Jesus proposed a parable to the crowds. “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.”
Today is the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. From its beginning as the Company of Jesus, the members of the Society were to see themselves as companions and disciples of Jesus. According to Ignatius, in every word and deed they were to seek “the greater glory of God.” To serve the glory of God is to be a servant of the hidden kingdom of God that Jesus describes in today’s gospel. As the two parables suggest, being a servant of the kingdom is to serve a reality that is largely hidden from view and yet is the source of the world’s life and the home which is the true destiny of all.
In the parables by which Jesus describes the Kingdom of heaven, he illustrates that the Kingdom, like the mustard seed, is small and largely insignificant, yet, when fully grown, it is a home for any and all birds of the sky. He also says it is like yeast in the dough, that is, its work is hidden and so unrecognizable. The yeast is giving life to “the whole batch” yet its power is indiscernible. These parables suggest that there is something distinctive about work that is to serve the Kingdom, that is done only to “the greater glory of God.”
The work of the servant of the Kingdom, of the disciple or companion of Jesus, is a work that requires both appraisal or discernment and endurance. Because the life of the Kingdom in the world is “hidden from the wise and the clever,” that is from the perspective of much of what tends to be societal and cultural value, it is not always easy for one who longs to be a servant to appraise what to do and how to do it. Jesus seems to teach that one who is truly a disciple must first realize that she or he is blind. The servant of the Kingdom is always, to varying degrees, stumbling about in the dark.
In the Xaverian Fundamental Principles we are called to
Stand ready to answer
if you are available for God
to become more present in your life
and through you to the world
may you willingly respond:
Let what you have said be done to me!
To “stand ready” for what we are asked means to dare to respond wholeheartedly but tentatively to the call. The summons of the Kingdom to us is, no doubt, pure and direct, but we can humanly only receive it somewhat ambiguously and tentatively. As Adrian van Kaam says, we are formed “by trial and error.” The great consolation of the parables of the Kingdom that Jesus offers is that our doing the best we can, while being ready always to learn and to change, does serve and nourish the “building” of the Kingdom. Even our failures are a part of the leavening of the dough.
This is why we need to be very cautious in our use of the term “to build the Kingdom.” We often attribute that term to our successes and effectiveness. The gospel seems to tell us, however, that our sense of potency and effectiveness is not necessarily the same as the silent and hidden growth of the Kingdom. If the Lord is to increase, says John the Baptist, we must decrease. If we and the Kingdom are formed in trial and error, it well may be that in our errors and failures, and our willingness to stand ready to adjust and change in the face of them, that the Kingdom truly manifests itself.
In a homily which Pope Francis gave on this feast day in 2013 he called to mind the image of Francis Xavier’s dying in utter destitution and poverty as he looked at China in the distance. We serve the Kingdom as we become “more available for God to become more present in . . . [our] life and through . . . [us] to the world.” Our functional society has no appreciation for the kind of work that really constitutes the life work of most human beings, a work in which we spend ourselves until we find ourselves empty of our own designs and projects and thus available in our emptiness and poverty for God to become more present.
Yesterday, I listened to a C-Span interview of the columnist Mark Shields from 2013. Shields was asked who for him were the five greatest politicians he had known. First among them was Mike Mansfield. Mansfield was the longest serving Majority Leader in the U. S. Senate, and twice served as Ambassador to Japan. He had served, by the time he was 21 in all three military branches of the United States. His simple gravestone at Arlington Cemetery, however, reads (at his instruction): “Michael Joseph Mansfield, Private, U.S. Marine Corps.” As I heard Shields tell the story of Mike Mansfield, I realized the possibility of one’s work and humble efforts being the source of one’s identity, rather than one’s positions of power and influence. It is the humble work we do, as Mary said, “in our lowliness” that serves the growth of the Kingdom of heaven. It is that to which we give ourselves and for which we spend our lives that is important, not the temporary recognition or apparent significance we attain along the way.
Secondly, a servant of the Kingdom must learn endurance. As one grows older, the human virtue of endurance becomes both more significant and wondrous. It was as a young person that I first read William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury. The moral and human center of that novel is Dilsey, the servant of the Compton family. In his appendix to the novel, Faulkner says simply of Dilsey and her family: “They endured.” Beneath all the sound and fury something and some ones endure. When we are young, endurance seems far too passive a virtue to inspire us. But, as we age, we come to recognize the truth that perhaps a capacity to carry on throughout all of life is our most enduring human capacity. As I enter the later years of life, I find myself increasingly asking for the grace and the strength to keep working as I am meant to, to have the strength to endure.
This is not necessarily work in any given physical or mental sense. We have no control over the way our life will go and will end. What van Kaam would call “the transcendent form potency” we do have is our capacity to always “stand ready.” Van Kaam also says that “our limits are the outlines of our call.” To our last breath, we are called to give our life and our efforts “to the greater glory of God.” When we were novices we would visit each week hospitals and nursing homes. One such place was then called Holy Ghost Hospital, a hospital for those who were then called “incurables.” There we met people who from a fairly young age had been incapacitated and bedridden. Often the patients there would wind up serving us with their welcome, their humor, their attention, and their gratitude. Some 55 years later, they remain a source of life, nurturers of the Kingdom in me and in many others. When they became stricken their work in service to the Kingdom and to God’s greater glory did not end. They did not merely survive; they endured.
The work we have been given to do is largely hidden from us but always summoning us. We are graced with moments when we realize in a flash the gift of our life as call and the glory of our participation in God’s creative work for the world. Most of the time, however, we stumble about in the dark trying to find our way and discover our direction. The parable of Jesus suggest to us that this very stumbling, if we are “standing ready” within it, may be the growing of the Kingdom within and around us. As St. Paul says, “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” (2 Cor. 4:12) Somehow it is as we give ourselves away in our work that we serve “the greater glory of God.” Each moment of life asks that we do this in a new and appropriate way. The fact that we never have certainty whether or not we are doing it right doesn’t matter. All that matters is our every deepening willingness to “stand ready to answer when asked if you are available for God to become more present in your life and through you to the world.”
And this leads us always, as individuals and as Society, to humility, to live this great virtue. Humility that makes us aware every day that we are not the ones who build the Kingdom of God, but it is always the Lord’s grace acting in us; humility that drives us to put our whole self not in service of ourselves and of our ideas, but in service of Christ and of the Church, as vessels of clay, fragile, inadequate, insufficient, but in which there is an immense treasure that we carry and communicate (2 Corinthians 4-7). I always like to think of the sunset of the Jesuit, when a Jesuit ends his life, when the sun sets. And two icons come to me of this sunset of the Jesuit: one classic, that of Saint Francis Saverio, looking at China. Art has painted so many times this sunset, this finale of Saverio – also literature, in that piece of Peman. At the end, without anything, but before the Lord. It does me good to think of this. The other sunset, the other icon that comes to me as example is that of Father Arrupe, during the last talk in the refugee camp, when he said to us – something he himself said – “I say this as if it were my swansong: pray.” Prayer, union with Jesus. And after having said this, he took the plane, he arrived at Rome with the ictus, which was the beginning of his very long and exemplary sunset. Two sunsets, two icons which will do us all good to look at, and to return to these two. And to ask for the grace that our sunset will be like theirs.
Pope Francis, Homily for Feast of St. Ignatius, July 31, 2013