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16th Sunday of Ordinary Time
When we look at our world today, sometimes we can't help asking why God seems to allow evil in the world. When we learn about all so much bad news-wars, violence, poverty, injustice, corruption-we can sometimes get the impression that in the battle between good and evil, evil seems to be winning. Even when we look at our families, our neighborhoods or our work environments, we can sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed by seemingly insoluble evils: misunderstandings, divisions, addictions, and so forth.
In our Gospel today, our Lord tells three parables that provide a glimpse of an answer to these questions. First, Jesus tells the parable of the weeds and the wheat. A farmer plants good seed in his field, but his enemy secretly plants harmful weeds. When the workers ask the master of the field whether they should root out the weeds, the master surprisingly says no. The weeds-in Greek, zizania-look too much like the wheat and they are so intertwined that the master fears that his laborers will pull out the good wheat as well. The master counsels patience: the time will come when it will be easier to distinguish between the good wheat and the harmful weeds, and then the bad plants can be uprooted.
This is a first response the Lord gives to the problem of evil in our world. Sometimes good and evil are so deeply intertwined that it needs time and patience to discern which is which. We only need to look at our own hearts to know that this is true. It is often said that our strengths are also our weaknesses; our lights are also our shadows. A man can be passionately concerned about his family: that love can be a strength when it motivates him to work hard to provide for his children; but it can also be a source of evil when he focuses only on his family, forgets the wider community, or even engages in corruption to benefit his family alone. A leader can be really committed to excellence, which is surely a good thing. But this same commitment can make him or her impatient or lacking in compassion for those who are weaker or less capable. I am sure that you can think of many more examples of this intertwining of weeds and wheat, of good and evil in our hearts.
Our first reading tells us that this patience of God towards the mixture of good and evil in our hearts is because of his mercy and kindness, his desire to give us time to change, to grow. "With much lenience you govern us," we read in the Book of Wisdom; "you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins."
The next two parables of Jesus offer a second response to the question of the apparent strength of evil in the world. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed, so small and insignificant at the start. However, when planted it becomes the "largest of plants," providing shelter for the birds of the air. Similarly, the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like yeast that is mixed in with flour. The yeast is not only a small amount, it actually disappears, so one can't see it. Nevertheless, because of this seemingly invisible yeast, the whole batch of dough rises.
In other words, Jesus is inviting us to a deep faith that leads to hope. Even though the forces of good and of love might seem to be weaker, smaller, or even invisible compared to the forces of evil and hate in the world, Jesus is reminding us that God is still in control of this world. God, with his loving purposes, is working quietly, secretly, but powerfully and invincibly, like the tiny mustard seed or the hidden yeast.
A wise Jesuit spiritual director once said that the most powerful weapon of the devil is not pride or greed or lust, but discouragement. I think there is much spiritual wisdom in that. Often, what prevents us from doing good is discouragement. We feel there are too many weeds in our hearts or our lives. We lose heart seeing how powerful the forces of evil are. We feel too weak, too few, too insignificant.
Our readings today invite us to not be overwhelmed by discouragement but to continue loving and serving with hope and joy, because God remains the Lord of history. He will separate the weeds and the wheat; he will make the mustard seed and the yeast of the Kingdom grow. Our part is to share in some small way in God's great work of bringing healing, hope, and joy to our world.
St. Ignatius, the patron of your parish, once wrote to a woman who was overcome by feelings of discouragement about herself and her weakness. St. Ignatius wrote: "When the enemy of human nature . . . wants to deprive you of the strength the Lord gives you, and to make you weak and fearful . . . then we must raise ourselves up in true faith and hope in the Lord." (Letter to Teresa Rejadell, 1536). In another letter, St. Ignatius ends with a beautiful prayer to our Lady, asking that she might intercede for us with her Son, so that "our weak and sad spirits may be transformed and become strong and joyful in his praise." (Letter to Ines Pascual, 1524)
Today, then, let us pray for one another, that the Lord may touch whatever discouragement there is in our hearts with his hope. There is so much to do for the Lord, for his people, especially for the poor and suffering of this world. We may be small like mustard seeds or seemingly invisible like the yeast, but we can be the Lord's instruments, and let him work through us, even in our weakness and littleness. We pray with St. Ignatius to our Lady, so that through her prayers, the Lord might transform "our weak and sad spirits" so that we become "strong and joyful" in his praise and service!
Singapore, St. Ignatius Parish Church, 22 July 2017
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