11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Being attentive to the work God is doing in the "parable" of our lives
After relating Jesus’ parables of the sower who went out to sow, the lamp, the seed that grows itself, and the mustard seed, St. Mark comments about Jesus’ teaching method: “With many such parables he spoke the word to the crowds as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.” (Mk 4:33-34). Why the use of parables? And why does he teach the crowd only in parables but to his own disciples he explains everything in private? Why this difference? Christianity is not supposed to contain “secret” knowledge for an exclusive group? Parables are stories that illustrate a comparison between a truth of faith and events of everyday life. They are designed, often with an unusual element different from usual experience, to grab the reader’s attention and get the reader to wonder how that can be - how does it work that way? If we can’t relate the truth to our real-life experience, it remains abstract, theoretical, and we don’t really understand the truth. But for the parable to be effective, we have to be attentive to our experience. We have to wonder about reality and how we fit into the big picture. If we are not asking questions about the meaning of life and are not attentive to the questions in our heart, any explanation that purports to answer that question will be of no interest at all. The parable in a sense proposes a riddle - a mystery, and if one is not provoked to seek an answer, the answer, even fully explained, will not make any sense. Unless our curiosity is awakened and we begin to expect an answer, we won’t be receptive to the truth. The parables are designed to awaken faith in those who engage the parable and desire to see how the Kingdom of God is relevant to life. Once that faith has been awakened by grace, it becomes open to an explanation. One is able to understand. Only when the disciples recognized in Jesus someone they could trust with their whole heart, were they able to receive the explanation. That attachment to Jesus - the choice to follow Jesus - comes first before any understanding. The crowd might find Jesus entertaining, but they remain spectators, not willing to ask questions and seek answers. The disciples have responded to the question, “What are you looking for?” and have begun to follow Jesus with the expectation that in him is the answer - that the answer will be given.
For those who engage the parable, Jesus teaches how to recognize the kingdom of God in our everyday lives. The kingdom manifests itself in something that grows and generates life apart from or despite our own effort. It is seen in something that generates fruit “of its own accord”. And, as in the parable of the mustard seed, the kingdom begins in a small, hidden, way - with something that appears insignificant, but then produces something way out of proportion to how it began. I see this often when hearing the story of how a couple met. When they describe their relationship in these terms, it is a sign for me that the relationship is of God’s making and not something that is merely the fruit of their own wishes and efforts. A couple that came in recently to make marriage arrangements met on-line. They both shared how frustrating on-line dating was. They were both about to give up trying when the woman noticed a funny picture this man’s profile. She could relate to the sense of humor captured by the picture and wanted to learn more. She messaged him and asked for him to text her if he was interested in meeting. She found in this man someone who really fit, in a surprising way, what she was looking for - she didn’t think that person could exist. He felt the same way about her. Like many couples, they spoke about the difference they found in their relationship - that it grew without a lot of effort on their part. It was “easy” and “natural” to be with the other and to grow with the other. The other and the relationship itself are perceived as a gift and not the fruit of their work. Like the mustard seed, the relationship springs up from something seemingly random and insignificant, but then it blossoms into something surprising beyond their expectations. It is often the case, like this couple, when we stop trying - stop trying to “make it happen” on our own, that the gift is given, that we become open to recognize and to receive the gift. Friends of mine shared with me recently (and I’ve heard numerous similar stories of other couples), that when they were first married they were struggling to conceive. After several years of trying and doing research and seeing specialists, they “gave up” and became open to adoption - to welcoming life according to God’s plan. To their surprise, when they stopped trying to “make it happen”, they conceived. I find something similar often in the way my homilies come together. It is not by studying and reading more commentaries that I get the idea for the homily. Usually, it is not me working on the homily that generates a good result but me being attentive to how God is working in the events of my life that I discover what to share. It is usually not when I’m working at my desk writing that the idea comes but when I’m going for a walk or a run or a drive and I’ve taken a break from trying to make it happen. As you might have noticed from the big letters and numbers placed in the yard in front of the rectory (a “gift” from the parish staff), I’m celebrating a birthday this weekend. When I look back over 50 years of life and especially over the last 18 years of priesthood and the 6 years of seminary formation before that, I’m amazed at the friendships that have sprung up in my life. These friendships have formed not because of my efforts. They’ve grown up all around me - like a large plant with large branches, and I look back and don’t know how it happened. They are a gift to me and a concrete sign of the Lord’s love and care for me. They are a sign of his great mercy. They are a sign of the Kingdom of God here and now. We don’t build the kingdom of God by our efforts. Rather, our work is being attentive to the work that God is doing in the “parable” of our life. Our work is being patient, receptive, and open to the mysterious way that God makes the growth happen. When we do that work, we can say with the psalmist, “Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.”