Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Do you believe in Miracles?

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

One problem we face in understanding Scripture stems from our false sense of familiarity; the shock value is naturally lost on the familiar. This is what has happened to the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. But let’s try to read the story as if we were hearing it for the first time. Better still, let’s imagine ourselves as one of Jesus’ disciples, and experience the feeling of shock and incredulity on hearing the request (or was it more of an impossible demand) made by Jesus. The simplistic solution of Jesus to feed the multitude of five thousand with only a meagre ration must have been perplexing. Do the maths! You don’t have to be a genius to know that this is humanly impossible. And so it was quite natural for the disciples to express their perplexity at the logistics of Jesus’ food division. No way will this plan work.

Perhaps, we who often style ourselves as modern sophisticated folks will be quick to deny that we actually believe in nonsense like miracles. A whole movement arose among Biblical scholars, about a century ago, to explain away the miracles of the Bible. In this case, they decided, Jesus didn’t really feed the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes. That couldn’t have actually happened.  Thus, a common approach for preachers would be to say that what probably happened was that the disciples took those bits of food out into the crowd, and the crowd was so inspired by Jesus’ words and the action of the disciples that they began to take out the food that any sensible person would have brought with them when you go into the desert, and they began to divide it up amongst themselves. And so, after everyone shared their food with each other, there was more than enough for everybody. That’s much more plausible than this pleasant fairy tale about a miraculous multiplication.

If this indeed is the proper interpretation of the above story, then the virtue that should be emulated is that of generous giving and sharing. There is nothing wrong about generosity. In fact, generosity is a much needed virtue. Most parishes, including this, could do with a little more generosity from its parishes. However, this point misses the mark by a long shot. Notice that Jesus doesn’t argue with the disciples about the scarcity of food nor does he reprimand them for their selfishness. Facts are facts. Five loaves and two fish are visibly limited resources when considering the needs of five thousand. And in a way the disciples were right. The way the real world works is much more about division and subtraction rather than multiplication. The entire field of Economics exists to address that problem: how best to divide up, allocate, and use those limited resources, and it permeates our lives in countless ways. But, here the problem isn’t about economics, nor is it about our lack of generosity, nor even the little supply of resources. The real problem is faith, or rather their little faith in what Jesus can do.

In our modern, sophisticated, and scientifically rooted world, claims of miracles are often distrusted and treated as either ravings of the mad or the primitively superstitious or just another phenomenon that has temporarily not received a logical and scientific explanation yet.  The word "miracle" comes from the Latin word for wonder and, literally means "a sight to behold." Thus its usage in common speech often signifies the wondrous, the improbable, or the newly discovered. Sometimes people tend to refer to natural events such as the sunrise, seasons, birth, and coincidence as “miracles.” Likewise, we also speak of the miracle of modern medicine, science, or technology. Many of these items are in some way wondrous. But to apply the term "miracle" to any of these, however, is to omit the most distinctive feature of a miracle: God's direct intervention in the world. God has not abandoned us!

More accurately and traditionally understood, a miracle is a supernatural or a preternatural sign or wonder, brought about by God, signifying His glory and the salvation of mankind. It is a call to faith. As a sign, a miracle is perceived by the senses and makes present the supernatural order, God's governance of nature, and His loving plan of salvation. A miracle of grace, such as a sudden conversion of a notoriously evil man, would be a supernatural miracle because, even though the act of conversion is invisible, it manifested by visible acts. All other miracles are divine interferences with the physical laws of nature. They are preternatural, which means beyond nature, and visible. Matters of faith, such as Our Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament, are a mystery, not a miracle in the strict sense, because the reality is not visible to the human eye.

Miracles ultimately point to how God acts in our lives. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is Himself God's revelation. The most fundamental miracle is therefore the Incarnation. All of salvation is rooted in the Incarnation, and so it is with miracles. It may be said that the Incarnation is the "miracle of miracles." Through the Incarnation, the Invisible Deity is made Visible. While the Incarnation is the root miracle of salvation, the Resurrection is the definitive and ultimate sign of Christ's divine authority.  It is clear that those who consistently reject the possibility of miracles will often end up demythologising both the Incarnation and the Resurrection – that is, that God didn’t really become man, nor did Jesus really rise from the dead. For the skeptics, the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery are all part of the Christian myth, together with miracles and a whole load of other nonsense.

