16th Sunday 2005
Early this morning, 8 of our young parishioners arrived at the church in preparation for a flight to Washington DC, to participate in a Catholic service week, sponsored by Young neighbors in action. Along with three young adult Chaperones, these young people will have the opportunity of “service learning”, studying Catholic social teaching while putting their faith into action. Living together with other young people they will work in a community in DC, learning about issues of poverty and injustice while they meet real people whose lives are affected by the inequalities in our social systems.
As their parents came to see them off this morning, (Some with new copies of the latest harry potter almost half finished), I couldn’t help thinking of Jesus’ words today. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which is the smallest seed yet it grows into the largest shrub. Or the kingdom is like leaven which a woman adds to the dough and is amazed how something so small could make such a difference.
I wonder if this experience for these young people will be the mustard seed or the leaven that will make a difference in their lives. It happens all the time in these service projects. The encounter with real people in difficult circumstances can create a desire to serve the human community, through medicine, teaching, ministry, social work. Recently I’ve been reading about the work of Paul Farmer whose encounter with the extreme poverty in Haiti when he was a graduate student in anthropology was the mustard seed that would grow into a global outreach of medical and humanitarian care. One of the distinguishing elements of Dr Farmer’s work is that he so quickly came to love the Haitian People. The mustard seed of the kingdom planted in him was the love that would grow into such extraordinary service.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When that seed is planted in someone’s mind, you never know what good will come.
This morning’s mission reminds me of my early years at Regis high School. One of the after-school projects was going to Harlem to tutor elementary students in one of the catholic schools. There were two of us from Floral Park, LI, who were thinking about assisting in the project. I was astonished to hear , however, the prejudices of my Floral Park fellow student. The things he said about “those” people really shocked me. Not that I was immune to prejudice, growing up in a town where everyone was the same skin color but if I heard racial remarks they didn’t make an impression. My friend decided to go to Harlem to tutor despite his prejudices. The conversion happened in no time at all. In the real lived situation of stories and children’s smiles, in getting to know real people and letting himself be touched not by stereotypes but by lived experience of the other, his heart was changed.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When that seed is planted in someone’ heart, you never know what good will come.
The other parable we hear today about the wheat and the weeds (Tares) is a dangerous one. Why dangerous? Because it can too easily be read as an “us” against “them”. We are the wheat and they are the weeds (the evil ones) That is certainly what Matthew meant in his interpretation of jesus’ words. For Matthew’s community, the weeds were those Jews who did not accept jesus as the Messiah and the wheat were those Jews who did embrace him as the Chosen One. The parable is much more open-ended than its Matthean intrepetation. It is up to God to do the winnowing at the end of time. God’s mercy and justice is the ultimate decision maker.
In the meantime, how do we live without a kind of judgment that separates us from the other because of differences, especially these days religious differences. I heard a disturbing commentary after the London bombings, where a noted Islamist leader was saying that the nature of Islamic teaching is “separation”. What young people are hearing is “This is not your society. You do not need to contribute. These are not your kind. They are the other, the infidel. This commentator was saying that this interpretation of Islam is not correct and must be countered with a real sense of responsibility for the common good.
I don’t know what the young people from our parish will experience this week. My prayer for them is that their minds and hearts will be touched to go and make a difference in the world. My hope and my prayer is that the seed that is planted might grow and flourish in service to the needs of the poor, the disadvantaged. Most of all I pray that they will experience the common humanity that all of us share. Most of all I hope and pray that they learn to love their neighbor.