Sometimes I’m being accused. Of leniency. Of being too soft with lapsed Catholics, when they request baptism for their child, or their wedding, or a Catholic funeral for a deceased relative. Sometimes practising Christians seem to expect me to adopt a stricter and tougher approach, leading either to the refusal of requests from the lapsed or to the extraction of some promises of improvement in their conformity. On the instructions of my bosses, I used to do both; I always felt uncomfortable doing so, as it seemed to me to be in contradiction to the gospel. To be honest, I never saw those people either returning to the Church after being refused, or keeping their promises. It seems that this kind of approach didn’t attract people to the faith; more often it was off-putting to them.
The two parables in today’s gospel present the kingdom of God by using the images of growth. In the first one a farmer sows corn, and then it grows regardless of what the man is doing. This independent process of growth was mysterious and fascinating to the ancients – their impact was extremely limited in comparison to modern agriculture. They sowed the seed, and then rather helplessly they had to wait, just hoping for the best possible outcome at harvest time. Now, you can apply this parable to your own efforts in bringing your children up in the faith. You had them baptised, you got them prepared for First Communion and the sacrament of confirmation. You took them with you to church regularly, and you taught them some prayers and traditions. Now, as grown-ups, some of them continue to practise the faith on a regular basis, some of them are CEO Christians (Christmas, Easter and Occasional), and some of them have lapsed completely. If you want, you can claim the credit for the best outcome of your efforts, but you shouldn’t take the blame if your efforts failed. Whatever the result, your children have made their own decisions, whether you like these or not. You’ve done your part; the rest is up to them.
The second parable uses the image of a tiny mustard seed, growing into a whopping great shrub, big enough to support birds’ nests in its branches. It’s a parable about something insignificant becoming important and having a great impact. A few days ago I found a quotation from one of my sermons on a website; sometimes I’m told that I said or did something that affected someone significantly. More often than not, these were words or acts I personally didn’t perceive as important or momentous. So, my influence was unintentional: it happened somehow, regardless of my intentions – or indeed my lack of them. A month ago I was talking to a friend of mine who had been appointed to a very important post in her religious order. She shared with me her anxieties as to whether she were the right person for the job, as she would have to be a model to those entrusted to her. I told her not to try to be a model, not to pretend to be someone else outwardly, but to be herself; because that would be the only way that her testimony would be authentic and therefore effective. That piece of advice is also true for every one of us. We can have a positive impact on people’s lives, but not by pretending to be someone else, and not by hiding behind a mask of good manners and good behaviour. We are most influential when we maintain the integrity of who we are inside, and how we act outside.
This leads us to the final question of what the kingdom of God actually is. Elsewhere in the gospel, Jesus told his followers that the kingdom of God isn’t a location on earth, here or there. The kingdom of God is built in the hearts of those who accept the message of the gospel and faithfully try to live the lives by it. Our primary focus in the religious dimension of our human life is to let Jesus mould us by his Word that we may grow in the virtues of faith, hope and charity. The more space we give to Jesus in our lives, the greater the unplanned but positive impact we will be empowered to have on people around us. You may consider yourself too insignificant a person to change anything. You might be right. So, welcome to a great company of similarly unimportant people that Jesus has chosen across the centuries, ever since a few Galilean fishermen were called by him.