Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today, we invite you to explore Jesus’s yeast metaphor for describing the kindom of God with the help of French theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu; engage the worker-focused vision of Catholic Social Teaching through both papal documents and their critics; and embody the prophetic immersive ministry of the French Worker-Priest movement and the art of Fritz Eichenberg.
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
For there is no God, other than You,
who cares for every living thing,
to whom You might have to prove
that You have never unjustly condemned.
For Your strength is the source of justice;
Your command over all makes You lenient to all.
for You show Your strength
when the perfection of Your power is disbelieved.
In those who know You, You rebuke insolence;
but, disposing of such strength,
You are mild in judgment.
You govern us with great lenience,
for You have only to will, and Your power is there.
You have taught Your people, by these deeds,
that those who are just must be kind;
and You gave Your children good ground for hope
that You would permit repentance for their sins.
Response: Adonai, You are good and forgiving.
Adonai, You are good and forgiving, / full of constant love for all who pray to You.
Listen to my prayer; / hear my cries for help.
R: Adonai, You are good and forgiving.
All the nations You have created / will come and bow down to You.
They will praise Your greatness,
Because only You, O God, are mighty; / only You do wonderful things.
R: Adonai, You are good and forgiving.
Adonai, You are a merciful and loving God,
Slow to anger, always kind and faithful.
Turn to me and have mercy on me; / strengthen me and save me.
R: Adonai, You are good and forgiving.
The Spirit, too, comes to help us in our weakness.
For we do not know how to pray as we should,
but the Spirit expresses our plea with groanings too deep for words.
And God, who knows everything in our hearts,
knows perfectly well what the Spirit is saying,
because the Spirit’s intercessions for God’s holy people
are made according to the mind of God.
Jesus presented another parable to those gathered:
“The kindom of heaven is like a farmer who sowed good seed in a field.
While everyone was asleep, an enemy came
and sowed weeds among the wheat
and then made off.
When the crop began to mature and yield grain,
the weeds became evident as well.
“The farmer’s workers came and asked,
‘Did you not sow good seed in your field?
Where are the weeds coming from?’
“The farmer replied, ‘I see an enemy’s hand in this.’
“They in turn asked, ‘Do you want us to go out and pull them up?’
‘No,’ replied the farmer, ‘if you pull up the weeds,
you might take the wheat along with them.
Let them grow together until the harvest,
then at harvest time I will order the harvesters
to first collect the weeds and bundle them up to burn,
then to gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”
Jesus presented another parable to the crowds,
“The kindom of Heaven is like the mustard seed that a farmer sowed in a field.
It is the smallest of all the seeds,
but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all—
it becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come to perch in its branches.”
Jesus offered them still another parable:
“The kindom of Heaven is like the yeast a baker took
and mixed in with three measures of flour until it was leavened all through.”
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables.
He spoke to them in parables only,
to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables,
I will announce things hidden since the creation of the world.”
Then Jesus left the crowd and went into the house.
The disciples also came in and said,
“Explain the parable about the weeds in the field.”
“The farmer sowing the good seed is the Chosen One,
the field is the world,
and the good seed, the citizens of the kindom.
The weeds are the followers of the Evil One,
and the enemy who sowed them is the Devil.
The harvest is the end of the world,
while the harvesters are the angels.
Just as weeds are collected and burned,
so it will be at the end of the age.
The Chosen One will send the angels who will weed out the kindom
of everything that causes sin and all who act lawlessly.
The angels will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But those who are just
will shine like the sun in the kindom of their Abba God.
Let those of you who have ears to hear, hear this!”
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
Yeast and the Kindom of God
In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers a series of vivid images to help his disciples understand the kindom of Heaven. (Our translation, The Inclusive Bible, prefers “kindom” rather than “kingdom,” for the Greek word basileia, following the insights of feminist theologians who see kinship, rather than patriarchal monarchy, as characteristic of the ways that God is at work in the world, already but not yet – the promise of what is already happening and what is to come.) We may be more familiar with the “sower” and “mustard seed” analogies, but what are we to make of that last image, just a single sentence long – “The kindom of Heaven is like the yeast a baker took and mixed in with three measures of flour until it was leavened all through?”
