by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Parables of God’s Kingdom: The wheat and weeds, the mustard seed and the yeast. Matthew 13: 24-43
Scripture scholars have sometimes referred to Matthew’s Gospel as “the Gospel of the Kingdom” simply because it contains more than fifty references to the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. Today’s gospel-reading consists of three parables used by Jesus to teach his disciples and the crowds gathered to hear him about the reign of God which he was intent on establishing. It’s important for us to understand that the “kingdom of God” to which he referred was not a political entity or a physical territory or a state on the map. Rather it was a way in which people might live together intent on putting into practice God’s dream for humanity. It was all about people doing all in their power to treat each other with respect and dignity, making sure to protect those most at risk and reaching out to one another with justice, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. The three parables that make up today’s gospel-reading are about the virtue of tolerance – not rushing to push aside those who don’t measure to our standards, those we label as weeds; the virtue of attending to the small, ordinary things of everyday life that are needed for harmonious living together, making sure to pay attention to almost insignificant things of daily life, the mustard-seed size of things; the virtue of attending to little things like compliments, words of encouragement, giving time to listen to others – doing things for others that almost imperceptibly can build vibrant communities, rather like the way in which yeast turns dough into nourishing bread. It is also worth noting that Matthew wrote his Gospel at least half a century after the death of Jesus for an emerging Christian community that was struggling with the reality of strenuous opposition from a Jewish community intent on having nothing to do with Jesus and his message. Matthew was setting out to encourage his community to believe in themselves as a people entrusted with the mission of establishing God’s dream for the world, to value themselves as “good quality wheat” that would have to live patiently side-by-side with pesty weeds or as a tiny seed that would grow into a large organisation to influence the world and a group that would nourish others with a rule for living in peace and harmony. With that as introduction, we can look closely at some of the details of today’s readings.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom, prepares the way for the next two readings by introducing us to the God Paul describes in today’s second reading from Romans and the God whose guide for living is outlined in the three gospel parables. The writer of the Book of Wisdom describes God as having nothing to do with oppression or compulsion. Addressing God directly, the writer declares: “There is no other god in existence who is like you. You are a God who cares for everybody equally. Your might is the source of justice; your mastery over all things leads you to be lenient to all” (Wisdom 12: 17-18). We live in a world in which dictators, potentates and terrorists use naked power to destroy, to oppress and control. At the same time, we witness on a daily basis the power of those who reflect something of the power of God by the way in which they use their power to nourish and care for others. They are those who assist and encourage others to grow into their best selves, to become the people they want to be. They are the teachers, the carers of the aged and infirm, the nurses, doctors and psychologists who breathe life into those they accompany without creating dependency. This reading concludes by reminding us that we live true to our best selves when we use our power, talent and expertise to imitate the God to whom we give our allegiance.
Today’s second reading from Romans is encouragement to all of us who at some time or other struggle to pray. And isn’t that all of us? Paul reminded his community and us, too, that our very efforts and intentions to contribute to the building of the kingdom and the reign of God are all that really matter. Paul assures us that God’s Spirit, alive in us, will assist us by stepping in to make good our weaknesses and inadequacies. Paul urges us not to be self-critical when we can’t find the right words with which to pray. He assures us that our efforts to pray will be supplemented by God whose Spirit will pray in and for us.
The three parables that constitute the gospel-reading, like all parables, are open to a wealth of interpretations. They are parables which we can use for reflecting on our own lives, on the world in which we live and on the church and communities to which we belong. For instance, people who are inclined to rush into the task of pulling out weeds represent those who believe they have knowledge of how God wants the world to be ordered. In their view, there is no place for “weeds”, literal or metaphorical. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were the self-appointed arbiters of rule observance. Their modern-day equivalents are the people we refer to as “temple police”, who make it their business to check on the observance of ritual in the liturgy. In the life of the Church. In the history of the Church, there has been no shortage of religious perfectionists in any period. They seem to think that anyone who does not adhere to strict observance of the rules dear to them might contaminate them. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day could not tolerate Jesus because of his insistence in reaching out to sinners, in daring to put healing hands on people who had a disability or were contaminated by skin diseases. Jesus was also labelled by them as being non-observant because he cured sick people on the Sabbath.
The first reading from Wisdom describing God as one who uses power to nurture, guide and encourage and the second from Paul’s Letter to the Romans speaking of God’s Spirit intervening to optimise our desires and attempts to turn our minds and hearts to God in prayer, convince me that the parable of the weeds and wheat, which is about God’s patience with human beings who can resort to devious means to get what they want. It is surely not about reminding us or them that God will give them their come-uppance in the long run. God is just as patient with human perversity as with the human frailty and inconsistency evident in our day-to-day lives.
In conclusion, we might spend a few moments reflecting on Jesus’ ability to be realistic about how his audiences might make sense of, or struggle with, his parables. In his presentation of the parable of the mustard seed, I can imagine him chuckling inwardly in anticipation of the prospect of the legalists of his day interpreting his message of the coming reign of God as nothing more than the sudden appearance and hasty growth of a noxious and unwelcome weed. They would have considered the reign of God as a mere nuisance to be rooted out and thrown aside. Jesus was sufficiently aware of the inflexibility of many who bothered to look critically at the message he and his disciples proclaimed to conclude that they would choose to ignore it, no matter how creatively that message was presented.
As for the parable of the yeast, there is a humorous side to that too. Three measures of flour plus the amount of yeast required to make it rise would have made enough bread to feed a village. There would have been people in the audience wondering just how many people the baker-woman thought she was going to feed. By deliberately exaggerating the measures of the ingredients, Jesus was making the point that there was sufficient imagination, generosity, goodwill and creative energy alive in ordinary people for them to be active participants in establishing the reign of God. We, too, have gifts and skills. Today’s readings leave us to ask ourselves why we are short on passion and intensity for doing our bit to bring the reign of God to life where we live, work and worship.