FEATURE ARTICLE

Sunday, July 19, 2020
foborji@hotmail.com
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
GOD'S PATIENCE AMIDST THE WEEDS: A CHALLENGE TO THE NATIONS
ften we divide ourselves instinctively into good and evil, friends and enemies. The result of such a distinction is intolerance, hate, envy, jealousy and a desire to solve immediately whatever tensions arise from them. Some ask God to intervene and judge and punish others. Fortunately, God does not work in that way!

Our present article is inspired by the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis, which in turn was inspired by the Gospel story of the parable of the weeds among the wheat (cf. Matthew 13:24-30). The Gospel reading of the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 19, 2020, by Catholics is from the same Matthew chapter 13. In fact, all the three readings of the sixteenth Sunday this liturgical year 2020 are on the theme of God's patience and our impatience.

In the three readings, we see how God was asked by some people to intervene and judge and punish others. However, the readings tell us that God does not do things like that. The biblical readings teach us that God uses his power not to punish us, but to save us; he wants all of us to do likewise. The Gospel, in particular, tells us to accept with peace of mind and patience the presence of evil in the world, and invites us to recognize the weeds in our own hearts. (Cf. Wisdom 12:13-19; Psalm 86:5-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43).

Nowadays, it is increasingly becoming obvious, that in spite of the advancement in the areas of modern means of transportation and communication systems that have made the world look like a village in terms of easy flow of information, movement of persons and goods, the world is still burdened by religious, cultural, ethnic, political and economic conflicts and violence. These have led to wars, to political instability in many of the developing countries, to the negative rationalization and stereotype of one group against the other, to the use of religion to terrorize and cause havoc to people, to the abuse of political rhetoric and power, and to formulation of political and economic policies that favor one region and discriminate against the other. Many countries are still struggling to overcome ethnic and religious conflicts in their different territories.

This is also seen at the global and regional levels in the form of xenophobia, the growing anti-immigration laws by governments in most of the advanced countries. It has heightened and renewed once more in modern time, the primordial culture of ethnic-hate, racism, religious bigotry, terrorism, racist-backed geopolitical and economic systems - the North-South economic divide that has divided the world into First, Second, Third and even Fourth worlds, and that has continued to widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

It is also seen in the sabotaging work of the enemy, those working against the effort of genuine freedom fighters who are seeking for freedom and self-determination of their oppressed indigenous populations or the marginalized! Your own brother or foe, who does everything humanly possible at your back, to frustrate the genuine effort you are making to free your people from servitude, slavery, tyranny, oppression and poverty. Furthermore, it could also be the state of hopelessness and impoverishment a dictatorial regime in power might have inflicted on the citizens of his country! The indigence of being and destitute, a corrupt and ineptitude regime might have reduced the entire populace of a country!

In the midst of these situations, however, there is need not to lose hope but to continue the struggle, to keep alive the hope and continue to work for better tomorrow! The challenge is to continue to focus on your commitment to freedom, justice and peace in spite of the seemingly insurmountable presence of many weeds. Do not lose patience with God or with yourself.

God's Patience and Our Impatience

In the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Pope Francis anchored his teaching on the "Joy of the Gospel", highlighting the fundamental bond of human family. From there, he developed a social teaching on God's patience and our impatience, aimed at generating process of people-building. This principle is drawn from the parable of the weeds among the wheat (cf. Matthew 13:24-30), which graphically illustrates an important aspect of Christian witness in the world of today: the enemy can intrude upon the kingdom and sow harm, but ultimately he is defeated by the goodness of the wheat.

For Pope Francis, this principle calls for attention to the bigger picture, openness to suitable processes and concern for the long term. The Lord himself, during his earthly life, often warns his disciples that there were things they could not understand and that they would have to await the Holy Spirit (cf. John 16:12-13; see also EG 225). For Pope Francis, if we look more closely at the biblical teaching on patience as well as on reconciliation, we find that the locus is within ourselves, in our own lives, ever threatened as they are by fragmentation and breakdown: "If hearts are shattered in thousands of pieces, it is not easy to create authentic peace in society" (EG 229). In other words, the message of peace is not about negotiated settlement but rather the conviction that the unity brought by the spirit can harmonize every diversity:

It overcomes every conflict by creating a new and promising synthesis. Diversity is a beautiful thing when it can constantly enter into a process of reconciliation and seal a sort of cultural covenant resulting in a "reconciled diversity" (EG 230).

In his Message for the 2015 World Day of Peace, Pope Francis describes the emergent social tensions created by exclusion and discrimination of the poor and marginalized by the privileged minority, as the most excruciating form of the growing scourge of man's exploitation by man, and therefore, a major source of modern conflicts and tensions. The Pope calls these social tensions they generate, new faces of slavery.