Thus our belief in miracles of Christ ultimately affirms his divinity. Christ performed these miracles not just to dazzle us with the spectacular. A magician or an artist could easily do the same. Rather, miracles will always have as their primary purpose the glorification of God and the calling of people to salvation. The signs worked by Jesus attest to His divine authority and invite belief in Him. They were signs of the Kingdom of God breaking into our world. After His Ascension and Pentecost, Christ's disciples worked miracles in the name of Christ, thus giving the people signs of His divinity and proofs that He is who they said He is. In the same way later saints worked miracles to testify to a higher authority and that people are called to His kingdom.

Miracles aren’t about altering or defying reality. On the contrary, miracles point to the “heart of reality” – to the way things are supposed to be in overcoming the way things are; which is always pretty surprising when we think “the way things are” is all that there is. Where we see scarcity God sees abundance. When we see dead ends, God sees beginnings. When we see the failure of sin, God sees the victory of redemption. And so those scholars who want to rationalise miracles are missing the whole point. Miracles are done to show, not simply tell, that God’s abundance is more real than the world’s scarcity; that God’s love is more real than the world’s brokenness; that God’s reconciling, vivifying, multiplying grace is more real than the world’s division and subtraction. Miracles, in expounding the power of grace over the limitations of nature, remind us that a marriage has not failed just because we have exhausted all human efforts at reconciliation. Where there is still faith, and hope and charity, there is the power of grace that brings healing and forgiveness to even the most impossible of situations.

In an age of science, we need to reaffirm our belief in miracles. We, of course, do not go in search of them, for what is contingently good ceases to be so, when it is desired for itself without reference to the Ultimate Good, which is God. God is the author of miracles and it is He who must decide when a miracle is deigned necessary.  Miracles are never meant to distract us from God. Rather, their essential purpose is to indicate that the human person is destined and called to the kingdom of God. Instead of insatiably hunting for the miracles of God, we should refocus our attention in searching for the God who stands behind those miracles. And in our single-hearted search for God and his will, He sometimes deigned it proper to reveal a miracle to strengthen our resolve and spur us on to greater heights. Miracles therefore act as signposts pointing the way that we need to take, reassuring us of God’s presence especially in moments of doubt, and finally, breathing new excitement into our faith. These signs therefore confirm in different ages and in the most varied circumstances the truth of the Gospel, and demonstrate the saving power of Christ who does not cease to call people on the path of faith. By contemplating these special graces, it is hope that we may come to love and recognise him daily in the ordinary situations and seasons of life where God is most certainly present and alive!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Be Joyful Sowers ... but don't forget the Darnel

Feast of St Anne

It’s just been a week since we last heard the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel, and here we go again. As you may have heard preached over last weekend masses, the parable highlights the paradox of the Kingdom. It exposes the problem of evil intermingled with good. The truth that the darnel and wheat will always be found together is inescapable logic, but it is still difficult for many of us to accept especially when it comes to the Church. In his book, The Gulag Archipelago, the Russian author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, says, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." And so, no matter how society tries to legislate or separate out the criminals from the rest of society, the seeds of sin find a place to grow.

It always seem, in spite of our best efforts, that evil would exist alongside the good, the forces of death will always accompany those of life, the counterfeit will always be mixed and confused with the genuine. We are constantly witnessing the unfolding of this cosmic drama; an interplay of shadow and light and yet the story ends on a high note. It is the good, the life-giving, the true, and the righteous that will be vindicated at the end. Christ will triumph over every kind of evil. No matter how messy this world looks right now things will get straightened out, and we shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of our “Father”.

