Jesus said, “What is the Kingdom of God like? To what can I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a man took and planted in the garden. When it was fully grown, it became a large bush and ‘the birds of the air dwelt in its branches.’”
Luke 13: 18-19
In his commentary on this passage, Luke Timothy Johnson points out that Luke inserts these parables of the Kingdom “within a highly charged situation of conflict. . . . Both parables contrast small beginnings with powerful results. . . . Both parables contrast as well the hidden with the manifest.” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 214)
Yesterday, I visited with a candidate to our community. He had just returned from the funeral of a young man with whom he worked in a community service outreach in Washington, D.C. The young man had actually been on his way, last Wednesday, to have dinner with our community near Washington when, while stopped at an intersection, he was killed by a random gunshot. In speaking to me about the funeral service, our candidate spoke of the inspiring words of the young man’s father and friends who eulogized him by calling on all present to continue his dedication to serve those who were in need. I was also told that a young woman who was a fellow worker had voiced to our candidate that she was concerned for their friend’s soul as he had confessed his unbelief in God.
Luke Timothy Johnson says that in these parables Jesus is declaring that “In just such small and hidden acts of liberation as he has worked in this synagogue is the victory over Satan’s kingdom being won, and the prophetic mission to ‘proclaim liberty to captives’ (4:18) being fulfilled.” (pp. 214-15) As I listened to the description of the funeral, I heard a repetition of Jesus’ declaration. Despite the horror and the evil of his death, “the small and hidden” acts of generosity and kindness of this young man had planted more seeds of the Kingdom of God. What he professed as his belief or non-belief was, in large part, beside the point. “”Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21).
The context within which Luke includes these familiar parables of the Kingdom is a most encouraging one. It reminds us that, in the midst of the clamor, the violence, and the evil that surrounds us, the Kingdom is present and welcoming us, even if it is often present in disguise. At times we who were formed in the Roman Catholic tradition can mistakenly conflate the Kingdom with the institutional Church. While at times the Church is witness to the Kingdom, we know for certain in our day that at other times it is not. The Church does not have exclusive claim to the witness of martyrs, as the life and death of this “unbelieving” young man attests.
The horror of the sex abuse scandal that is engulfing the Church at this moment is due to the fact that its “officials” failed to remember that just as each of us is a fragile and broken “earthen vessel” which contains the treasure of the Lord, so too is the Church. It too is sinful and vulnerable. When true to its call, as with each of us, it is a witness to the Kingdom of God. When failing that call, it is, no less than any of us, sinful. Often when I would hear that it was their “love” of the Church or their “allegiance” to it that led hierarchs and authorities to relegate concern for “the little ones” to second place, I would realize how readily the institutional Church itself becomes an idol that needs to be smashed.
So many seem to experience a depth of disillusionment at this moment, in the Church and in the structures of government that are intended to preserve our civilization and to defend the poor and weak. Much like Jesus in Luke 13, we experience ourselves in the midst of “a highly charged situation of conflict.” The lies that surround us are so great and the prevalence of evil is so strong that it is easy to become threatened with a sense of powerlessness. It is precisely to us at this moment that Jesus addresses the two parables of the Kingdom. His call seems to be to act, to do what we can at this moment, because, as with Jesus, it is “In just such small and hidden acts of liberation as he has worked in this synagogue [that] the victory over Satan’s kingdom [is] being won, and the prophetic mission to ‘proclaim liberty to captives’ (4:18) being fulfilled.”
How is it, in the course of everyday experience, that we can dispose ourselves to act rather than to be overwhelmed into passivity by what feels like the insignificance of our actions? One thing that is required of us is to develop the dispositions of fortitude and perseverance. Over many decades of life, one thing I have learned is how often I begin a work, on myself or in the world, and a short time later abandon it. I’ve been told that the way most health clubs and gyms make money is on those who purchase memberships and, after attending a few times, never return. So too in the spiritual realm. Throughout life I have often made resolutions to give some more time to prayer and meditation or to personal study and, after a few days or weeks, then returned to the drifting that had previously characterized my life. St. Teresa of Avila calls this lack of determination. She says that God is longing to give us more and more of God’s life, but we settle instead for alienation and distance for lack of determination, or fortitude and perseverance.
This same dynamic plays out on every pole of our field of formation. We see above the example in our inner life, but it is also true in our relationships to others and to the world. How often friendships, as well as familial relationships, drift apart because of lack of fortitude and perseverance. I have been taught much by persons in my life who will not allow me to distance, to just forget the relationship between us. As a young man, I was first taught this explicitly by one who has remained my closest friend. Somehow he saw in me, even in the very early weeks of our friendship, that I had a tendency to merely move away from friends when there were difficulties or when I my attention was drawn in other directions. I still recall his saying to me that for him the relationship of friendship was something that was not expendable, like worn clothes or forgotten routines or habits. To really be a friend required the strength and perseverance of caring about another for life. At the very moment I heard this, I was aware that this was “news” to me. Real care about another did not end when I ceased to feel the need for them or became busy and preoccupied with other things. Relationship requires, at times, courageous effort and persevering work.
So, too, in an age where a need for truth seems quaint and the demands of love naive, we are in danger of falling into a passivity born of hopelessness and tiredness. At the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples say to Jesus, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (John 6:9) One of the greatest obstacles to doing what we can for good in the world is our sense that it is so little in the face of so much need. For much of my life, I have often held back, afraid of the insignificance of my offering, but also lacking the fortitude and the generosity to carry through. One thing we know for certain, to do something will lead to the call to do something else. We began with the story of a young man, fresh out of college, who wanted to give what he had to those who lacked even enough to eat. It cost him his life. Far too often, I don’t risk my life; I don’t even risk my energy, or my reputation, my acceptability to others, or my fear of failure. In the parables of the Kingdom, Jesus reminds us that quantity, as we measure it, doesn’t matter. To stand in the truth and to do what we can, in the face of enormous societal movements to the contrary, may seem meaningless to us. Yet, Jesus says, this is the mustard seed that eventually will grow into a bush that spreads its branches and provides a dwelling place for many.
As Galatians reminds us: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal. 6:9) It is a great temptation to “give up,” and giving up takes many forms in life. It takes great fortitude or courage to keep working when the obstacles seem insuperable, just as it takes great perseverance to keep caring when the “return” does not seem to warrant the effort. In our present ecclesial and political moment, our five loaves and two fish don’t seem to be worth much. The forces against our puny efforts seem dominant and overwhelming. The Kingdom, however, is like the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. Father André Coindre, the Founder of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, would remind his Brothers that “When we have done all that we can, we have done all that we must.” This is what it means to keep living, to keep acting, and to keep loving in faith.
It is not that you are not qualified to receive the fellowship, it is that each year your application is not good enough. When at last your application is perfect, then you will receive the fellowship.
It is not that you are not qualified to receive the fellowship, it is that your patience must be tested first. Each year, you are patient, but not patient enough. When you have truly learned what it is to be patient, so much so that you forget all about the fellowship, then you will receive the fellowship.
Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance, p. 136