Last Sunday we heard about “large crowds” gathering around Jesus at the Sea of Galilee ; they were so big and so pressing that he got into a boat and taught them from there. As Jesus continues his teaching this week, we find that we’re still moored “along the shore,” shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. His talent as a storyteller is obvious – and it’s kind of fun to stand on the beach and listen to his voice coming across the water. Before we move to what he has to say today, however, it seems good to back up a bit and look at the big picture. Where does this sandy scene fit into Matthew’s plan for his gospel as a whole ?
What we discover is that the gospel passages for each of these three Sundays – last week, today, and next week – make up what’s known as the third “great discourse” in Matthew (Mt 13). As the third of five, it occupies the center position – a key place in ancient writing. So it’s not surprising that this “discourse” shows Jesus exploring the great Matthean theme of the nearness of the Kingdom of God with a rich variety of examples and comparisons. But unlike in the Sermon on the Mount (5-7) and the Missionary Discourse (10) which precede it, or in the Community Discourse (18) and the Apocalyptic Judgment Discourses (23-25) which follow it, in this discourse Jesus uses parables to get his message across.
A parable is a funny thing ; at first hearing it can seem easy to understand, but once you start thinking about it, that easiness often disappears. And in this “discourse,” where you have a bunch of parables hitting you one after the other, you can quickly feel as if you’re in deep water rather than on the sand. Take the first one for today : Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to the experience of a man who’s planted good seed only to discover that “an enemy” has snuck in overnight and sabotaged his work with weed seed. Now the two sorts of plant are growing up side by side, much to the dismay of the householder’s slaves. They want to take action right away and get rid of all those darn[el] weeds, but their master has a different idea : let them grow together till the harvest, he says, and then there will be action, with the weeds bundled and burned and the wheat gathered into his barn.
Before we can even scratch our heads about this one, Jesus plunges on : the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed – practically invisible when it goes into the ground, he says, it becomes the largest of plants. But wait : the kingdom is also like yeast “that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”
So Jesus, what did you say ?
Even the disciples aren’t really sure what he means. Once they’re alone with him “in the house” they ask him to explain the first parable, which he does by turning the parable into an allegory. He ticks off the main characters and elements one by one : “this stands for this, and that stands for that.” So now we can identify things. But what else can we learn from this parable ?
“The Weeds and the Wheat” offers a striking contrast between the slaves’ vision of what should be done and that of the master. They’re all for speedy intervention ; he, on the other hand, goes for patience – you might even say “tolerance.” Yes, the weeds will have to go eventually, but it’s not so easy to distinguish between bad plant and good plant, especially at the start of the growing season. And even if you do know the difference between darnel and wheat – you could still damage the wheat as you root out the weed. And that, the master is sure, is not what he desires. So we learn something about the master’s patience and about his care for his handiwork. When Jesus tells the disciples that “the field is the world,” he’s referring here to the human world, to humanity – the very ones who make up the kingdom on earth, the “here.” Far from being some kind of utopia (which is a “no place,”) the kingdom as it is right now is very much a “here place,” and that means it is a mixed body of saints and sinners. There will be a final sifting, but that’s in the “not yet” and such judgment will be up to God, not human beings. We also learn that God is far more patient with “bad” seed than we are – perhaps he’s heard that “with God, all things are possible” ! Couldn’t that include the transformation of weeds into wheat ? Sinners into saints ? In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice to try to remember “six impossible things before breakfast.” Her counsel was meant to be nonsense. But Jesus offers impossible things (before and after breakfast) to instruct the “just.” They are the ones, he says, who will, on Judgment Day, “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” So keeping this impossible story in mind as we look around at the “weeds” in our own societies or parishes or communities or families might just slow down our too-eager hoes and clippers – and maybe save us into the bargain !
If we push on and look at the other two parables, we hear Jesus telling some tall tales about mustard : it has a small seed, sure, but not the smallest, and its plant is certainly not the largest. So why does he say that it is ? Why, for that matter, does he have that woman in the third parable mix up “three measures of wheat flour” with her yeast ? Any lady who tried this would have had enough bread on her hands to feed a hundred people. How can these exaggerated stories show us the kingdom properly ?
Jesus doesn’t comment on these matters, but we can see what he’s getting at : the kingdom starts out invisibly but quickly becomes crazy big – and crazily hospitable, too. All the birds of the sky find shelter in the mustard bush ; it’s wide open for the whole sky to fly in and take shelter. And the bread never runs out in the kingdom – everyone can eat and have their fill, over and over, thanks to the invisible action of the tiny leaven.
Long ago the Irish novelist James Joyce – no great fan of the Catholic Church – described it rather sardonically as “Here comes everybody.” Seventy or eighty years later, we can certainly see that he was right – then and now. Today’s parables, smack in the center of the smack-in-the-center “Third Great Discourse,” invite us to see the kingdom in the same way, but we can tack on a few words for good measure : “The Kingdom of God – Here comes everybody. Thanks be to God ! Amen.”
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra