Sixteenth Sunday In Ordinary Time
More parables! More puzzles! Last Sunday’s gospel selection was taken from the opening of Matthew 13, the third of five great sermons Matthew constructed in his gospel from traditions about Jesus and to meet the needs of his Christian Community. Last Sunday’s parable: the Sower and the Seed. On this Sunday we have three parables: Weeds sown in the Wheat; Mustard Seed;
Yeast and Wheat Flour. Matthew begins: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed (wheat) in his field.” Note how rural the parables of Jesus are. It is the language of the rural people, the peasant-farmers and inhabitants of small towns in Galilee. The “kingdom of heaven” in this context can easily be the Christian Community – the Church.
So the man sowed good seed, and while people slept, an enemy of the sower sowed weeds among the wheat. The wheat sprouted and grew and so did the weeds. There was no pre-emergent herbicide. The sower’s slaves reported to him the infestation of weeds in his wheat field. His advice: “Let weeds and wheat grow together until the harvest. Then collect into bundles both weeds and wheat. Store the wheat and burn the weeds.” It may have been Jesus’ custom to explain privately to his disciples the meaning of parables, or it was Matthew’s own initiative to explain Jesus’ parables to the Christian Community for which he was composing his gospel. As Matthew presents the situation, the disciples ask Jesus for an explanation.
The original meaning of the parable when and if Jesus spoke it would have been quite simple. The Church is composed of good people and the not so good people. Judgment must be left to God. As Matthew wrote in the Sermon on the Mountain, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect…, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” This parable should destroy any foundation for puritanism in the Church - that the Church is only for the pure and the holy. The Church is composed of plenty of Saints and plenty of sinners, not to forget a so-called middle class of people whose goodness or badness is known only to the Lord. A convert to the Church made this remark, “I became a Catholic because they have Purgatory, and I am neither all good nor all bad.” Pope Francis calls the Church a field hospital that takes in any who come to it, and does what it can for them. It is not for us to close the gates against anyone.
Now let’s see Matthew’s interpretation of the parable of the Weeds in the Wheat. As the personality of any writer usually shines through his writing, “By their fruits you will know them,” so does Matthew’s personality shine through his gospel. Although he is a mix of what we today would call conservative and progressive, deep down he is very conservative. He seems to relish the statement he includes in the explanation of this parable, “They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So attached is Matthew to this mean statement that he uses it six times in his gospel, versus Luke using it only once. It is the personality of Matthew and his seeming obsession with fire and damnation that changed Jesus’ parable from a parable of life and acceptance of all in the Christian Community into a parable of the last judgment. But let’s give the better side of Matthew credit since he closes the explanation of the parable with a beautiful statement lifted in part from the Book of Daniel, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
Jesus proposed another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in a field. Though the seed is quite small, when fully grown it becomes a large bush, and the birds live in its branches.” A probable meaning of the parable for Jesus time is to encourage them against all odds. Not to worry about being so few. The mustard seed also seems insignificant. But once planted, it becomes a large plant attracting birds. For Matthew’s time, interpretation may be more in line with the gradual expansion of his gospel from Jews only to all nations. In Matthew 10:5, the Christian mission is very restricted – to Jews only, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Matthew, writing in the eighties of the first century, knows that mission to the Jews did not turn out so well.” Despite restrictions placed on his disciples by Jesus himself, there must be evolution in the Christian mission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….”
We had a parable about a man, a farmer, an outdoors parable. Now a parable about a woman, a householder, an indoors parable. “He spoke to them another parable, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast (leaven) that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour, until the whole batch was leavened.’” Jesus may have intended the surprising effect the insertion of a small element of energy could have when inserted into a larger unit, that is, the small beginnings of the Christian Community leavening the larger society. Let’s switch to St. Paul for an interpretation. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-7, Paul writes to his congregation about one of their members who has caused great scandal, “not found even among the heathens.” He orders the Community to correct this situation, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough?” One wonders how Paul’s interpretation of leaven and dough agrees with the parable of weeds allowed to grow with the wheat until the harvest? Matthew, closing the three parables, insists that Jesus spoke in parables not to hide anything but to “proclaim what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”