The parable thus offers a double consolation to its hearers. First, it reminds us that the world we live in will always be messy and less than perfect and we don’t have to be obsessive about cleaning up every little mess. Second, the presence of evil will not be a perpetual state of affairs. The separation of evildoers and the righteous will take place at the close of the age and not before. Judgement thus seems to be delayed, but it is certain. But this begs the question, Why the delay? The first reason for the delay in judgment is lest the good be uprooted with the bad. It is never a question of letting the guilty go free but rather of not condemning or hurting the innocent. Notice that the farmer in this parable does not spare the darnel for the sake of the darnel, but rather spares the darnel for the sake of the wheat. The second reason points to the absolute sovereignty of God’s authority. God has his own way of judging the wicked and vindicating the righteous, and he will not be pressured into adopting some other method or timetable for either. Those who wish to mete out summary justice may end up usurping the power of God to judge and to put things right.

Thus, the virtue advocated by this parable is patience. Patience isn’t about tolerating evil and sin – one can never do so. Rather, patience recognises that all the suffering and mess we are presently witnessing or experiencing is not the final chapter of the story. As St Paul reminds us in Chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, that the whole creation is caught in the grip of birth-pangs, the labour pains of a new creation. Though the darkness seems endless and overwhelming, we are convinced that God’s new world is on the horizon and approaching. Peace and liberation are coming and patience calls us to hope in God’s deliverance. Thus, patience is born out of a confidence in God. Neither must we mistake patience for apathy. Patience is not inaction or indifference. It is not collusion with evil. It is a cautious attitude that informs what we do and that is willing to wait, taking the long view rather than rushing to the quick-fix, and believing that God will have the final definitive say and not evil.

Today, as we celebrate the Patronal Feast of this Parish, the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel serves as a fitting conclusion to the theme of the “Joy of the Gospel.” It is a necessary reminder that the mission of the Church is not to destroy but to sow. Thus, our Holy Father calls Christians to be missionaries of joy “fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit.” The problem is that instead of being bold witnesses of the Joy of the Gospel we have gotten good at complaining, whining, arguing, demanding, and destroying. Our sowing thus has suffered. Today is the day we must acknowledge and confess our failings.

In focusing on our mission to sow, however, we should also not be na├»ve to dismiss and ignore the power and work of Satan. It was Venerable Pope Paul VI who rightly reminded us that we should not feel smugly secure that the power of Satan lies outside the visible Church. Rather, he prophetically saw that “from some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God”, the Church. Satan has sown the seeds of discord, of disbelief, of doubt, of dissension, of disunity within the Church, and we must be constantly on guard against this, less we be taken in by his lies. Nevertheless, the Joy of the gospel provides us with a grounded hope that the Enemy would not be able to undo the work of the Sower. The enemy is a cowardly loser who is no match for the Sower. And so, in spite of the often bleak assessment of the state of affairs of the Church, its flock and its leadership, we must place greater trust in the Sower, that He will not abandon his Bride the Church, rather than resign ourselves in despair as we sink into to the murky chaos of our troubles.

As I had mentioned, the parable and the message of the gospel are never meant to lull us into hapless apathy, a pious quetism that ignores our responsibility in the world. The gospel certainly does not intend for us to just warm the benches while the story fatefully plays to its pre-ordained conclusion. There is a crucial role that we must play. As Christians we are called to challenge the values and lifestyles of those around us and point to a better way. We must have “the courage to proclaim the newness of the Gospel with boldness in every time and place, even when it meets with opposition.” The message of the gospel must rise above the twin ideologies of relativism and political tolerance. We are called to be a dissenting voice in society but we are not set up as its judges. “In our dealings with the world,” our Pope reminds us, “we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns.” We must cease being invisible Catholics. Our faith must be visible and tangible. We must allow its alluring Beauty to once again draw all peoples to Christ and to His Bride.

In choosing to be ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world,’ we must also avoid both isolation from the world and capitulation to its cause. Isolating oneself is akin to salt losing its taste and the light of our lamps being hidden under a basket. In isolating ourselves, we passively allow the darnel to take over the field till there’s nothing left of the wheat when harvest time comes.  On the other hand, capitulation should never be the option. Capitulation confuses the difference between the wheat and the darnel, between the good and the bad, and between the Truth and a lie. In accepting all opinions, all lifestyles, it ultimately excludes what is True, what is Good, and what is Beautiful. Of course, it goes without saying that it is much easier to swim with the current rather than to swim against it. It is always the popular thing to tell the world what it wants to hear. The challenge is to tell the world what it needs to hear. The Joy of the Gospel is thus not a gospel that makes us narcissistically feel good about ourselves. True joy can never be a cover up. Rather, it is the joy of encountering the One who died for us on the Cross, so that the good may triumph and the bad, ultimately vanquished.

