16th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The kingdom of heaven is present in the pandemic

By Sarah Rudolph, IBVM

Our gospel this morning continues Matthew’s parables discourse. Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne, SJ says that a parable acts as an instructive story but it can also be a puzzle or a riddle. A parable evokes new worlds of meaning. In our three parables today – the parable of weeds among the wheat, the parable of the mustard seed, and the parable of the yeast – Jesus reveals dimensions of the kingdom of heaven that are present in this moment of the coronavirus pandemic: hiddenness; abundance; and an orientation toward justice and the common good.

1) Hiddenness

These parables suggest that there is a dimension of the kingdom that remains hidden from us. We only know that something is at work because we see the results. The wheat and mustard seeds are planted in the ground and their growth is not visible until it reaches above the soil. In the case of the yeast, although our translation says that the woman ‘mixes’ the yeast with the flour, the Greek word is enkrypton, which means ‘to hide.’ So, the yeast is hidden in the flour and works in secret. There is activity going on that we cannot see.

This time of the pandemic has often felt like a time of hiddenness. In one sense, we ourselves have been hidden. We have been cooped up in our homes, with limited contact with loved ones and the larger community. And in another sense, the future remains hidden from us. We don’t know how even the few next months will unfold. One reaction to this hiddenness is denial. I’ve heard people say that the year is a write-off and that it doesn’t count. While I can understand the sense of frustration and disappointment underlying these statements, as followers of Christ, we shouldn’t take this approach. Despite the hiddenness of this moment or perhaps because of it, we can be sure that it matters. We are challenged to trust that God, that the kingdom of heaven, is present in this hiddenness and is at work in our lives. There is much more going on beneath the surface than we are aware.

2) Abundance

This brings me to the dimension of abundance, which may seem paradoxical given that these times seem marked by scarcity. All three of our parables demonstrate that the kingdom of heaven surprises us with abundance, that is, from something very small – be it seeds, whether mustard or wheat, or yeast – the kingdom of heaven yields results that exceed expectation. In the case of the weeds and the wheat, we see that the abundance of God includes mercy – the weeds are allowed to grow alongside the wheat until the harvest. Immediately uprooting evil also uproots the good. God gives us time to respond to His grace. The mustard seed produces a bush that grows into a tree that becomes a resting place for birds. The yeast causes the dough to swell dramatically in proportion to its size.

Similarly, if we cooperate with the grace of God, our lives will yield so much more than we can anticipate. We will be surprised by the abundance of the kingdom of heaven. Seeds that are sown, yeast that is mixed with flour – these actions have consequences. And the daily actions of our lives – how we live and behave in our relationships within our families, our workplaces, our communities – they are all significant and have consequence. In the light of

God’s grace, we can look at this time of the pandemic and see that even in the moments that have been most challenging – when we have lacked patience, or kindness, or compassion, when we have been most anxious – we are never truly alone and we never truly act alone. Our God is always with us and gives us the graces we need. And it is our God who takes our small actions and transforms them and multiplies their good effects.

3) Justice and the Common Good

Finally, our three parables teach us that the kingdom of heaven is oriented toward justice and the common good. In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, we can understand that the purpose of the wheat is to feed a community. The presence of weeds hinders the growth of wheat but also takes up space where other wheat could have grown. Less wheat means less food for the community. At the harvest, that is, at the end time, God will make up for whatever is lacking in human action and God will restore justice. In the parable of the mustard seed, we are given a beautiful image of a seed that grows into a tree that provides for much more than human need, it provides a home for creation. And in the parable of the yeast, we have an even more dramatic representation of the common good. We are told that the woman hides the yeast in three measures of flour – the equivalent of 40 to 60 pounds of flour – that would produce a hundred loaves of bread, enough for a village. So, we can see that the efforts of a single person who plants a seed, or mixes yeast with flour, can have an impact on multitudes.

It is inevitable, during this pandemic, to feel overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, the reality of sickness and death, of global unrest and economic devastation. But as we move from one phase of the pandemic to the next, we do so not as individuals, or as cities or provinces, or even as a nation, we do so as a global family.

What we plant today, what we nurture with God’s cooperation today, is what we will reap and enjoy and share in the future. We must take conscious effort now to recover and rebuild in the best interests of all people, especially the poor and the most vulnerable. For us in Ontario, this means that we must remember those in long term care facilities, migrant workers living in unjust conditions, men and women in shelters and in prison, and racialized and impoverished neighbourhoods that suffer disproportionately. We are in a position now to learn from these tragic experiences – and to plant the seeds, to mix the yeast, that will take us into an abundant and prosperous future for all.

As we reflect on the parables in this morning’s gospel, let us rise to the challenge that they present: let us be conscious in this time of hiddenness that our daily actions and attitudes have significance and consequence and that, ultimately, we must order them toward the common good. Let us also take encouragement and consolation from the knowledge that we are not alone in this challenge – we are always with our God who works in and with us, who makes up for what we lack, to expand the kingdom of heaven.