Sunday, July 20, 2008

What did Jesus preach most?

One of the popular features of The Catholic Key not posted to our website is our weekly scripture column. Among our rotating columnists is the ever-intriguing Chancellor of our diocese, Msgr. Bradley Offutt. Here's his offering for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time. If you're like me, you'll get weepy at the last line - but please read the whole thing:

Indulge me here, will you? . . . Imagine that you were intensely interested in Christianity and, therefore, wanted to learn more about Christ than what you have heretofore been able to glean from your Sunday sojourns to church. So, you have made an appointment to speak one day with the grizzled octogenarian, Monsignor Smart, who dwells with his books, and vast reputation, in one of those peculiarly Catholic-looking buildings across town.

You step into Smart’s capacious room and gaze into his sagacious face. You are sitting on the edge of your creaking chair, waiting for him to dispense the wisdom of the ages, but he decides to open the conversation with a curious question. He asks you, “Because you are interested in Christ, it seems right that we begin discussing the subject that occupied Jesus more than all others. Do you know what that is?”

You feel strangely confident and say, “Oh, it must be ‘sin.’” Monsignor blows the lint off his spectacles and kindly replies, “Well, no, that’s not it. Want to guess again?” Somewhat more subdued this time, you say, “Uh, is it love?” And with that answer the old priest figures he has well-enough established the measurements of your ignorance so he just tells you an interesting fact. He says to you, “Jesus Christ, in the gospel narratives, speaks far more about the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ than anything else.”

Being an unabashed neophyte at this serious religion business, you cheerily say, “Well, I guess that makes sense; that Jesus would talk more about heaven than anything else. After all, that’s where we all want to go.” Meanwhile Monsignor Smart has gotten out of his chair. As you speak he moves to the wall so you can’t see him roll his eyes. He straightens one of the several yellowing diplomas hanging on his yellowing walls and returns to face you. He says, “If Jesus merely meant ‘heaven’ when he told the Parables of the Kingdom,’ he would never have been crucified. In fact, he would have been considered a most innocuous do-gooder. Instead, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ refers to the life of God with humanity in heaven, and on earth too, because God is the same in both places. Kingdom of Heaven’ means the interface of divinity with humanity. And what Jesus said about the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was so counter-intuitive, so different, from what so many people confidently assumed that Christ posed a challenge to the world that we are still trying to understand.”

The willowy old Monsignor Smart sends you back to your well-shaded neighborhood with some homework. He asks you to spend some time with Mt. 13: 24-43 and to contemplate this question in air-conditioned comfort, “Why did so many people hate Jesus of Nazareth?” Though it would be no great trick to find more learned expositors of scriptural interpretation than me; please allow me to help you with your homework.

The Parables of the Kingdom, such as confront us in this gospel, are not easy to understand. Indeed, some times it looks like Jesus told these parables to cloud our understanding, not clarify it. But the Lord had a very tough job to do here. Remember, he is announcing what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world. For something to be hidden for so long, it is bound to be difficult to grasp. As we study the Parables of the Kingdom we must simultaneously consider God and consider ourselves.

First, Jesus says, The Kingdom of Heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. (His) enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat. . . . (The Sower said), Let the wheat and weeds grow together (for) if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Repeatedly Jesus exposes himself to people the gospels call “sinners.” One of them even wipes his feet with her hair. Two of them share his death on Calvary. Humanity demands clarity and order. Jesus Christ says truth is reflected in ambiguity and chaos.

Next, Jesus says, The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. . . . It is the smallest of seeds, yet when full grown is the largest of plants. Repeatedly Jesus is met in the gospels with demands for grand demonstrations of power and retribution. Christ teaches that the most persuasive language is spoken in the gestures of the small and vulnerable.

Finally, Jesus says, The kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat until the whole batch was leavened. Repeatedly Jesus is asked in the gospels to reveal his glory now, to promise influence now, to rescue a situation now. Christ teaches that just because something is true does not mean we are capable of understanding it, or even enduring it, right away. Patience, especially in what we suffer, is truly progressive.

So, in these Parables of the Kingdom Jesus is speaking the riddle that got him crucified. The Savior says that the most irresistible power is the most tender love; that victory is in the sacrifice, not the seizure; that there is so much more grace in the nails than in the hammer.

We hope to have more from our pilgrims in Sydney soon. This blog will continue, after all the festivities in Australia, to be a regular adjunct to The Catholic Key. We hope you'll bookmark this page and check back frequently.

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