Greetings, SBT Readers!
It seems there is no end to church scandals -- not just isolated incidents, but global patterns that involve every kind of abuse possible. From clerical pedophilia to the recent discovery of the remains of 215 indigenous children at what was once a Canadian Catholic residential institution, these patterns violate everything Jesus stood for. Murder, intrigue, lies, exploitation, enslavement, bribery, intimidation, defamation of character, exclusion, witch-hunting -- these form just a partial list of crimes committed by those who profess to be Christian leaders. Sadly, criminals of this ilk not only harm their victims but also the credibility of the Church; their actions have driven away some of the faithful as well as those who might otherwise have considered joining. As for those who have stayed, many have to endure the "guilt by association" syndrome, or incredulous comments like, "How can you still be Catholic?"
The institutional church needs to undergo a long-overdue process of conversion from the top down; "Church Triumphant" must become "Church Penitent" if it is to emerge as "Church Renewed." Meanwhile, there is comfort in the fact that the church as an institution is not equivalent to the church as the Body of Christ. While the institutional Church exists to guide and govern its members, the Body of Christ consists of all believers. Each of us has a mission to "become the Christ"; St. Paul writes, "I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me" (Gal 2:20).
If we really allow Christ to become the center of who we are, then we will mediate his presence to all those we encounter. The mustard seed can become a mighty bush, but each of us must be willing to be our best self if the birds of the air are to find a place to nest!
PS Please note my new address at the bottom of this e-letter!
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables, he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables, he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples, he explained everything in private.
At first glance, the parables seem to be simple stories that draw on everyday realities such as agriculture, pastoral imagery, and domestic life. However, if we assume that Jesus' parables are just a pedagogical device, we are mistaken; the parables, in fact, are a means of obscuring his message from those who are too hard of heart to understand. When his disciples ask Jesus why he teaches with parables, he quotes the prophet Isaiah: "Gross is the heart of this people; they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes..." (Mt 13:14). His message, then, is only accessible to those who truly want to hear it.
It seems paradoxical that Jesus would teach in such a way as to exclude the majority of his listeners and that he would focus only on his disciples. However, his opponents have already accused him of blasphemy (Mk 2:7) and of being in league with Beelzebub (Mk 3:22). Even his own relatives think he is out of his mind (Mk 3:31-35). It would seem, then, that Jesus uses parables to 1) confuse his opponents so they cannot bring charges against him; and 2) protect the sacred Mystery of the Kingdom from those who would make a mockery of it. I think of the advice he gives in Matt 7:6: "Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces."
In this context, his adversaries are the "dogs" and "swine" while the "pearls" represent the Reign of God.
So what is the Mystery that Jesus shares with his disciples and why does he "hide" it from his adversaries? If we break open the Parable of the Mustard Seed, we find that it is really quite subversive. While most of his listeners cannot get past the agricultural imagery, Jesus is covertly reassuring his disciples that his tiny "movement" (the mustard seed) will grow vaster than anything they can imagine and that it will spread (the branches) to accommodate all the birds of the air (people everywhere). In effect, his words are a threat to the religious and political establishment -- hence the need for parables!
Of course, most interpretations of this parable focus on the growth of the Kingdom of God, and little is ever said about its subversive content. In our own time, this "Kingdom" is also a threat to the establishment -- to institutionalized religion that has lost its heart; to cultural secularism, materialism, and violence; and to political systems that are based on expediency rather than on love. The Good News is that the flame of faith can still be found in a small "remnant" of Christians-- the message of the mustard seed is that this remnant will grow and that nothing can stunt its roots or branches.