Commentary on Matthew 13:31-35
Parables of the Kingdom (cont’d):
Two short parables which reflect both the experience of the early Church and also highlight features of the Kingdom. Considering when they were written, they exude an extraordinary level of trust and confidence in God’s power, a trust which was not disappointed although the results were not seen for generations.
The first is the parable of the mustard seed.
The mustard seed is not actually the smallest seed known today, but it was the smallest seed used by Palestinian farmers and gardeners. Nor did it, strictly speaking, produce the largest of trees but, under favourable conditions, it could reach some 10 feet (or 3 metres) in height, big enough to provide shelter for birds.
The early Church, scattered in tiny communities, largely cut off from each other, all over the Mediterranean area must have felt very small, very vulnerable. The idea that in time it would become the central cultural influence all over Europe, Roman and barbarian, must have been beyond the wildest dreams of those early Christians. But that tiny seed did become a large tree providing shelter and comfort to millions and, from the Mediterranean, spread to every corner of the world.
The parable of the yeast in the dough is similar but with a different nuance.
In the Bible, yeast is usually a symbol of that which is evil and corrupt. Jesus warned his disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees (Mk 8:15). Similarly, at the Passover, the Jews eat unleavened bread, that is, bread free from leaven or yeast. In this parable, however, it is presented as a symbol of growth.
A tiny amount of yeast put into a large batch of dough produces striking results. (The 3 measures would produce enough to feed 100 people!) A dough batch, over a matter of hours, can swell to twice its original size as the process of fermentation takes place. The effects of the yeast, quite invisible, reach to every corner. Again, when this was written, that was not yet the case. The Church had made very little impact on its surrounding societies. But, over the years, its influence grew until Christianity became the prevailing faith and cultural influence of the whole of Europe and then continued to spread out to other parts of the world.
This parable points to a very important element in the life and work of the Church. It only exerts its influence when it is totally immersed in the society it wishes to reach and influence. And it can do this while still being only a small part of the whole. While never identifying itself with many of the prevailing ideologies and values of our societies, Christian communities must at the same time never separate themselves from their surroundings. There is a danger that we become inward-looking and spend most of our energies on the already converted. There is a strong evangelising element in this parable which cannot be ignored.
We need to remember that these are primarily parables of the Kingdom and not just of the Church, which is the imperfect sign of the work of the Kingdom going on in our world. And what these parables say applies first of all to the work of building the Kingdom in our world – it is a work which will go on inexorably, because it is based on truth, love and justice, and which slowly penetrates every corner of every society.
We can become aware to the point of depression at the amount of evil that we see around us and yet there is a gradual forward movement at all levels. But, as the previous parable reminds us, the wheat has always to co-exist with the weeds – both inside and outside the Church, both inside and outside the Kingdom.
Today’s reading concludes with a repetition of the statement that Jesus only spoke to the crowds in parables. And Matthew sees this as the fulfilment of a prophetic text from the Old Testament. It is in fact a quotation from Psalm 78:2 – “I will open my mouth in a parable.”