This yeast metaphor was a favorite of the French theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990). Chenu began his education in the early 20th century, when the institutional Catholic Church had taken a largely defensive stance against the developments of the modern world, fearing that scientific and political revolutions threatened its doctrinal and temporal authority. But drawing on Jesus’s likening of God’s kindom to yeast in dough, Chenu resisted this tendency to withdraw from or condemn the “outside world,” insisting that the church’s very mission is to engage the world. Retrieving this biblical image from the Gospel of Matthew, Chenu argued that the Christian community ought to immerse itself in even seemingly secular sectors, attuning ourselves to where God may already be at work outside the confines of the institutional church.
Throughout history, church leaders have worried about institutional preservation – how to protect the church from external threats. In his 1940 article “Social Classes and the Mystical Body of Christ,” Chenu recognized this temptation to keep the church somehow uncontaminated by the realities of the world: “Sometimes, I fear, we only think of the Gospel’s power as a pious escape from earthly constraints. . . and we then hesitate to toss the yeast fully in the dough, fearing that if we did, we wouldn’t be able to conserve religious purity.” But, he argues, the church’s job is not to protect itself by being set apart. Rather, we are to go out into the world, bringing the Gospel leaven into it. Yeast seems to vanish into the dough mixture, but that is where it really begins to work. The true power of yeast is not clear until it has been fully immersed into the other ingredients. Similarly, the true power of the Gospel is not actualized until it is immersed in the world. In 1954, Chenu asked rhetorically, “If the yeast isn’t in the dough, what good is its untouched purity?”
Chenu ties this yeast imagery to the incarnation: in the human person of Jesus, God fully enters human reality. God did not flee from or abandon the messiness of earthly realities; on the contrary, God took it all on by becoming human. If this is how God works, and Jesus tells us that this is how God’s kindom works, then so too, Chenu insists, should the church, in service of the kindom.
Chenu embodied this commitment in his own life, particularly in his engagement with the French poor and industrial working class. Chenu sent his seminary students outside the walls of the Dominican House of Studies to take on manual labor internships. He served as the unofficial chaplain of the Worker Priest Movement – a group of priests who left their comfortable parish positions in favor of full-time manual labor. He theologized with worker communities, noting in his 1975 interview with Jacques Duquesne that they “weren’t asking for a solution from on high,” but “wanted [Chenu] to help them find Christian solutions for themselves, out of their own experience.”
While Chenu’s vision of a church engaged with the world, like yeast immersed in dough, initially incurred suspicion from Rome, this idea was largely embraced at the Second Vatican Council. The document Gaudium et spes, “The Church in the Modern World,” recognized the church’s “duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (4). In today’s Gospel, we hear an invitation to fully immerse ourselves in the signs of the times, to serve as leaven in the world, and to discern where God might already be at work.
Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990) was a French theologian, medieval historian, Dominican priest, and advocate for the working class. His early work focused on the cultural and historical context that shaped Thomas Aquinas’s thought, and evolved to take on a sharper social consciousness. While the Vatican initially condemned both Chenu’s historical work and his advocacy for the Worker-Priest Movement, many of his ideas came to be embraced at the Second Vatican Council, where he served as an advisor to the African bishops. His most notable works include Saulchoir: A School of Theology (1937), Toward Understanding St. Thomas (1950), and Theology of Work (1955).
Commentary by Mary Kate Holman
Engage Catholic Social Teaching
The tradition of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), first articulated explicitly in Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum (1891), brings the Gospel to bear on pressing social realities. The very title of that first CST document, meaning “new things” in Latin, communicates that the church is initiating a dialogue with the evolving world. Future popes would publish subsequent encyclicals to commemorate the anniversary of RN and comment on new social developments since the original document, like Quadragesimo anno (1931) and Centesimus annus (1991). The most pervasive themes running through these documents are the dignity of work and the rights of workers (including a living wage and union membership). As CST evolved, the common destination of goods became a central component of the tradition: the notion that all created goods are intended by God for the common benefit of humankind. However, the church also affirms the right to private property, and our economic system, capitalism, an economic system where the rich have abundant property while the poor don’t have enough to survive. These violate God’s will for creation. In other words, unfettered capitalism has been fundamentally incompatible with Catholic social teaching since its inception.
