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Sunday 19 July 2020

The Compassion of Waiting

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 

 

By Michael Kirwan

A priest of the British Jesuit province, currently living in Ireland and teaching at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin

Context: a city parish, with a good social and racial mix

Aim: to encourage proper patience in our discipleship

The lovely text from the first reading invites us to reflect upon how we are governed, and in particular on the difference between good and bad political leadership. The clue is in the traditional title of this book, ‘the Wisdom of Solomon,’ Though Solomon did not actually write the Book of Wisdom, it is inspired by him, and by his desire to be a gracious King, who requested from the Lord the gift of ruling wisely.

The ‘wisdom literature’ from the Old Testament shows a strong, confident sense of God’s majestic goodness. The universe has been well made. It proclaims God’s reasonableness and kindness. If there is injustice and cruelty, it does not come from God, but from human beings who refuse to imitate the Creator’s example.

The writer has a beautifully subtle understanding of terms familiar to us from our political life, such as ‘power’ and ‘sovereignty.’ These words usually express a respect for action and efficiency. A successful politician ‘gets things done’; he or she makes promises, fulfils them, and tells everybody about it. But the reading from Wisdom suggests another dimension, another kind of politics, the politics of mercy. Because God is merciful and desires our free repentance, his sovereignty is more like a kind of inaction, a waiting. ‘Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness … for you have power to act whenever you choose.’ The well-known example would be the father of the prodigal son, who has to wait, perhaps years, for his son to return. When he does come back, the father overwhelms him with a loving welcome. But until that moment comes, this powerful and dignified man is helpless. He can do nothing but wait.

This is hard for us, because we want to resolve a situation of injustice or conflict immediately: we want to ‘act’, we want God to ‘act.’

But perhaps in these situations there is more going on than we realise. Someone who understands this well is Pope Francis. He is very fond of a particular maxim, which he has used repeatedly in his sermons and in his writings: ‘time is greater than space.’ This is a mysterious saying, but what he means is that sometimes it is important to let a situation find its own solution, rather than act prematurely to resolve it. He gives an example of a bishop in his native South America, who had to deal with one of his priests who was in an irregular relationship. Rather than confronting and disciplining the priest, which was what his parishioners wanted, the bishop asked the priest to come and see him in two weeks’ time. After this period of reflection, the priest was ready to open up and to talk honestly about his situation, in a way that he wasn’t previously.

This story tells us so much about Pope Francis’ style. He wants to respect the journey of the people of God, who must find their own way to where God wants them to be, instead of simply telling them. A priest in the confessional, for example, can only form a person’s conscience: he cannot replace it. And such formation, such discernment of the way forward, takes time. This is reflected even in Francis’ own personal devotions, such the painting of ‘Our Lady, Untier of Knots’, in which Mary is trying to untangle a ball of string; or ‘San José Dormido’, the statue of the sleeping St Joseph which lies outside Pope Francis’ bedroom. St Joseph answers our petitions eventually: but he is a master craftsman, and quality work takes time!

Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds in today’s gospel makes precisely this point. The wheatfield has been spoilt by the sowing of weeds, and the reaction of the servant is to separate the good from the bad, by pulling up the weeds. But the master tells him to wait. A moment will come when they can be distinguished without doing harm; but until then, weeds and wheat must grow together. The master and the servant must wait, just as the father of the prodigal has to wait. Respecting the process of time- waiting for the harvest- is more important than clearing a pure ‘space.’

The story is important to the writer of Matthews’ gospel, and suggests there may have been tensions within his community: for example, between Christians who came from a Jewish background, and those from pagan or gentile origins. In this kind of situation, the temptation is to divide into factions or tribes, rival groups which ‘stick to their own.’ This is especially the case when one group decides itself to be holier or more authentic than another and tries to protect its purity by separating itself off.

We see this constantly in social and political life, and above all in recent years, when politics has become polarised, and any kind of consensus or sense of a common good has collapsed. But while this may be the way of ordinary social groups, the Church is called to be a different kind of community, one in which each person is called to be holy, for sure - but where people are at different stages toward that goal.

This may be a good place to remind ourselves of why, when we celebrate Mass, we read from the Old Testament as well as the New Testament: so that we can be reminded of the importance of patient waiting. All the twenty-seven books of the New Testament writings were written within about fifty or sixty years of the death of Christ. However, the books of the Old Testament were written over a much longer period and tell of a thousand years of Jewish history. For a whole millennium, God called and formed his people, he watched over them through times of prosperity and disaster, he waited for them as they fell away and returned to him. In the words of the Eucharistic prayer: ‘time and again you offered them covenants, and through the prophets taught them to look forward to salvation.’ So often, for the people of Israel, this was a long, excruciating experience of God’s absence, God’s inaction. When will he come? When will he exercise his power?

And in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, so that the virtuous may - at last - shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.

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