by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The kingdom of God may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep, his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat…The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants…The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until the whole mass of dough began to rise.” Matthew 13, 24-43
What we now call Matthew’s Gospel is a collection of stories and parables about the origins, life and teachings of Jesus. The writer had put them together to affirm and encourage a Christian community that was less than popular with a much larger community of traditional Jews, who could not accept that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ of God. Seemingly, Matthew wrote as he did to encourage his community to see that they were the ones entrusted with keeping alive God’s promises to Israel. Matthew wanted them to realise that they were the good quality wheat threatened with being choked by the destructive weeds that surrounded them; that they were the mustard seed that would grow into a large shrub offering shelter; that they were the yeast that would rise to provide bread and nourishment to feed the world. It is these three parables. – of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and the yeast in the dough. – that make up today’s gospel. We need to tread warily as we negotiate our way through them, especially the first about the wheat and the weeds. If we were to take that parable literally, we could end up thinking that the world is made up of only two kinds of people – good and bad – and that, in the final analysis, the bad will all be burned up. To begin with, that flies in the face of Jesus’ earlier description of God and his exhortation to the disciples: “My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are sons of your heavenly Father, for his sun rises on the bad and the good, he rains on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5, 44-45). Moreover, we believe that every human being is created in the image of God, and we know from looking at ourselves that we are all capable of good and evil, that there are wheat and weeds within each of us. So, one very clear message from this parable is that we ought not rush to make categorical judgements about who is good and who is bad, and who is to be excluded and punished.
Many of us can probably remember times when the process of training, education and formation in trades, professions and even in religious life and seminaries was all about pointing out our mistakes, with little attention being given to affirmation and praise when we actually got things right. In my early years of religious life, we all spent fifteen minutes of every day reflecting on one of our particular faults, and working on how to eradicate it. It was called “the particular examen”. There was no encouragement given to celebrating our successes or deeds of kindness and compassion.
A second message we can take from this parable is that it is entirely appropriate that we leave to a God who is infinitely kind, merciful and forgiving the role of judging who’s worthy and who’s not. Then, we can get on with living our lives in the style of disciples and followers of Jesus. – acting with compassion, tolerance, justice and mercy, and being humble enough to seek forgiveness when self-interest, nastiness and bitterness are at the root of some of our actions. Jesus recognised the internal struggles that go on within each of us. He called Peter to task when he stepped out of line. – “Get behind me, Satan!” – yet affirmed his potential by nominating him to lead his disciples unto an unknown and precarious future. There are times when we can all be “wheat” for a community, an organisation, a world that is threatened with being choked by “weeds”.
The meaning of today’s gospel is elusive because the three parables told by Jesus don’t fit comfortably together. Each of them offers a partial view of what the kingdom of God might look like as it takes hold in the world. The first parable acknowledges that not everyone in the world will be open to the values of God. There will be good, open-minded, receptive people, and others who want nothing to do with the values of God. But the tension and opposition are not fixed by violence. The man who sowed the good seed had to restrain his servants when they discovered that an enemy had contaminated the crop. The owner called for restraint, patience and common sense. His motto might well have been: Live and let live.
Perhaps to stress our need to learn tolerance, Jesus, in the second parable, told how a man deliberately planted a mustard seed. Mustard bushes grow quickly and in abundance in Palestine, and they are weeds. True, the kingdom of God will grow, but it might not have a good look about it. It will offer shelter to the good and the not so good: to people like you and me.
The third parable likens the kingdom to the action of yeast in three measures of flour. Notice that it wasn’t three cups of flour, but three bucketsful, producing enough dough to provide bread to feed an army! The kingdom of God will provide sufficient nourishment for everyone.
So in presenting these three parables in succession, Jesus is giving us some sobering messages: forget about judging and categorising others; focus on living with faith and integrity; accept and respect everybody, even those we might be inclined to describe as “weeds”; God excludes nobody, and has no tolerance for class-distinction; God’s nourishing love, care, mercy and forgiveness are boundless.
A brief story to conclude: In her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, doctor and counsellor Rachel Remen tells how her grandfather gave her a paper cup when she was only four years old. Expecting a surprise, she was disappointed when she found the cup contained only black soil: “Mummy won’t let me play with dirt”, she said. Her grandfather quietly put the cup on Rachel’s windowsill and told her to use the teapot from her tea-set to water the soil every day and wait for a surprise. Bewildered, she still did as her grandfather had suggested. But, after a week, she asked him if it was time to stop. “No”, he said, “keep watering a little bit every day.” Then, one morning after watering for thee weeks, Rachel discovered two little green leaves that were not there the night before. She was sure her grandfather would be surprised as she rushed to tell him. But, of course, he wasn’t. Carefully he explained to Rachel that life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. “Then all it needs, Grandpa, is a little water?” Patting her on the head, he replied: “No, Rachel dear, all it needs is your faithfulness.”
Together, today’s parables challenge us to see the potential for good in everyone and in all of life’s circumstances, and to summon up the courage and perseverance to unlock that potential. Even mustard-seed sized faith allows space for the kingdom of God to take root and grow from very ordinary acts of justice, kindness and love.