Grace at Work
by Rev. Steven G. Oetjen
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
Jesus said to the crowds: "This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a men were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come."
He said, "To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade." With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.
Grace is mysterious. And before we even talk about grace, we could say that the human heart itself, within which grace works, is also mysterious. Today we hear two parables about the mysterious, hidden working of grace in the human heart. In the first, seed sown into the ground sprouts and grows, while an onlooker "knows not how." In the second, the smallest of seeds eventually grows to become the largest of plants. There is something mysterious about the way seeds grow. A seed is small and hidden, and yet something great is eventually produced by it. Even more so with grace.
For our purposes here, let us consider only one example of the mysterious working of grace: the conversion of a sinner. We know that grace is necessarily involved in this. But how? What does grace do? At one point in his treatment of penance in the "Summa Theologiae," St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the cause of penance (III, q. 85, a. 5). What causes the sinner to be penitent? Is it fear? Love? Hope? There's no simple answer. The human heart is complicated, and the effects of grace are manifold.
It always begins with grace. Anything good we do always starts with God's initiative and then involves our response and cooperation. The same is true with the conversion of a sinner. The first movement of a sinner turning back to God is actually God's movement within the soul of that sinner. God acts, turning the heart of the person.
Second is a movement of faith. The sinner believes in God. Third is a movement of servile fear. This is a fear based on punishment. The sinner wants to turn away from his sin because he knows he deserves to be punished for it, and he is afraid of that punishment. Fourth is a movement of hope in the soul. Pardon for one's sins is possible. Salvation can be found in God. It is by this movement of hope that the sinner now makes a firm purpose of amendment.
Fifth is a movement of charity or love. The sinner is brought to love God once more. His heart, turned away from sin, is now turned back to God in love. This is what makes him hate his sin not just because it is disadvantageous to him and would lead him to hell, but because it is displeasing to God. And so, this leads to the sixth movement in the soul, a movement of filial fear. This is no longer a fear of punishment but a fear flowing from love. The person does not want to offend God whom he loves. Filial fear leads the person to want to make amends.
God acts in the soul, and a multiplicity of human acts are produced. To sum up: first, God's motion in the soul, then faith, then servile fear, then hope, then charity, then filial fear. This is like the seed that is sown that grows and sprouts, then hearts fruit, "first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear."
Is this a long, drawn-out progression or do all these things happen all at once in the human heart? St. Thomas doesn't say. He doesn't seem to be concerned with a timetable for all of that here. He simply wants to describe the manifold effects that grace works in the human heart as a sinner is brought back to God through repentance.
Like a mustard seed, the beginnings are hidden but the end result is glorious. When a sinner is recreated in grace, it is a greater work of God than the creation of the whole universe. A person who was spiritually dead is brought back to life. A heart far from God is now aflame with love for God. And yet the change is entirely invisible, unseen to the human eye. It takes place within the human heart, and it is wrought by the grace of God.