Thus the joy of the gospel calls for a Church which has to open its doors to sinners who are in need of forgiveness; to the sick who are in need of a remedy. But again, we must be clear about what we are speaking of here - we should not mistake the darnel for the wheat. One must always seek to reconcile a sinner to God, but one ought to never reconcile sin to God, since the two stand in direct opposition to each other. The very act of reconciling a sinner to God is purging him or her of that sin which separates us from each other in the marriage with God we were created for. Condemning sin is an act of love, not of judgment. The open Church does not mean we have to give sinful lifestyles a stamp of approval because true joy is never the result of a free license to sin but that of freedom from sin. The sacramental economy of the Church is offered to those who are able to acknowledge their illness, their sins. It is certainly wasted on those who feel no need for a remedy. Joy is never the perpetuation of a lie but the beautiful exposition of the splendour of the Truth. The Church is indeed a field hospital, as our Holy Father beautifully reminds us, for the sick who come in search for healing, it is certainly not a place for those who claim they are hale and hearty.

Christianity gave to the world something from which it has never recovered, and that is a belief in a better world to come, a perfect world from which all evil and wrongdoing have been banished. According to Christianity, history has a goal. There is an end-point towards which we are moving – we call it the Kingdom of God, we call it Heaven. One day this old world order with all its pain and suffering will come to an end and a new kingdom of peace established. Now, what is crucial is that in the Scriptures, as in today’s gospel parable, this Kingdom of God is not something that we as human beings can bring about. We can remove the obstacles. We can and we should challenge and resist evil wherever it may be found, especially within us. But we are under no illusion that we can ever create the kingdom of God on earth – we must wait for God. No confession can make us automatically into living saints who are totally freed of the struggle of sin and temptation. No social, political or economic answer can ensure that we no longer have to face war, poverty, conflict, and suffering. For this reason, we Christians do not suffer from optimistic idealism, neither are we weighed down by the harsh and often painful facts of reality. On the contrary, we are realistic about what could be achieved in transforming the world and are thus spared the disillusionment that comes from failing. The world and universe of perfection will come, that we are certain! But for now, as Jesus wisely counsels, “let them both grow till the harvest,” as we wait for the Lord of the Harvest to come and conclude the story.

Seek Wisdom Above All

Seventeenth Ordinary Sunday Year A

We are bombarded with information like never before, due to the availability of and speed of access to data via the internet. Relationships are built that exist only in cyberspace; new religions are founded in the same place. If in the past, we would read editorials, features in magazines and books to determine what people are saying, today, the internet has allowed access to countless of opinions with just the click and the roll of the mouse.  Research has taken on an entirely new meaning with the dawn of the Google search engine and Wikipedia. But the real setback and downside of this informational deluge is that we are unable to separate the wheat from the darnel, the true from the false.

Perhaps, what we really need is not an information overload, but wisdom.  Today, wisdom has become for many, indistinguishable from knowledge. But the two are very different. Often, what we find touted as wisdom is simply opinion. In fact, wisdom itself can be shattered by too much information. Here is where we need to make this important distinction – knowledge does not equal wisdom. Knowledge can help us to make something, provide us the tools to use it, and the means to find it. But only wisdom can teach us the true value of things. Wisdom is the sure path of comprehending the absolute Truth, which is God himself, as the Proverb affirms, “The Fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom.”

That begs the question, what is wisdom? In Greek, the New Testament word for wisdom in the Greek language is ‘Sophia’, which refers to a concept, an object of philosophical speculation. To be wise to a Greek meant to understand a concept, to analyse something, to think about it, to come to a comprehension with regard to it. That's not the word in Hebrew. The word in Hebrew is ‘chakam’, and shares a common etymology with words related to judgment and the Law. Thus, ‘chakam’ refers to skill in living. The concept of wisdom in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament therefore pointed to a form of practical knowledge – its making all the correct choices in life – to make right judgments. Wisdom is not simply factual knowledge or information. Neither is it some clever opinion. Rather, it is insight into the very nature of things, the reality of things. Wisdom helps us to distinguish Truth from falsehood, the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly.

