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Have you understood all this? They answered, “Yes.”
Matthew 13:51

Note: This is the final segment in a July Sunday series of reflections on one or more of the day’s Revised Common Lectionary texts, highlighting poems by Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B. An introduction can be found here.

* * *

Sorry, disciples, but I call baloney. That said, I think that Matthew’s snapshot points back to the questions that Kilian McDonnell helped us raise last Sunday.

What is it like to live in the middle of God’s search for us, ours for God, and all the mysterious and messy nuances in between? What do we do in the meantime, without the benefit of hindsight? How do we live the questions?

In the space of one day in Matthew’s dizzying chronology, Jesus lambastes the religious leaders; preaches to the crowds with weird references to Jonah and the Queen of Sheba; rudely ignores a message that his mother and brothers have come to talk to him (scroll to “Hammer, Spike, Mary”); tells oblique stories about the immeasurable worth of a mysterious hidden kingdom. He constructs a series of good/evil dualisms about who’s in and who’s out of that realm, including ominous images of the “outs” being thrown into a furnace, complete with grisly sound effects.

Where are the disciples in all of these (choose your own adjective) conversations, and why, exactly, did they give up a perfectly good fishing life for this (scroll to “The Call”)? Were they looking for something they didn’t realize they were missing? Why not just leave?

Jesus has further complicated things today by telling them they’re his chosen family (although he leaves them with the unenviable task of informing his blood relatives of that fact). When they ask why he speaks in parables, he assures that only the righteous understand his stories, and implies that because they “get it,” they needn’t worry. Great.

Think about it: what would be going through your angsty head right now, given those options? To their credit (and counting on their “blessed” status), they screw up the courage to approach Jesus in private with one question. “Excuse us, Jesus, but could you please just explain that one about the weeds and the wheat?”

Be careful what you ask, fishermen. Jesus answers, adds a few more parables for an encore, then closes with a reprise of “The Day of Reckoning” and its fiery consequences. For the finale, the $64,000 question: “Do you understand all of this?”

(Gulp) “Yes.” Riiiight. As I said, I call baloney, although I sympathize. In any case, Jesus seems to accept it as a credible answer. He adds one more cryptic afterthought and then takes off for his hometown where he’s about to offend more than his rebuffed family.

* * *

These days, my response might be something like this: “No, Jesus, I don’t understand. What about all your “Blessed are…” love and mercy talk up on the mountain? This superior, purity-driven separatism is exactly what I don’t like about so much of your church, and some days I’m close to leaving. I can’t explain why I feel pulled to figure it out. If you can’t leave me alone, I could use a little help in the meantime.”

How do we live the questions? As I’ve admitted, it’s poetry that speaks my language these days, and Kilian McDonnell doesn’t disappoint.

Most centrally, McDonnell affirms—indeed, seems to insist upon—a foundational theological concept: we live the questions in freedom. “Nowhere to Hide” is essentially a revoicing of Psalm 139’s description of the extent of God’s search for us, up until McDonnell’s pivotal insertion at the poem’s conclusion. “—But you leave me free—/Too great this knowledge, Lord,/Too high,/too wide.

In “Covenant Compulsion of the Pit-bull” McDonnell wonders why God is bound by God’s promises “while we are free/ to plunge a dagger/into the heart of Love/without/ripping up the pact?/We can always come back/on our knees to find/God has opened the door. ”

Free to leave, and free to argue. In “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” McDonnell answers Romans 9:20’s question, “Who are you, a human being, to argue with God?” with a clear justification based on the psalmist’s “little lower than God” claim (“A crooked cucumber/I am not. I am you/lower case”) before going on to challenge, “Potter, tell me this!/Why do your vessels/come from the turning wheel/having no handles?/Even you have problems./Where does my freedom/ to spill break/your mastering arm?

Also, free to fail. As I’ve noted elsewhere in this series, there are plenty of examples of human failure in McDonnell’s poetry. In my way of parsing, it’s also the underside of a phrase in the final verse of the hymn that I referenced last week, “I find, I walk, I love….” To me, that line can’t be understood without its implicit corollaries: I lose my way, I trip and fall, I am unloving and unlovable. The hymn suggests that all of it is somehow inseparable from God, who was there first.

I also hear “in the meantime” guide words offered throughout today’s lections: remember, seek wisdom, trust, wait, be grateful, hope. Pollyanna I am not; there is absolutely no way this is easy or fail-proof for questioning disciples of any time or place, but McDonnell offers windows, especially as he experiences old age and contemplates death. I encourage you to open them on your own.

I began this series noting that Kilian McDonnell writes about people who have big problems with God. After all the words, I close with these, from “God is Not a Problem.” Take from them what you will, traveler.

God is not a problem I need to solve….not a fortress I can lay siege to and reduce…not a confusion I can place in order by my logic… God is the presence in which I live…the mystery I meet on the street…God is my situation,/the condition I cannot stand /beyond, cannot view from a distance/the presence I cannot make an object,/only enter on my knees.


Permission to quote from poems and other writings by Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B. has been granted by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, which holds the copyright.

Marilyn Paarlberg

Marilyn Paarlberg is retired after a career in various education ministry positions, and most recently as the Executive Director of Room for All, Inc. She lives in Albany, New York.


  • Jan Hoffman says:

    God is the presence in which I live.
    Thank you for words of blessing this morning, Marilyn. I so appreciate your work. Might there be another poet for another month? Thank you.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    O Marilyn, you’ve done marvelously with the lectionary texts!
    Wow! And the hymn by Jean Ingelow. Whew.
    We’re the “treasure”. We’re the pearl of great price. We’re the ones caught in “the net”
    O but wait: God is the treasure. Realizing we are those “found” by God, at great cost to God. So we give OUR all in return.
    O my. And that final separation that fills us with dread that a “final fire” might destroy us, bad fish that we be?
    Referencing the “Fire” is Jesus’ way of reaching out to humans to get things right, so as not to worry.
    Paul in the Romans passage is the antidote. NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
    Old preachers never die. They just keep on preachin’.
    Thank you for this series Marilyn and for introducing us to Kilian McDonnell. What a blessing!

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Again, thanks so much for this intro to McDonnell and for your own personal reflections on Scripture.

  • Carol Westphal says:

    A wonderful series. Thank you!

  • Henry Baron says:

    Marilyn, your remarkable use of language to push us beyond the too familiar into a re-experience of the divine reflects an immersion into Kilian McDonnell; thanks so much to both!

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