Hidden in Plain Sight: Parables of Seeds, Yeast, and Weeds
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
July 24, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time on July 23, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8:26-27; and Matthew 13:24-43.

We hear three more of Jesus’ parables today. Remember: a parable is a story with an unexpected twist that’s supposed to jolt us out of our complacency. So, allow me to quickly relate the punchlines that we might have been expecting for each of these parables:

  1. The householder told his slaves: “We’ll probably lose a big percentage of our harvest, but it’s important not to have any weeds mixed in with the wheat.”
  2. The mustard plant immediately collapsed under the weight of a sparrow. It may have been an especially sturdy mustard plant, but what were you expecting?
  3. The woman provided all the matzah for the village Passover celebration that year, since the yeast wasn’t nearly enough to leaven the entire batch of flour!

But those are not how the stories end. The point of these parables is that our God is a God of love and mercy, inviting us forward into a future more wonderful than anything we can imagine!

According to Matthew, the gospel story is primarily a conflict between two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of Satan. For example, the Sermon on the Mount explains how we can enter the kingdom of heaven. Things come to a head in Matthew’s gospel just before today’s passage when some Pharisees accuse Jesus of being in league with the demon Beelzebul. Why is this accusation such a big deal to Matthew? It seems like a ridiculous charge.  

But in our current political climate, plenty of Americans are accusing people who disagree with them of being in league with the devil. I see usually-polite friends on social media using such hateful terms to describe other people as “Libtards” or “Nutjobs.” But when we resort to such hate-filled speech, I don’t think any of us are building the kingdom of heaven.

We often describe the members of Matthew’s community as being “Jewish Christians,” but such a label wouldn’t have made sense to Matthew. Judaism was going through a time of great upheaval, when different factions were arguing over the future direction of Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, zealots, Essenes, and Herodians, to name a few. Matthew’s community were another group of Jews claiming to understand God’s vision for Judaism. The Pharisees’ accusation of Jesus being in league with Satan would have resonated strongly with Matthew’s community, because Pharisees had probably accused them of being in league with Satan, too!

The parable of the wheat and the weeds echoes a theme that shows up repeatedly in Matthew. Both trees and people can produce good fruit or rotten fruit. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches both good and rotten fish. But it was NOT the job of the members of Matthew’s community to determine which Jews belonged to the kingdom of heaven and which ones belonged to the kingdom of Satan. Their job was to live out the Beatitudes. 

We simply don’t have the ability to accurately determine who will be part of the harvest and who will be a weed. And that ties in with our other two parables today. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is more powerful than we can imagine, even though we can’t see it right now. The Greek verb used to describe what the woman does with the yeast is not mix, but hid. She takes a tiny amount of yeast – almost impossible to see in almost nine gallons of flour, and yet that yeast allows all the dough to rise, to feed over 100 people. Mustard seeds are miniscule things, and no one in Jesus’ world ever saw a 10-foot mustard plant, let alone one that could support a bird’s nest.

Each of us has the potential to build the kingdom of heaven. As one friend of mine posted on social media this week: “It only takes a little imagination to picture a scenario where the person you disagree with isn’t a complete evil [jerk]. It seems that many many people lack this basic imagination.”

We can’t imagine three-quarters of an ounce of dry yeast leavening nine gallons of dough. If we knew more about mustard plants, we probably wouldn’t be able to imagine a single mustard seed producing a plant strong enough to allow birds to nest in it. But Jesus challenges us to believe those who disagree with us may still be able to build the kingdom of heaven. And if we don’t think that we possess that “basic imagination” to give others the benefit of the doubt, we simply need to ask the Holy Spirit to intercede for us with inexpressible groanings, asking God for faith the size of a mustard seed.

The kingdom of heaven will likely accommodate Sadducees and Pharisees. Zealots and Herodians. Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Socialists. Our job is to live out the Beatitudes. God will judge each of us at the end of the age by the fruits that we produce.