Here Pope Francis develops a thought that looks very close to the African philosophy of relationality (umbuntu). It has often been claimed that where Descartes said, "I think, therefore, I am" (cogito ergo sum), the African would rather say: "I am related, therefore, I am" (cognatus ergo sum). However, for Pope Francis, since we are by nature relational beings, meant to find fulfillment through interpersonal relationships inspired by justice and love, it is fundamental for human development that our dignity, freedom and autonomy be acknowledged and respected:

Tragically, the growing scourge of man's exploitation by man gravely damages the life of communion and our calling to forge interpersonal relations marked by respect, justice and love. This abominable phenomenon, which leads to contempt for the fundamental rights of others and to the suppression of their freedom and dignity, takes many forms (Francis, Message for the 2015 World day of Peace, 1).

According to Pope Francis, the deep cause of the new forms of slavery today, as in the past, is rooted in the rejection of another person's humanity. It is rooted in a notion of the human person which allows him or her to be treated as an object: "Whenever sin corrupts the human heart and distances us from our Creator and our neighbors, the latter are no longer regarded as beings of equal dignity, as brothers or sisters sharing a common humanity, but rather as objects" (ibid). Whether by coercion or deception, or by physical or psychological duress, human persons created in the image and likeness of God are deprived of their freedom, sold and reduced to being the property of others. They are treated as means to an end.

In addition, Pope Francis says there are other deep causes, which help to explain contemporary forms of slavery. Among these, poverty ranks first, others are: underdevelopment, lust for power by the privileged minority, and exclusion of the hated group or individual from social opportunities in the society. This means that poverty as we experience it today is a system's problem, lack of political will on the part of those who wield power and control over the poor, to promote common good.

Beyond the Social Consequences of God's Patience

For Pope Francis, addressing the foregoing social issues, are of great importance for the future of humanity, because they call for the inescapable social dimensions of the Gospel message. The Pope encouraged all Christians to imbibe the social dimensions of the Gospel in addressing with courage this growing scourge of man's exploitation by man, by their words, attitudes and deeds. In fact, in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis says that the principle of the process of people-building drawn from the Gospel reminds us that:

Christ has made all things one in himself: heaven and earth, God and man, time and eternity, flesh and spirit, person and society. The sign of this unity and reconciliation of all things in him is peace. Christ "is our peace" (Ephesians 2:14). … Peace is possible because the Lord has overcome the world and its constant conflict "by making peace through the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:20 (EG 229)).

Again, in this social teaching, Pope Francis takes as a point of departure the reality of the poor and the marginalized as one of the high points for Christian witness in the society today.

The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges: When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised. This means that demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority (EG 218).

All this points to the importance of making the Gospel of Jesus Christ come alive in our day to challenge those situations of man's inhumanity to man as well as situations of divisions, tensions, conflicts and violence in modern society. The world needs to be challenged through Gospel proclamation and witness of life with the story of Jesus. Here the Gospel story of the feeding of the crowds comes to mind. This story is told in varying detail by all four gospel writers:

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them: "They need not go away: you give them something to eat. …" (Matthew 14:15-21).

Again, we meet Jesus resisting the attempt by his own disciples, to create a different image for his ministry: "Send the crowds away …we have nothing here." A realistic and pragmatic response of the disciples that the crowds should go back to the villages where they had lived all their lives as marginalized people. But, Jesus has a different view. For Jesus, the problem will not be solved by sending the crowds back to the villages. Neither is it a question of lack of commitment by the crowds, which can be easily addressed through alms giving or moral and spiritual motivation.

The problem has to do with rethinking the existing social order on which the society has been built - a social order that was never intended (or built from the bottom up) to respond to the basic social needs of the crowds but rather to serve the interest of a privileged minority and ruling class. This is a society the crowds are running away from because it has failed in its basic duty of providing security of lives and other social needs for the poor masses. This is what this episode is all about as Jesus' response in the story confirms: There is no need to send the people away, "You yourselves give them something to eat." Here, Jesus is inaugurating a new society that is people-oriented.

Commenting on this text, an African theologian from Uganda, Emmanuel Katongole opines that the Gospel story of Jesus' feeding of the crowds with five loaves and two fish is not only about the story of the miracle of "multiplication" or show of "compassion." It is a drama of competing stories - the old order giving way to the new order inaugurated in Jesus. The story of scarcity ("we do not have enough"), gives way to the performance of Jesus that provides an alternative to it: Where there was scarcity, there is now not only enough (everyone had their fill) but superabundance.

Instead of scattering of community as the disciples suggested, there is now Jesus gathering of the crowds (let people sit down); where there was a desert, we have now a lush field (people are ordered to sit down "on the grass"). (Cf. E. Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa, W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids. Michigan 2011, 168).

Conclusion

Is this not an invitation to rethink our social engagement and priority amidst the situations of conflicts and violence in the modern society? The story of the miracle of "multiplication" of five loaves and two fish makes real the foundational narrative that is needed to usher in a different approach for our social engagement and quest for a new society founded on equity, honesty, truthfulness, reconciliation, peace, justice and freedom.

Surely, we will also encounter obstacles and difficulties, but we must hold on to the abiding presence of God's patience and reconciling heart given to us as a gift. This is the challenge of building a new society that is people-oriented. It is a challenge of God's patience to our impatience amidst the weeds!

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