Sermon - Year B

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

How was the party? Yesterday was the king’s birthday. Did you know that? I only knew because it was shown in my digital calendar; otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a clue. Although we live in a country called the United Kingdom and have a hereditary monarch as the head of state, we all know that his political power is pure pretence or theatre. The real power is held by the government and parliament. For that reason, we see our country as a modern democracy on a par with other countries where the role of the head of state is held by democratically elected officials. Despite living in a kingdom, such a political system or concept is alien to us. So, when we hear about “the kingdom of God” in today’s gospel reading, we might struggle to understand Jesus’ parable.

Driven by well-intentioned but misplaced religious zeal, some Christians envision building a political system based on and ruled by the Christian religious and moral code. This would be a top-down model in which the law of the land incorporates religious rules. When that happens, the law inevitably becomes oppressive to those who don’t follow or share specific religious beliefs. The “best” examples of such a system can currently be found in Saudi Arabia or Iran. The history of Christendom provides dispiriting examples of how effective mergers of state and Church led to devastating results. In fact, any attempts to create similar Christian theocracies would be against Jesus’ teaching, who made it very clear when he was interrogated by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:38) His words were proved true earlier on, at the time of his arrest when he halted the outbreak of violent fighting by telling Peter: “Put your sword back into its scabbard.” (John 18:11) There are many more instances in the gospels where Jesus more or less openly rejected the idea of turning his teachings into a political system; a concept his contemporaries – including his disciples – stubbornly and persistently clung to.

In one such instance, “Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21) Note that these words were addressed to the Pharisees, a Jewish religious faction known for their opposition and sometimes open hostility towards Jesus. Yet he saw a genuine potential for the kingdom of God developing in them as in anyone else. In Jesus’ eyes, everyone could become part of the kingdom.

How? The parables in today’s gospel reading give us certain ideas. Both use the image of a planted seed that grows into something great and useful. In a way, they point to another well-known parable Jesus told the same crowd a bit earlier, the parable of a sower planting seeds by spreading them across the field (see Mark 4:1-20). They fell on different patches of ground, like the path, and were picked up by birds, or into the shrubs, with no chance of springing, and so on. Those seeds that fell on fertile grounds yielded a generous harvest. Jesus then explained that the seed in the parable was the word of God. We can safely adapt the same concept to the parables in today’s gospel reading. The word of God is planted in our hearts when we listen to it at Mass, read the Bible, and pray. It depends on each one of us to open up to its transformative power: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) It casts light on our inner lives and sometimes confronts our plans or desires. In this never-ending, life-long, ever-dynamic process, we get great opportunities to have our lives shaped into their intended form, the reflection of God in whose image we have been made.

The creation of the kingdom of God is a grass-roots movement of committed Christians who are growing out of their selfishness, as portrayed by Jesus, who ”died for all so that those who live would not continue to live for themselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15). The parable of the mustard seed in today’s gospel ended with the image of a shrub grown out of it so large that it provided shelter to the birds of the air. The kingdom of God comes to life not as a political system but through active, charitable love: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)