Cambridge, MA. It is mid-summer — exactly half way between the end of the spring semester and the start of the fall semester – and so a precious quiet time in academe. The Center for the Study of World Religions occupies several of my hours each day, but here too there is a summer lull. I am still working on my book, on the Song of Songs and parallel Hindu mystical poetry, drawing into the light one word and one insight at a time. (I promise to update you, one of these blogs...) I go to India soon, for lectures and classes and visiting friends in several cities, and will surely blog also about that trip.
But today I cannot help going back to the quieter basics of this Sunday’s readings, how the Gospel in particular, with a little help from St. Paul, invites us to listen more carefully for the reality of the work of God in our world. At Mass, we continue listening to Matthew 13. Jesus continues to speak in parables, this week with three more:
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. ?While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well… His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds, you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”
He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” (NRSV)
Each parable has its own power, of course, but it strikes me that the three, taken together, lead us step by step deeper into the world of living faith: Does faith make a difference? Is the world different because we keep the faith, believe in God’s promises? Is only the faith of great saints important enough to matter? Jesus’ answers encourage us not to lose heart.
If the world seems a total mess, and whatever there is of faith and goodness is hopelessly entangled in ambiguities, evil, and sheer waste, we must be patient: by the end, the wheat will sort itself out from the weeds, and the harvest will be plentiful. If we are still skeptical, feeling that this hope works only when there is lots of faith – as it were, a whole field of wheat to battle the weeds – we must see how far the littlest glimmer of faith goes: if the tiniest of seeds becomes the largest of bushes, even a tiny, fragile hints of faith can change world, offering refuge to those in need. And if we do not see faith making a difference at all – as if the world is simply the world, going its own way, faith no longer an issue, and things turn out well enough anyway – then move past the mustard seed example to the even subtler, more invisible power of yeast: the tiniest percentage of a loaf of bread, this yeast is invisible, untasted, seeming neither to weigh anything or do anything, and it is so tiny that is makes mustard seed look very large indeed. To those who cannot see, faith may seem to make no difference and be unnecessary. And yet without this yeast, the dough remains a wet, heavy lump, no matter how long we bake it. Jesus reminds us not to see the world from the outside, but to look deeper into the nearly invisible power of God at work in everything that happens. Such is the encouragement of today’s Gospel.
It occurred to me though that this message is rather subtle, and may seem to be only for those who already have great faith, and not for the rest of us. We may find ourselves unable to live as if today’s three parables are true. So it is at this point that today’s reading from Romans comes to the rescue: Likewise the Spirit strives to aid us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, and that very Spirit entirely intercedes in supplication, with sighs not in words. God, who searches the heart knows what is the wisdom of the Spirit, for the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (8.26-27)
That is to say, even if we ourselves cannot believe what we hear, cannot connect our lives with the work of God in the world — the mystery is happening inside us, already. When we cannot pray, cannot see with the eyes of faith, have no direction in our spiritual lives, no words for what we believe, it is still the case that the Spirit cries out within us, connecting us to God even when we do not know how this could happen. If the mysteries of the weeds, the mustard seed, and the yeast tell us about how God works around us, despite all appearances, this brief message from St Paul tells us that the same power is rising inside us too.
So we need not be gloomy, depressed, reactionary, worrying about the world so much as to cut ourselves off from it. The world in which we live, right now, is the world where faith is at work, growing day by day to its fruition. Sometimes there are weeds to be pulled; sometimes, it is simply a matter of growing extravagantly; sometimes what happens is simply hidden, in front of us, or inside us. But the end point is not in doubt.