Jesus Christ Washing the Feet of His Apostles, by Giotto di Bondone 1304-1306

204. Kingdom of God: Divine Initiative and Human Freedom

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” [Matthew 13:24-30, NRSV]

Jesus of Nazareth has emerged triumphant from the temptations in the wilderness, convinced that his mission on earth was to preach the message of the kingdom of God and to live that message to the very end. In this kingdom-parable of the weeds among the wheat, he highlights the point that the kingdom of God (Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven”) is a combination of divine initiative and human freedom.

At an early morning Mass in Singapore, the late Archbishop Gregory Yong once told a story of a man, attracted by the charming posters of fruits at a shop window, went into the shop to buy some fruits that he fancied. Failing to find what he came in for, he went to the counter and asked where he might find some fruits on display in the shop. The shopkeeper smiled and said to him, “Young man, we don’t sell fruits here; we sell seeds.”

What God gives us are seeds. These are seeds of goodness. They point to the divine initiative in creation, in the Judeo-Christian history, all the way from Abraham down to the paschal passion willingly undertaken by Jesus of Nazareth and affirmed in the resurrection by God Himself. An inexhaustible aspect of that divine initiative is that God is relentless; God never gives up in planting good seeds. God is ever hopeful, even when the evidence says otherwise, of seeing good fruits.

Between seeds and fruits, however, an essential component is human understanding and freedom. People are free to accept and embrace God’s kingdom-invitation and embark upon doing good, promoting God’s kingdom-values with their gifts. But they are equally free to resist and even reject God’s kingdom-invitation. God does not force us to produce good fruits in our lives; He inspires, He hopes, He waits.

Human tendency, exemplified by the slaves in the parable, is to prematurely draw clear distinctions between good and evil, those who hear the Word, take it to heart and integrate the values into their lives and those who turn a deaf ear and resist the message. This neat division neglects the complexities in human relationship with God. Missing in this distinction is the inevitable struggles in life’s journey. The struggle to hear God’s Word in our lives is an internal reality which is more complicated than we give it credit for. From Jesus, we learn that even this “hearing” is not the end, for proper hearing must be followed by “keeping”:

  • “But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” (Luke 8:21).

Divine initiative sows the seeds of good wheat. The truth of the matter is, there are others who sow seeds in conflict with Jesus’ preaching and teaching. This “enemy”, with intentions quite in conflict with the intentions from the sower of good seeds, works stealthily – at “night” (signifying darkness), when people are asleep (signifying lapse of attention to the vertical relationship with God). And so, we are reminded that it s not only that people do not follow God, they do, but only for a while, and then they “slide” downhill or veer off for a while. We all know enough of life to know that people vacillate in different degrees between relative light and darkness, good and bad. Our reflection about human journey cannot be remotely complete if we do not bring to bear the harsh fact of life that, sometimes, difficult circumstances and harsh situations are forced upon some people quite beyond their control.

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis never tires of reminding us that our God is a God of mercy who understands that pain needs the company of hope. This God of mercy wants to see a merciful Church, so we must tune our hearts to feel for people who are caught in difficult situations. In pain and difficulties, what they need in the first place is not our tough doctrines and harsh laws that would cast the weeds into hell fire on first opportunity. Rather, what they may acutely need and seriously deserve is our compassion and mercy – holding their hands, listening to their life stories, walking the hard journey with them, and giving them love and hope. Let them live, that is, give them a chance to breathe again, like Jesus giving opportunity to the woman caught in adultery (John 8), and the possibility to move from where they are to a better place intended by God. “Killing them all” prematurely would foreclose the wide scope of possibilities intended by God. What might be even worse is that to “kill them all” prematurely would be to fail in the fundamental duty to which we are all called, that is, to patiently accompany people who are experiencing difficulties in life’s journey and are in pain, to help them move from pain to hope.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, July 2018. All rights reserved.

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