Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
Today’s readings contain some pretty down-to-earth facts about growth in the spiritual life. Along the way we get some insights into aspects of human reactions and attitudes that we generally find difficult to practise; things like forgiveness, patience, understanding.
Wisdom 12:13. 16-19 The first reading is from the book of Wisdom, generally referred to as the Wisdom of Solomon. It belongs to the apocrypha, that is, those sacred writings that were not part of the Hebrew canon, mainly because they were written fairly late, within a century or two before the time of Jesus. A select number of these books, like Wisdom, Sirach, Judith were highly respected by the early Christians and so were included in the Christian canon of Scripture.
The author of Wisdom is unknown, but he was a Jewish scholar living in Alexandria, most probably 50 or so years before Christ. The central figure of his book is Sophia, Lady Wisdom, who first appeared in Jewish tradition some 400-500 years earlier in the books of Proverbs and Job. She is portrayed as a personification of God’s influence, wisdom and communication with humanity.
The basic sign of goodness is genuine compassion
One key idea we can take from today’s extract is that goodness, justice and graciousness come from strength of character. These are not characteristics of passive personalities, and the author points to God who is mild in judgment and patient with human frailty.
The basic sign of goodness is genuine compassion that is triggered by the ability to see the potential in others.
Our author concludes with the conviction that we have every reason to be optimistic and filled with hope because no matter how low we stoop we will always have the chance to be forgiven when we turn back to the Presence in the spirit of Come back to me with all your heart. (Joel 2:12).
One of the common words for ‘forgive’ in the Hebrew Bible is nasáh, which has the root meaning of lift or raise up. Forgiveness is always a raising up. Think how a word of encouragement or a simple smile can give someone a lift. No human being ever deserves to be written off. What can I do today to give somebody a lift?
The psalmist is crying out to God for help against enemies, but his confidence is based on God’s track record of always being there for the needy ones. He highlights the graciousness of God and puts his trust in divine unwavering love.
There is quite a volume of scholarly debate about Paul’s meaning in these verses, but that does not prevent us from taking a rich message from them. If we allow the Spirit to influence us and be our help, then we become Spirit-filled people. In other words we are open to the Spirit and not stubbornly wedded to our own ideas or point of view. In this state of submission to the Spirit our prayer makes sense and is worthwhile.
Prayer is not making speeches to God
Paul says words are not the key factor in our prayer. I was at a talk not so long ago where the speaker presented a fairly high-powered set of ideas and tips about organisational management and at the conclusion said to the effect ‘Let’s finish with a Hail Mary.’ Without even touching the brakes he whipped through the Hail Mary. He had me thinking: wouldn’t it be a tad more effective for the audience to take a few quiet moments to reflect on the talk and discern what the Spirit could be communicating? This would be a Spirit-filled prayer. Paul is clearly saying that rattling off formulas may not be prayer in touch with the Spirit.
After all, prayer is not making speeches to God who, as Paul wrote, knows our hearts and knows what we need.
Jesus offers us a genuine prayer in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector where the latter is the villain of the piece in the opinion of Jesus’ audience. For most of Jesus’ listeners the Pharisee is the good guy, the community leader, and yet his self-centred prayer is clearly not Spirit-filled. The tax man, with clarity and self-reflection, acknowledges his situation, is not proud of himself, and knows his need for divine graciousness. His prayer for God’s compassion is genuine and he is on the pathway to growth.
Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the darnel is the second of only two parables that are followed by explanations.
The idea of a parable is that the hearers are left to work out a message for themselves. Their imagination is stifled if they are given an interpretation. We need to get a message from the tale that fits our own spiritual circumstances.
Darnel, by the way, is a noxious weed that looks like wheat in the early stages of growth.
We can easily forget that Jesus begins by saying this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, that is, good guys and bad guys together. But we thought if the kingdom of heaven was heaven – there should be no bad guys there. Here is a perfect example of the idea Jesus had of the nature of God’s reign. It is the here and now if we make it so by signing on to and living out the values and lifestyle of the community of God. ‘For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ (Luke 17:21)
Am I nurturing my spiritual life to become what I can be?
We can also overlook some poignant applications of this parable when we read the explanation and see ourselves as the good seed and therefore subjects of the kingdom, while the bad guys are the subjects of the evil one. All we have to do is hang in there and God will sort things out in the end. But there is more. The good seed grows to fulness and becomes ready for harvest.
If I am part of the good seed am I progressing and growing to wholeness? Am I nurturing my spiritual life to become what I can be – mature in the spirit? Or am I wasting energy on passing judgment on the other seed alongside me? Do I have any right to dismiss another person as a ‘weed’ or can I see their potential and encourage them to grow, not by preaching, but by my graciousness and my quiet example?
This parable can teach something about timing. Do I respect timing and readiness? Can I discern when the right time comes for ...whatever? The master of the house urges his workers to be patient with the growth process and let the two crops come to full maturity. Then each plant will show its true nature. Hitting the right timing is crucial to moving towards a balanced and agreeable outcome.
Nothing good happens without action, effort and resolution
I think the discernment process Jesus undertook shows good sense and an appreciation of good timing. An idea had been brewing inside him. Listening to John the Immerser inspired him; many of his ideas found a home in the message and prophetic action of John. After John is arrested Jesus follows up the Spirit experience he had with John and is convinced God is with him. He takes time out in retreat and prayer to discern his next move. Will he do the prophetic thing he feels called to do? He is tempted to play safe and not stick his neck out – all prophets get criticised and persecuted, and yet nothing good happens without action, effort and resolution. He is under no illusions about the obstacles and difficulties that go with speaking out publicly about injustice, corruption and misguided religiosity. But God is his main backer and he may well gather others. He knows he needs support and cannot do it alone. The time is right; do it.
I believe Jesus did not have it all figured out at the beginning, but so many dots were being connected for him from his upbringing in Nazareth, to his observation of what was not clicking in the religious life of his people in difficult times, to his encounter with John, to the Spirit-filled call that became fire in his belly, to the clarity he now had about how he could contribute to the spiritual life of his fellow Jews. Having organised his priorities he grabbed opportunity by the throat and committed himself to action.
You will never ‘find’ time for anything. If you want time you must make it - Charles Buxton (19th century English MP, philanthropist, writer)
I feel that luck is preparation meeting opportunity - Oprah Winfrey
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty - Winston Churchill
A man walked into a bank to hold it up and he gave the teller a note. It read, ‘This is a stick-up. Put all your money into this bag.’
She passed a note back to him that said, ‘Fix your tie. We’re taking your picture.’