THE PARABLES OF THE KINGDOM by Fr Bill O’Shea

Community for a Better World is an international Catholic group whose aim might best be described as "promoting the reign of God in the world". In describing our goal in this way, we are following no less a model that Jesus himself, who saw the mission given to him by God in the same terms: proclaiming, establishing and promoting the kingdom or reign of God (Mark 1: 14-15).

It involves doing what we can to make love, mercy and justice the dominant factors in human relationships and promoting the values of unity and trust. It also involves working for the adoption of a spirituality of communion, a spirituality which includes communion not only among Christians, but among all members of the human family and indeed the whole of God’s creation.

Both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark devote a chapter to what is called "parables of the kingdom" (Matthew ch 13, Mark ch 4). They comprise a group of teachings of Jesus, some very brief, which describe different aspects of the kingdom or reign of God. Many of them begin with the phrase: "the kingdom of God is like..." In this way, Jesus, by means of these short stories or examples, attempted to make the idea of the reign of God – which might seem like a rather vague concept to many people – more real and practical and down-to-earth.

Jesus was a great teacher and he evidently favoured the parable form as his main teaching technique. Parables were simple stories dealing with events and situations that his listeners would have been familiar with. His preaching ministry was mainly in rural areas, he spent little time in Jerusalem, or in other large cities or towns. His audiences were mostly country people, people who lived on and worked the land. Many of the parables are therefore about farming and agriculture, seeds and soil, planting and harvesting, vineyards, sheep and shepherds.

Let us take as an example the parable about wheat and weeds:
"The kingdom of God may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds amongst the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.  And the servants of the householder came to him and said, "Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it borne weeds?" He said to them "an enemy has done this." The servants said to him, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?" He said "No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers "Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn" (Matt 13: 24-30).

By harvest time Jesus would have meant God’s final judgement. 

The parable is mainly about tolerance, a virtue that needs to be cultivated, if the reign of God is to take root in our world, where there is so much hatred and violence, and apparently a lot of "bad people", as President Trump would say.

But Jesus pleads for patience and tolerance. Don’t be too quick to judge others. Better to leave that to God, who knows people’s hearts and the motives why they do the things they do. In many cases there may be extenuating circumstances, because of their up-bringing, perhaps because of cruelty or abuse they may have suffered in their childhood or formative years. 

The country people of Galilee knew what Jesus was talking about. Let the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest. What is implied is: Leave it to God to judge and decide. But can we afford to wait that long? 

There is a danger, Jesus says, in trying to root out or destroy what we see as evil; we could be making a mistake. We may do more harm than good, by destroying the good along with the bad, and so make things worse than they were before. If you try to eradicate the weeds prematurely, you risk destroying the wheat as well. The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 is a classic modern example of what Jesus warned against. 

We are face to face here with a difficult moral problem. Surely, we are right in applying gospel principles of right and wrong, to judge that some actions are morally wrong. It is wrong to murder, to steal, to commit adultery, to sexually abuse children. We cannot help but pass judgement on the evil we see happening in our world. Indeed, we should and must do so, because these are atrocities that deserve the condemnation of every right-thinking person. We cannot remain morally neutral. 

Yet, Jesus says, "Do not judge, lest you be judged yourself". He is making a distinction between the evil and injustice we see done, which we must condemn and oppose, and the perpetrators, whom, he says, we should not judge. It is a very thin line, one which we are all guilty of having crossed.

How do you condemn murder, yet refrain from judging the murdered? It is one of the most difficult and challenging of Jesus’ moral teachings. Where does tolerance begin and end? Are we not to judge the suicide bomber or the paedophile? It is certainly hard not to.

One possible escape-hatch is to say that Jesus was thinking only of inter-personal relationships, when he said "Judge not", and not about events on a world scale. Perhaps, but not an evasion we can be comfortable with. Certainly, the issues of judgement and tolerance confront us every day, whether on the level of international affairs, or on the very personal level of our relationships with one another.

What can we do, as individuals, to prevent the escalation of violence which makes our world an ever more dangerous place? The answer, sadly, is "very little".  We can, and should, of course pray. Prayer for world peace should be foremost in our hearts and on our lips.

But in our day-to-day lives, in our own local communities, in our inter-personal relationships, we can and must always try to practice the great human virtues of love, justice, forgiveness - AND tolerance – to all people with whom we come in contact, whatever their race, religion or politics, to people who are different from us.

In the words of a popular hymn ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me’.

Back to the world scene, we rightly recognise Islamic fundamentalists and extremists as a major threat to our peace and security. But we must remember that the Islamic radicals, jihadists and terrorists are a small minority, and not typical of their religion. We should sympathise with the many good Muslims who experience hostility because of the evil done by the extremist elements of their faith.

We must try to rid ourselves of all racist attitudes, and rather see those different from ourselves in race, colour or creed, as fellow members of the one human family. Then we will be practising a spirituality of communion. All of us are children of God.

And while we condemn the activities of the Islamic extremists and terrorist groups, let us not forget that our Church and members of our Church have also been guilty of grave intolerance. Think back several centuries to the Crusades, and a few centuries later to the Inquisition and the burning of accused heretics at the stake. Many of them, we now know, were innocent. But even if they were guilty of heresy, it was a barbaric form of punishment. It certainly was not what Jesus had in mind when he established his community of disciples to help him promote the reign of God. We do not have clean hands, or a great record of tolerance.

It is not only in the parable of the wheat and the weeds that Jesus pleaded for tolerance. In another parable, (Luke 13: 6-9), he told of a barren fig tree, a tree that was bearing no fruit, even after many years. The owner of the property wanted to cut it down, because it was taking up space, and using up good soil with no result.

But the gardener said; "No, give it another year, mulch it, fertilise it and see whether it produces fruit. Give it another chance."

Then there is the famous story of the woman found guilty of adultery. Israel’s law at that time was that she should be stoned to death. When they dragged her before Jesus to ask his opinion, (an obvious trap), he simply said "Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone." We are told that her accusers slunk away in confusion. He did not condone her sin, but his words to her were an expression of tolerance: "I do not condemn you, but go and sin no more." (John 8: 1-11).

It is appropriate that these reflections on tolerance conclude with a story from Islamic tradition. It bears a close resemblance to Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds:

There was a man who decided to plant a flower garden. He prepared the soil and planted the seeds of many beautiful flowers. But when they came up, the garden was filled not just with his chosen flowers, but was also overrun by dandelions. He sought advice from gardeners far and near, but to no avail. Finally, he approached the royal gardener at the Sheik’s palace. The wise old man suggested a variety of remedies that might get rid of the dandelions, but the man had already tried them all. They sat together in silence for some time, before the royal gardener looked at him and said: "Well you are just going to have to learn to love dandelions".