This was the kind of wisdom that King Solomon had asked for – the ability to grasp the mind of God, his Laws and to distinguish good from evil. Strangely, this is the same knowledge coveted by Adam and Eve and which they attempted to steal from Eden. They failed to recognise that they already had this gift at their disposal. It was God’s to give; not for them to steal. It was not as if they did not have knowledge of what was good or bad. God told them that the fruits from the entire garden of Eden was good. The exception was the fruit that came from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, of which God had warned them was bad. In their hubris, they sought autonomy from the will of God and the rest is history. If Adam and Eve had chosen to discard the will of God, Solomon desired to know His will. He could ask whatever he wanted of God and God would have given it.  But he chose wisdom, which was far more valuable than all the power and treasures the world could offer. 

The first two parables in today’s gospel, the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, teach us about the incomparable value of Wisdom. Both parables highlight the single-hearted response that is demanded when one finds the Kingdom of Heaven. Both protagonists didn’t haggle over price. Nor did they bemoan what their acquisitions would cost them. On the contrary, they made their transactions joyfully, because what both men stood to gain was so tremendous that it made any cost, any sacrifice, any leap of faith insignificant in comparison. In the eyes of the world, their actions would have been regarded as foolishness. Only Wisdom would show that they had made the most significant investment of their lives.

The parables also teach us that Wisdom is never easily accessible. In both parables, the treasures are hidden, indicating that spiritual truth is missed by many and cannot be found by intelligence or power or worldly wisdom. The theme of hiddenness lends weight to the idea that such wisdom is sacred. In today’s society, the idea of mystery and ‘hiddenness’ is often associated with elitism. Most people demand accessibility and intelligibility. For example, a common point made by many is that a person cannot fully participate and appreciate the liturgy unless he is able to sufficiently to understand every single aspect of it. This point is often made when discussing the wisdom of using Latin text for the ordinaries in the Mass. The problem is that accessibility is often mistaken for banality, pandering to the popular. In our effort to ensure accessibility to the masses, we have chosen to adopt a pedestrian language, a dumbing down, to the point that we have to abandon both the theologically rich language and imagery for the empty and the banal. In the name of accessibility, our worship has descended into a flattened and disenchanted liturgy. On the contrary, the Liturgy seeks to express the mystery of the holy and the enduring, and not just what is current, contemporary and transitory. People often fail to acknowledge that even if the participants do not perhaps understand every single word, they still can perceive the profound meaning, the presence of the mystery, which transcends all words. It is when a mystery becomes totally comprehensible, that it ceases to be sacred. Likewise when a treasure is no longer hidden, it ceases to have value. The familiarity which accessibility breeds often leads to contempt.

The parables also remind us that the most valuable things in life, and the Kingdom must certainly rank first, involves not just an element of sacrifice, but is essentially sacrificial. Both of these parables involve men had to make sacrifices, selling everything that they had to obtain their treasures. There is a cost of salvation, if not it would be ‘cheap grace,’ in the words of the German Lutheran martyr of the Nazi era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer  There is a heavy cost involved in being a follower of Christ, and Jesus wants us to understand that. I realise that I’ve grown up in a generation that doesn’t know much about sacrifice. To people my age, the hardships of the past that our parents had to endure are just boring repetitive stories about how terrible things were in the ancient long, long ago. We’re used to having things easy. And sometimes that attitude carries over into our own Christian faith and lifestyle. And so we want to enjoy all the blessings of the kingdom, but we don’t want to do anything, we don’t want to give anything, and we certainly don’t want to sacrifice anything.

Even though great sacrifice is required, it is never a burden. Holy Wisdom will help us to appreciate that the Kingdom is always a source of Joy. Notice the joy of the discovery as well as the joy of parting with one’s possessions to acquire that treasure or the pearl of great price. These men do not just sell everything they have, but they do so with exuberant joy. There is no regret in their actions. We hear no complain about the sacrifice that has to make. Perhaps the real test of a disciple’s commitment is not so much whether he is willing to make sacrifices for our Lord, but whether he is able to make those sacrifices with joy.

