Sunday, June 17, 2012
Parables For Patience
The discrepancy was huge. Jesus’ opponents must’ve ridiculed it. Undoubtedly, it must’ve bothered Jesus’ followers. There was all this talk about a kingdom, the reign of God. Yet all they saw was a common laborer, a carpenter, from Nazareth with a few motley Galileans, mostly fisherfolk. The discrepancy was huge. They weren’t wealthy or prominent or bearers of royal credentials.
To address this discrepancy Jesus, sitting in a boat on the lake, teaches his hearers, spread out before him on the shore, using two parables. His simple message is understandable and clear: the kingdom’s growth is God’s work and God’s business. From unpretentious beginnings God brings forth dramatic and fruitful results.
The first parable is unique to Mark the Evangelist. (4:26-34) It describes how seed grows secretly and silently while the farmer sleeps, then goes about his daily chores. The point of the parable is that God’s reign comes about through God’s power. It was meant to shatter the illusions of those who presumed to believe that they could, in any sense, manipulate or control God in sending God’s reign among us, or growing it. Detail after detail underscores this. The farmer plays a part only at the beginning of the process, as he sows the seed, and at the end of the process, when he harvests the crop. During the in-between time Jesus
describes the farmer as one caught up in the daily cycle of sleeping and rising, as though hardly paying much attention to the seed, and even being ignorant of how it actually grows. Meanwhile, under God’s loving care, nurture, and providence, without any human aid or supervision, the seed and the land accomplish their God-directed purpose. The seed grows and sprouts; the soil nudges and nurtures growth through successive stages, from blade to ear to full grain.
Jesus’ message isn’t meant to downplay the part you and I have, as human beings, in laboring to extend the reign of God. God has given to each of us important and unique tasks to accomplish, as well as the resources and gifts needed for that. But it remains God’s work, and the parable reminds us, warns us even, never to overestimate our role in the process or to disillusion ourselves that we can somehow “twist” God’s arm in order to create the kingdom in our own image. Jesus counsels us to be patient and to allow God to be God.
But appearances are often deceiving. You and I find it hard to wait patiently because we’re programmed, especially in today’s technological society, to see, measure and record progress. We become “antsy” in letting God have the free hand, whether in our individual lives or in that of the parish and the Church. It’s easy to become geared to a “success mentality”, where we relate the energy we expend to results obtained, and we often panic when the results or feelings or programs, or whatever it is that we want or expect aren’t instantly there. We’re not used to God using a far different measure and way of calculating.
Jesus is trying to convey to his hearers and to us that God’s reign doesn’t follow normal human laws of growth. God’s will and kingdom unfold and evolve according to God’s perfect purpose and timetable. We’re simply asked to set aside our usual way of assessing how things are or ought to be, and to give God the free hand to be what God in fact is: the Giver of gifts.
God’s kingdom, growing under God’s guidance, is the known quantity. Jesus sets up a second comparison, in the unmistakable manner of a rabbi, by asking: “To what shall we liken it...what image will help present it?” He goes on to describe the amazing process of a small mustard seed blossoming into a huge shrub. Since his aim wasn’t to teach botany, we shouldn’t be too shocked to discover that the mustard grain isn’t, in fact, the smallest of seeds. Nevertheless, its growth is spectacular by any standard: shrubs of this kind in Galilee can measure 8 to 10 ft. high. That should give us hope and encouragement regardless of how small or insignificant we see ourselves or our skills and talents. Thomas Merton says something to the effect that “God writes straight with crooked letters.” And that’s the point: God does the writing, the building, the growing, the increasing.
The discrepancy was huge in Jesus’ time. It still is when we compare the powerful corporate organizations of finance, industry, medicine, education or government with the struggling group of Jesus’ followers whom we call “the Church”. As we look at the Church and at our own parish today, perhaps we wonder how well the phrase kingdom or reign of God really suits us. Perhaps that’s why Jesus gave us these two parables which continue to baffle both the world and us. But they’re always at hand for anyone who discerns their word, their message: even as the Eucharist which we share today, using unpretentious bread and wine, proclaims the life-giving presence of the Giver of all gifts. The message of both, the parables and the Eucharist, is for you and me to take heart. God continues going about God’s work. God’s reign continues to grow and thrive. God’s kingdom, as we so often pray, will come.