Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (23rd July)

In Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, there is a passage which looks on the Gospels of Jesus as an invitation, indeed a naive and diffident invitation, which says: “Wouldn’t you like to live in a new way?” This invitation of Jesus in the gospels most often comes in the form of parables. The parables are stories taken from the ordinary lives of the people of the time. As Séan Freyne put it, “By adopting and adapting the language of the simple people to speak about the kingdom of God, Jesus was privileging their lives and their world as the locus of revelation in terms of God’s care for the whole creation.” (The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion, p. 162). Today’s three gospel parables are from the lives of workers, both outdoors and indoors, in the overall context of nature; they show us how the kingdom works in practise.

The first parable about the darnell sown in the midst of the wheat spoke amusedly to the people of Palestine at the time: when sown it would have been impossible to tell the darnell apart from the wheat; it is only when the ear appeared that the difference could be clearly seen. Perhaps today the parable calls on us to recognise that we can never have a perfect Church or society: it is not up to us to decide who is wheat and who is weed. God must be allowed to do the sifting: the first reading in fact says of God “You govern us with great lenience.” The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast hidden in bread remind us that the insights of where the kingdom of God is operative in our world are most often discovered, not by the great, but by the ordinary people in church and society.

The second part of the gospel points to the fact that the hearers’ failure to understand the message of Jesus has more to do with unwillingness than with inability – what the Bible calls “hardness of heart. Psalm 40, for example, does not say “Bend my will to your will, O Lord,” but “Bend my heart to your will.” As the second reading points out, it is the Spirit who will help us have that openness of heart which we need to be able to live out kingdom values: the Spirit “helps us our weakness” even, and maybe especially, in our prayer.

The gospel ends with an explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds. It is likely that this is an addition of Matthew’s Church, given to strengthen Christians in the difficulties they faced in living out their faith. I think Jesus himself was too good a story-teller to explain the details of his story; we all know what happens to a story if one tries to explain it! So the parables of Jesus, as we listen to them in our Sunday gospels, continually invite us to “live in a new way.”

Céline Mangan, O.P.

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