Thursday, July 24, 2008


Thursday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Outflanking the Fortifications


Readings: Jeremiah 2:1-3, 7-8, 12-13; Psalms 36:6-7ab, 8-9, 10-11; Matthew 13:10-17
Picture: CC diametrik

In conventional warfare it’s pretty much common sense that when one encounters stiff resistance – in the form of a fortified position defended with formidable firepower, for example – one tries to avoid a direct assault. Instead, one attempts to outflank the position. This basic military tactic involves splitting one’s team into two groups. The first keeps the enemy engaged in a firefight. The second simultaneously maneuvers to the enemy’s flank, or rear, from which it can then more freely attack the position while the enemy’s attention is diverted elsewhere.

A fortified position is what we find in both our readings today. In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a people who have forgotten their God. Even those among them whose responsibility it is to know better – the priests, the prophets, and the experts in the Mosaic Law – have no knowledge of God. They have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, only to dig leaky cisterns for themselves… Things are not much better in Jesus’ day. Not only have the people lost their taste for the Word of God, they have actually fortified themselves against it. Their ears are dull of hearing and they have shut their eyes…

Faced with such a formidable foe, Jesus resorts to his own version of a flanking movement. Instead of direct speech, he chooses instead to tell parables. And notice how parables do their work. First, they are mundane enough for people to identify with. Instead of speaking in purely abstract terms, Jesus tells very down-to-earth stories about everyday realities, most recently about sowing seed and harvesting grain. But one should not be fooled by the apparent ordinariness of Jesus’ stories. Each parable usually also contains something puzzling or surprising – even shocking – enough to prick the listeners’ interest, to keep their attention occupied. In the parable of the sower and the seed, for example, Jesus refers to a hundred-fold harvest. This must have surprised his listeners, since scholars tell us that the average yield at the time was only ten-fold. But the interesting aspects of the story are not really an end in themselves. Their function is to keep the listeners occupied and engaged long enough for the parable’s deeper meaning to stealthily burrow its way through the fortifications of their minds and hearts, thus facilitating conversion and repentance.

What is useful for us to take away from such considerations will depend upon the side on which we may be fighting at any given moment. Sometimes we may find ourselves in the role of the staunch defenders, stubbornly resisting God’s Word and its implications for us. And try as we might, we may seem unable to dismantle our own defenses. In such situations, perhaps we ought simply to allow ourselves to remain engaged in God’s Word, even though it has no apparent effect. Perhaps we should just allow ourselves to remain pinned down by its friendly fire, and await that magical moment when we are finally outflanked and overrun by the depth of its truth.

On the other hand, when we find ourselves in the role of the ones trying to storm the defenses of others, perhaps what we need to learn is that a direct assault is neither always the wisest nor the safest option. Perhaps we might imitate the Lord in patiently taking a more indirect approach, one that relies more on the subtle power of the Word of God, than on any skill or eloquence of our own.

How does the Lord desire to outflank our fortifications today?

1 comment:

  1. The two dimensions of life in my spiritual journey are understood in the context of pursuing and then ruminating.
    We read and seek God in the scriptures but sometimes find him absent. Can repeated familiarity make us lose sight of what is essential. We are assaulted in our senses by the world at every turn. The Parables shake us out of our reverie and we remember to be simple and still.
    Daily encounters can be fruitful or stressful but at all times, I remember that it is the day that the Lord has made and be glad. Today has been a mixed day for me as unexpected concerns sprung up but was also joyful because of treasured moments with friends.

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