Finally, Wisdom is not just a concept of speculative value. And wisdom here need not stop with practical knowledge. In fact, Scriptures would eventually speak of wisdom as a personified attribute of God.  It is here where the New Testament writings begin to demonstrate that Christ himself is the “power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). The Divine Logos, the Word, became the manifestation of Sophia, Holy Wisdom. Christ is the Perfection and the Incarnation of Wisdom. He is the physical embodiment of the words of wisdom. St Irenaeus reminds us that Christ himself “is the treasure hidden within Scriptures” and according to St Augustine, the one pearl of great price, is Christ Jesus, and no other.

Contemplation of holy wisdom is certainly quite relevant in our present day and age. How many sincere parents have been fooled into thinking that the best education can be gained at the best school. Our children may indeed receive the best education but come no closer to wisdom, they have no time for awe and wonder, not time to contemplate the marvelous works of God. St John Bosco, the wise educator said, “to cultivate only the intellect, abandoning all the other human faculties, is to deform man.” Man needs to contemplate the good, the beauty and the Truth of the Universe around him, so that he might form an idea of the absolute goodness, beauty and truth of God, so that he can come to love God with his whole heart, soul and mind. Man must come to discover the treasure hidden with the profound mystery of the Liturgy, a sacred mystery that must be guarded and not sullied by our demands for banal innovations and accessibility. It is wisdom that allows man to know and love the creature, but above all, the Creator. Therefore, the truly intelligent is the man who seeks Wisdom. Today, let us come to love Wisdom, for in doing so, we come to love Christ, the perfect Incarnation of Wisdom. And finally, it is in Him that we will find the perfect antidote to the false worship of knowledge so prevalent in our days.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

God subverts the Undesirable

Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday Year A

This week’s fare is a set of three parables offered for our consternation. Parables often complicate faith. They seem to be contrary to our present modern culture’s impatience with the mysterious and the cryptic. We want statements of faith that clear, concise, unambiguous and palatable. In fact, we want our lives and the world to be perfect, devoid of messiness and troubles. Thus, the perennial search for perfect understanding, for Shangri-La and the Final Solution to all our troubles. The parables of Christ, however, subvert this desire to make faith simple and understandable and life uncomplicated. Instead, they demand our eternal return to their words, our wrestling with them, and our puzzling over them. I would often like to think of the parables as part of the Divine Comedy. And just like any kind of a joke, they utterly fail if you have to explain them, you either “get it” or you don’t. Except that the parables are no joke, they’re a matter of life and death.

After listening to complaints from parishioners for over ten years, I’ve come to realise that the common request or suggestion is that I should summarily reprimand, remove or dismiss all the ‘troublemakers’ in the parish. My usual reply is that if I were to act on every complaint, including the complains I get about the complainers; I would end up sacking over 90% of the people in the parish! But I guess this tendency goes beyond the parish. We seem to have a natural human desire to root out and destroy all that troubles us. We want to look for the final solution to our problems. But in doing so, we end up devising greater suffering. Perhaps, the best example of this point is found in the Nazi’s Final Solution – millions of Jews and other nationalities and differently able persons had to die in this mad search for perfection.

The opening parable of today's gospel is loud and clear: If we want to be faithful servants of God that can produce a fruitful harvest, we must be ready to live alongside those we perceive as darnel or weeds. The counsel of Jesus is prudent, “Let them both grow till the harvest.” It is a reminder that life can be messy and we need not and should not play God. . Since this is God’s Kingdom, he sets the agenda, he lays out the path, and he determines the deadline. The problem is that the difference between the wheat and darnel is not always going to be obvious, and that there is potential danger of mistaking the good for the bad, the will of man for that of the will of God. Furthermore, one may find both wheat and darnel mixed up within every person. We may risk getting rid of the good in our zealous desire to root out the bad

