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JULY 17, 2011: SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Romans 8:26-27
Matthew 13:24-43

Over the years I've had conversations with people who defended their not being members of any particular church by pointing out, "There're people in those churches who aren't doing what Jesus wants us to do!"

The make-up of God's people is always a mystery. On one hand we're supposed to be committed to carrying out whatever God asks; on the other, we're notorious for going against God's will. The recent sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church provides just one example of such ecclesiastical tensions.

Today's three Sacred authors presume we're destined to deal with this "mixed bag" for the rest of our lives.

Our Wisdom author treats the issue from a unique perspective. He or she regards the problem as a way of surfacing Yahweh's mercy. "Your might is the source of justice; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all." In other words, evil is no threat to Yahweh. God's power is the force behind God's relations (justice) with us. God has nothing to prove. "Though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us." Yahweh's power isn't demonstrated by the accomplishments of a blameless community, but by the accomplishment of a flawed, forgiven community.

Paul usually deals with similar problems - even in communities he evangelized. He's experienced enough imperfections to be able to instruct a community he hasn't evangelized (Rome) about the workings of the Holy Spirit. According to the Apostle's theology, Jesus shares his Spirit with us precisely because we can't do what we're expected to do, even when it comes to such an essential action as prayer.

"The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with inexpressible groaning. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will." The Holy Spirit simply makes up for what we lack, no matter how essential to faith. The Spirit is the sole source of our perfection.

Jesus' mixture of kingdom parables provides us with some of his ideas about the Christian community and surfacing God's kingdom within it. On one hand it's a constant, growing phenomenon. He compares it both to a mustard seed which starts small, but eventually grows into a large bush, and to a small cake of yeast buried in bread dough which in the end leavens the whole batch of flour. But on the other hand, just as weeds always infiltrate the good seed farmers plant in their fields, unwanted elements infiltrate Christian communities. Do we eradicate the invaders now or let God take care of the issue in the future?

Our church, with its history of excommunications, isn't on the same page as Matthew's Jesus. The fear which surfaces here comes from the experience of tearing out the good along with the bad. They're intermingled. One of my favorite tee shirts lists dozens of famous Catholics who, at one time or another, were excommunicated. We can certainly understand why Chicago's Cardinal Stritch denied Catholic burial for Al Capone back in the 40s; but we have a problem with St. Mary MacKillop being excommunicated by her 19th century Australian bishop for helping expose a pedophile priest.

Overlooking the implied violence, I can somewhat identify with a Marine Corps bumper sticker I recently glimpsed. "Judgment belongs to God. We just arrange the meeting." Though we'd be grateful if some of those eternal judgment meetings would take place sooner rather than later, we must always remember we're dealing with God's kingdom, not ours. As E J. Dionne recently remarked on NPR, "The proof God is with our church is to see what good it still achieves, considering how badly our leaders handled the sexual abuse scandal." I don't hear today's three sacred authors disagreeing with Dionne.