Catholic Theological Union LogoCatholic Theological UnionLearn@CTUCatholics on CallCatholic Common Ground Initiative

"Strong Enough to Be Gentle" - A Scripture Reflection for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

by Stephen Bevans, SVD | July 23, 2017

"Strong Enough to Be Gentle"
A Scripture Reflection for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 23, 2017: Wis 12:13, 16-19; Ps 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Rom 8:26-27; Mt 13:24-43

Paul's talk of the Holy Spirit in today's second reading, paired with Jesus' little parable in the gospel about the woman baking bread, prompted me to imagine a beautiful way of speaking of the Holy Spirit -- as leaven. As far as I can recall, I don't know any theologian who has imaged the Holy Spirit in this way, but I think it is a marvelous way to imagine her. In the parable, Jesus images God as a woman who kneads leaven into a batch of bread, and, like leaven always does, it works silently and gently to transform a heavy lump of dough into a light, fragrant, and delicious loaf of bread. In the same way, God sends the Holy Spirit to leaven and transform the world in that same gentle and silent way. In the same way, the Holy Spirit cries out in our hearts "with inexpressible groanings," shaping us and transforming us as well to be leaven in our world.
This is the way God acts: silently and gently. Luring us, cajoling us, persuading us. This is the way God has acted since the first nanosecond of time, through the billions of years of evolution, through the thousands of years since human beings slowly emerged within the same evolutionary process. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson expresses this beautifully. "Active in the world," she writes,  "[God's] loving power accompanies the world as the patient, subtle presence of the gracious Creator who achieves divine purpose through the free play of created processes. In this perspective, the Spirit, more mobile than any motion, blows throughout the world with compassionate love that grants nature its own creativity and humans their own freedom, all the while companioning them through the terror of history toward a new future. Not the monarch but the lover becomes the paradigm."
There is a beautiful line in the first reading that expresses this too, and calls to mind the parable with which the gospel today opens and closes -- the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The line reads: "your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all." When I read this, I was reminded of a line that a friend of mine once shared with me. It was a line he had read in an ad years before in the magazine Farm Journal. It was an ad, of all things, for a certain kind of piston rings for tractors that, the ad read, were "strong enough to be gentle."  
This is the way Jesus presents God in the three parables he tells in the gospel. Jesus' God is a God of leniency, a God of patience, a baker woman God who allows leaven to turn dough into bread, a gardener God who is confident of the development of a tiny seed. Jesus shows us a God who will not even destroy weeds while they are growing, but patiently waits for the harvest for any kind of reckoning. Jesus shows us a God who, in the words of the first reading, gives "your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins." As Pope Francis never tires of saying, God never tires of forgiving us -- it's just we who tire of asking.
Jesus ends his explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds with some strong, even chilling, words of warning. Even these, however, reveal Jesus' God of gentle strength. God will never force Godself on us, even if that means losing us. Theologian Ilia Delio writes of God as "the beggar of love who waits at [every creature's] door without daring to force it open." Yes, there are horrible consequences if we do not open up our door to the strength of God's love, but they are consequences of our own making, not of God's. Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote that sin does not so much make God angry as to make God sad.
God's Spirit works like leaven in our lives, crying out in the depths of our hearts. God plants small seeds that grow into "the largest of plants." God waits patiently for a rich, bountiful harvest despite the presence of harmful weeds in God's field. Although God is "master of might," God judges "with clemency." God is "strong enough to be gentle."

The above image is from the Public Domain.

Author information Stephen Bevans, SVD

Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD, Professor Emeritus of Mission and Culture
S.T.B., S.T.L., Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome; M.A., Ph.D., University of Notre Dame; Study: University of Cambridge

Steve Bevans is a priest in the missionary congregation of the Society of the Divine Word and Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD, Professor Emeritus of Mission and Culture.

After completing his Licentiate in Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1972, he served as a missionary to the Philippines until 1981. In 1986 he received a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and has taught at CTU since that time, officially retiring from the faculty in 2015.

He is the author or co-author of six books and editor or co-editor of eleven, including Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004), and An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009). In 2013, he edited A Century of Catholic Mission, and, in 2015, with Cathy Ross, Mission on the Road to Emmaus: Constants, Context, and Prophetic Dialogue.

He is a member of the World Council of Churches' Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.

Books written by Steve Bevans

© Copyright 2018 Catholic Theological Union. All rights reserved.
Site design and development by Symmetrical Design.