Next we have two parables which are usually given a highly sedated interpretation of illustrating how the Kingdom of God can have humble beginnings. But let’s remember that the parables are not just simple allegorical stories.  And just like the paradox of Jesus’ life, they are intended to disturb and unsettle and throw everything off balance. And so we have the seemingly harmless parable of the Mustard Seed. What harm can we see in this? Most of us are familiar with mustard sauce, the White man’s substitute for our Asian chilly. Little do many realise that the mustard tree can grow like a weed and, like a weed, it’s virtually impossible to manage, and before you know it, it’s taken over the whole garden; hardly the kind of plant that you would wish to see in your vegetable and fruit garden. Furthermore, there is the matter of the birds - they may strike us as a charming touch, but as we Klangites can attest, they are probably crows, and therefore an ever-present threat to the crops. Thus, the parable provides the early listeners with a startling metaphor. Jesus uses a parasitic plant which has dangerous invasive take-over properties, which attracts undesirables, and which is allowed to grow to enormous proportions, to describe the Kingdom. 

And then there is the parable of the Yeast.  A woman takes some yeast, mixes it with flour, and the dough rises. Most of us like this parable. It makes us feel all warm and domestic and safe - just the way we like our religion. But this is not what it’s meant to be. This yeast is actually more accurately called leaven. Leaven isn’t your yeast that you can buy off the shelves of those sanitarily clean health food stores. In fact, it’s rotten dough. Leaven is unpleasant, disgusting, leaven stinks. Leaven in Jesus’ day was considered so foul that it was deemed to be ritually unclean, and it was banned from use in the Temple. On the eve of the Passover, the entire household will undertake a hunt of leaven within the house in order to remove this offending foodstuff ingredient. Indeed it had come to symbolise evil. And look how much flour the woman in parable uses to mix with her leaven- forty litres, half a hundredweight, enough to feed 150 people - a ridiculously enormous quantity! Something very odd, almost sinister, is going on here, as in the parable of the Mustard Seed. What is Jesus suggesting with this surrealistic image?

One thing we can be sure of is that Jesus is again setting out to shock his listeners on purpose. I mean, he says that the utterly holy - the kingdom of God - can only be understood if we compare it with the utterly unholy, loathsome leaven, and the undesirable, mustard. So put away any ideas that, in the world, proclaiming the kingdom of God will have about it the sweet smell of success. Indeed, don’t be surprised if it actually puts people off. Quietly, secretly, stealthily, subversively, the kingdom of Got rots away from within any expectations we may have of respectability, success, glory and the nice. The Kingdom will expand in ways that we can hardly anticipate and that will surely amaze and confound us.

So our three parables. Hardly, you’ll agree, bedtime stories for children. Not all about comfy-cosy rural or domestic scenes, nor about the squeakily clean and pristinely perfect. In fact, pretty disturbing images, upsetting our preconceived notions about God. Here we see that the growth of the Kingdom is always a messy affair. It’s made of the same stuff as the sharp pungent tasting mustard, and powerful, putrid leaven. Here we see that the kingdom is not only not in our control but has a way of getting completely out of control, and that it spreads not through mighty campaigns and crusades but, like a contagion, in hidden, seditious ways. God does not only tolerate the messiness but in fact subverts the messiness and uses it as the raw material of His Kingdom. Here we see that the kingdom belongs to people at the edge, poor people, disenfranchised people, invisible people, and that the kingdom comes to us precisely through the odd, the strange, the unexpected other; and, conversely, that it undermines and overturns the self-serving interests of self-righteous. And here we see that the kingdom can only be imagined - and re-imagined - not in spite of, but because of, small and trivial beginnings that will yet transform the world in unusual and unlikely but in fact quite natural and, if disruptive, certainly nonviolent ways.

The Kingdom of God has a tension. While we live here on earth, the Kingdom is messy and imperfect and in progress. We long for the time when the Kingdom will be complete, but for now we have to recognise that this is the way that God creates and works and brings good life. God allows the mess. He demonstrates the value of the mess through the death of His Son on the cross. In the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good…. If God can take the greatest of evils and turn them for the greatest of goods, then how much more can he take the lesser evils which litter human history, and turn them to his good purpose as well. The cross demonstrates the veracity of these parables – God can subvert the worst evil for the greatest good, He can bring an unexpected blessing out of the most inexplicable form of suffering.