Chenu greatly appreciated the socially-engaged trajectory of CST, but towards the end of his career, he exhorted ecclesial leaders to take this tradition further. While the social encyclicals beginning with Rerum novarum do engage realities of the secular world, Chenu noted that their method largely consists of clerics theologizing about labor. This top-down approach, Chenu contended, did not always reflect an accurate understanding of workers’ experiences. For example, in The Social Doctrine of the Church as an Ideology, Chenu argued that Rerum novarum is laden with “nostalgia for predominantly rural, traditional society,” justifying its sympathy for industrial workers by elevating an idealized vision of peasants working the land. Chenu also notes that Rerum novarum’s defense of private property relies exclusively on an economic argument, rather than a theological one. No justification from the Gospel is offered for this principle, which (along with the right to unionize) becomes foundational for future CST documents.
Chenu asks, how much more relevant and prophetic would CST be if it took the experiences of ordinary people as its starting point? With a more inductive method, Chenu believed that CST could better articulate the Gospel message for our own times. As we Catholics anticipate future documents from our ecclesial leaders, we can take Chenu’s encouragement to interpret them in conversation with two important sources: the Gospel and human experience, specifically the experiences of those whose lives are most impacted by these ideas — those harmed by unjust economic structures.
A Contemplative Exercise
Cartoons often depict God as a white man in the sky, who occasionally intervenes in the world with a bolt of lightning or a divine decree. But this is not the God whom Jesus describes in today’s Gospel!
Jesus tells us that God’s kin-dom is like yeast in dough. We invite you to meditate on this image, in all of its physicality. Smell the earthy aroma of yeast. Feel the texture of the granules of kneading yeast into flour, water, and salt to prepare bread dough. Contemplate the time that yeast takes to work – how the dough slowly but surely expands, swelling to more than double its original size.
As this image permeates your senses, turn your attention to God. What does it mean to you that God acts in this way, like yeast in dough? Where in the world, if you pay close enough attention, do you see God’s kindom unfolding like this? What sectors of the world do you feel called to immerse yourself in, acting as the leaven of the Gospel?
From 1943-1954, 100 French Catholic priests eschewed Roman collars in favor of denim factory uniforms, renouncing the trappings of clerical distinction to live and labor with the working class. Recognizing that ecclesial structures established to serve agrarian medieval society had failed to address the radical new living and working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, these “worker priests” entered into solidarity with the working class, who had largely turned away from the Catholic Church. They took on full-time jobs as dock workers in port cities; metallurgists in factories; firemen at industrial furnaces; and construction workers at hydro-electric dams. There was even one technician in the film industry.
Initially spurred by a mission to evangelize the laborers, many worker priests found their vocation transformed, becoming advocates for labor rights and social justice. Struck by the dehumanizing injustice of housing and working conditions, the priests joined unions. Notably, they chose the openly communist General Confederation of Labor (CGT) rather than the explicitly religious French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), because the majority of workers favored the former. Some even took on leadership roles, organizing strikes and participating in confrontations with police.
Marie-Dominique Chenu served as the unofficial chaplain and theologian of the Worker Priest Movement. Although the movement was dismantled by the Vatican in 1954 – fearing they were communist sympathizers and had strayed too far from a traditional understanding of priesthood – these men stand as witnesses that a radical form of Catholic ministry, building the kindom of God like yeast in dough, is possible.
For more on this movement, see Oscar Arnal, Priests in Working Class Blue: The History of the Worker-Priests (1943-1954).
Fritz Eichenberg’s “The Labor Cross” (1954) is a wood engraving that features laborers of different races, genders, and ages, all positioned within the framework of a large wooden cross. They till, build, fish, and mine. Eichenberg (1901-1990) was a German Jewish illustrator who fled Nazi occupation in 1933. He dabbled in many religious traditions and joined the Society of Friends (Quakers). Through his friendship with Dorothy Day, he contributed many illustrations to the Catholic Worker newspaper. His art often features themes of labor and pacifism.
Image description: On a large grained cross stand workers, one with a net, one hoeing a field, some stewarding animals with their children, one cutting beams with a large saw, one using a pick, wearing an old-style mine helmet, and one cutting down a tree with an axe.