are meant to get us thinking. They’re meant to surprise, to puzzle, to edify, maybe even to irritate – to make us scratch our heads and ask, ‘does this really make sense?’

     Let me say a few words about each of them. The meaning of the parable of the weeds and wheat seems obvious enough. Be patient: pull up the weeds and you may pull up the wheat as well. Best to hold off, to put up with some messiness, some uncertainty as you wait for the harvest.

     That’s clear enough, but there’s another interesting angle. In the Holy Land there is a type of weed that looks a lot like wheat. Even the trained eye can confuse the two. Only at harvest time when both have fully matured is it clear which is which.  And Jesus says, that’s the way it is with God’s kingdom.  Appearances can be deceiving. You can’t always be sure what’s what or who’s who. Sometimes the ones who look like ‘bad guys’ can turn out to be good guys.  And vice versa.  So, give them time, Jesus says.  Let them grow together. Don’t be in a hurry to judge. God is not. The truth will come out in the end.
     Now, I ask you, if you were building a kingdom, is that the way you’d do it?  I doubt I would.  Why not make things clear from the start -- black or white, no shades of gray, everything clear, unambiguous, without confusion?

     Some people long for a church like that – a church where everything is crystal clear and set in stone: where doctrines and dogmas eliminate any need for dialogue or discussion; a church where there are no questions, only answers; a changeless church with timeless teachings, rigid rules, and laws that admit of no exceptions.  No wheat and weed confusion there. Nice? Maybe. But today’s parable suggests that this is not God’s way.

     So the question arises: if God can tolerate ambiguity and a certain amount of messiness in this Church that is growing toward the kingdom, can we?  Can we live with and in a church that has some nagging uncertainties as well as many blessed certitudes, a church where change and controversy are part of the equation, a church, too, where saints and sinners live alongside each other, a church where the sinner sometimes turns out to be the saint?

     The parable of the wheat and weeds invites such questions.  So, by the way, does Pope Francis. He, not unlike the parable, disturbs our complacency and stretches our horizons – gets us to examine our ways in light of God’s ways which are almost always surprising. “There is no clear separation between the pure and the impure,” he once said. “Think of the Scribes who believed they were perfect, and think about so many Catholics who think they are perfect and scorn others. This is sad; it’s wrong.”

     The other two parables, the one about the mustard seed and the other about the yeast, give a further look into God’s ways.  God delights in the unlikely and the unexpected and sometimes the downright impossible. We should be used to that. It’s a story repeated time and again throughout sacred history: Moses, tongue-tied and hesitant, called to be the spokesman and the prophet; a ragtag bunch of slaves are God’s Chosen People; a young virgin conceives and bears a son; the eternal Word of God becomes human in a helpless baby; a crucified failure is raised from the dead and becomes the Lord of life. Such are God’s ways.

     Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom doesn’t get built the way we might expect?  Its beginnings are as negligible and unpromising as a tiny mustard seed planted in the earth, or as a bit of yeast lost in a mound of dough.  Nothing should happen but look at what does happen:  from the tiniest seed grows a tree where birds build their nests; from a little leaven rises a delicious loaf of bread.

     My friends, these parables are not about something ‘out there.’ They are about the Church. They are about us.  We are the mustard seed. We are the bit of yeast - we and every follower of Jesus from the beginning. Think of some of those followers: fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, the halt, the lame, the blind, the deaf, the poor, the hungry, the rejected.  Not a very promising lot! But then, how promising are we?  About as promising as mustard seed or yeast. But look what happened to the mustard seed; look what happened to the yeast. And look what happened to that ragged band of losers who followed Jesus around. They became foundation stones of the Church, the first citizens of the Kingdom!

     And we are in their number.  We are today’s mustard seed, today’s yeast.  Even with faith that is often little more than a small spark, even with our catalog of failings, compromises, and collapses along the way, God is slowly but steadily using us to build the kingdom. It may not be our way, my friends, but then it’s not our kingdom. It’s God’s Kingdom, and the seeds of that Kingdom are in the Word we have heard proclaimed and in the Eucharist we now celebrate and receive!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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