Eleventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Conrad gives us reason to laugh at ourselves – and at Jesus.
Sometimes we take Our Lord’s words too seriously. We forget that, being human, and indeed Jewish, he had a sense of humour. So, when we hear his parables, we suppose they are based on straightforward observations of everyday life, and draw earnest moralising lessons from plain facts. We find it difficult to notice the fantastical, the ironic, and even the slapstick components of Jesus’s teaching. We dare not laugh at what he says, even when he wants us to.
In today’s Gospel, we hear about the mustard seed that grows into a great shrub, and puts forth branches large enough to shade the birds of the air. We nod sagely and say, ‘How true to life!’ If anxieties about the size of mustard plants start to trouble us, we console ourselves with the thought that in first century Palestine mustard plants did actually grow quite large. Our Lord, we know, could never have made a joke.
We are supposed to laugh at the parable.
Given the current pattern of land use in England, we might translate the parable into modern idiom, and speak of a rape seed. The only birds of the air that could perch in a field of rape would be little sparrows able to flit from stalk to stalk as the wind shakes the plants, and other little creatures willing to enjoy a roller-coaster effect as the breeze blows. A rape or mustard plant couldn’t support the weight of a pigeon, let alone an eagle. In any case, an eagle would be too proud and self-conscious even to think about perching in so lowly and temporary a bit of vegetation.
In today’s first reading, Ezekiel pictures the faithful remnant, the twig plucked from the once-great Davidic Empire, becoming in its turn a majestic cedar providing shelter for the whole earth. We naturally, and rightly, see such images as prophecies of the Church that Jesus founded on the Rock. We naturally, and rightly, sing about the Church:
Hers the household all-embracing;
Hers the vine that shadows earth.
Blest thy children, mighty Mother;
Safe the stranger at thy hearth!
After all, two weeks ago we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, recalling how the Holy Spirit made the Church a Catholic Church, able to take root in every culture, able to purify and bring home all valid human insights and aspirations, able to utter the truth about God in each and every language.
But in today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a complementary picture of what his Church should be, a self-consciously different model, a light and humorous image. If we are to be the Kingdom, the place where God reigns, then we cannot take ourselves too seriously. We cannot be proud eagles all the time; on occasion, we must be like crazy sparrows, able to cope when the wind (that is, the Holy Spirit) agitates the stems on which we try to perch.
We cannot ever lose sight of another Tree — neither a mustard plant nor a mighty cedar, but the tree of the Cross. Another phrase we sing goes Regnavit a Ligno Deus — ‘God has reigned from the Tree.’ If you want to see what the Kingdom, the reign, of God looks like, look to Jesus on the Cross. That is the reign we can expect God to exercise in our midst.
Jesus came to save sinners; the Church he founded is a refuge for sinners. One of the greatest antidotes to many of our sins is a sense of humour, the readiness not to take ourselves too seriously.
Of course, some sins must be taken seriously, and are nothing to laugh about. But for most of us, most of the time, our sins, being venial, would ‘get us down’ if we only ever stood on our own dignity. An eagle perching in stately fashion on the branch of a cedar might fret if a single feather were out of place. A sparrow trying to find a foothold in a windswept field of rape does not have that luxury.
When we confess our sins, let us — when appropriate — acknowledge our littleness, and the foolishness of our foibles, and be prepared to laugh at the muddles we get into. That may help us view other people’s foibles with affectionate humour, and avoid being affronted when they behave like the cheeky sparrows for whom the Church is home.