The Sweetness and the Sting

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.

I’ve been stung by bees exactly three times in my life. The first was when I was a young boy, on a camping trip with Scouts. The second was when I was in high school, during a Cross Country practice. We were doing repeat half-miles, which were painful enough, when a bee decided to land on the tongue of my shoe and sting me in the foot. The third was this past Wednesday when I was praying about this homily. No joke: I was walking on our property, praying to the Holy Spirit asking for inspiration, and a few minutes later a bee stung me on the head. Now, I didn’t see this as a sign at the time, except maybe as a sign to scream and run away, which I did. But later, when the pain subsided, I did begin to see it as a sign. I remembered that bees not only sing but they also produce honey.

The sweetness and the sting. Besides being a good name for a band, it’s a good analogy for Jesus’ parables. There’s a sweetness to Jesus’ parables: there’s something attractive about them; like a good story, they draw us in. But there’s also a sting to Jesus’ parables: there’s something convicting about them; they prick our consciences and challenge our complacency. The kingdom of heaven is like a buried treasure or a pearl of great price. What could be more attractive than that? Who hasn’t, at some point in their life, wanted to find buried treasure? Who hasn’t, at some point in their life, wanted to find something valuable on the bottom of a lake or ocean? I remember digging holes that I wasn’t supposed to and getting plenty of water in my ears doing both of those things as a kid. What an exciting, attractive, and sweet thing the kingdom of heaven is.

But the sweetness is also accompanied by a sting. Those who find the buried treasure and the pearl of great price go and sell everything they have to purchase them. And they do so with joy. Are we willing to give up everything for the kingdom of heaven? And are we willing to do so, not begrudgingly, but joyfully? There’s the sting. There’s the prick of our consciences and the challenge to our complacency.

The sweetness and the sting: that is the beauty of Jesus’ parables: their ability to simultaneously attract and convict us, to draw us in and draw something out of us. And aren’t we in desperate need of this kind of beauty these days? Aren’t we in desperate need of beauty that both attracts and convicts, that has a sweetness and a sting?

When we speak the truth about God, if we do so with all sting, we will never attract anyone to seek the kingdom of heaven. If we do so, on the other hand, with all sweetness and no sting, with only sugar and no substance, consciences will remain unmoved and complacency unchallenged.

There’s an art to speaking the truth about God in a clear, compelling, and attractive way. And often a work of art, whether a story, song, sculpture, or something else, is the most effective way to do this. There can be a sweetness to art, but also a sting; it can simultaneously attract and convict us. That is what Jesus’ parables do and that is what any authentic work of Christian art does

When was the last time you read a Christian novel or a biography of a saint? When was the last time you listened to a piece of Sacred Music or looked at a painting of Christ? Is there authentic Christian art on the walls, shelves, and electronic devices in your homes? Parents, how do you pass on the truth about God to your children? Do you pass on only the sweetness or only the sting? Do your children think that life with Christ is miserable or that it is a great adventure? Are they so convicted by and attracted to the kingdom of heaven that they are willing to give up everything for it? And to do so joyfully?

We all need people in our lives who will sit down with us face to face and convict us with the truth about God. We need the sting. We need to have our consciences pricked and our complacency challenged. But we also need people in our lives who will stand with us side by side and say, “Look at that, listen to this, isn’t God wonderful”? We need the sweetness. We need to have our hearts moved and our souls stirred.

This is what Jesus does for us in the parables. He’s a bee which brings both the sweetness and the sting. Let’s follow His example in our lives this week.