< July 27, 2008 >

Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

The parables of the mustard seed (13:31-32) and the leaven (13:33) are twins. Both recount the story of something small and hidden that, through an organic process, becomes great.

The similarities coincide with an identity of theme. The two parables illustrate, by reference to the growth of a mustard seed and the expansion of leaven, a vital truth about God's kingdom: a humble beginning and an almost secret presence are not inconsistent with a great and glorious conclusion.

The focus is neither on the smallness or insignificance of a present circumstance nor on the greatness of God's future, both of which are taken for granted. The emphasis rather falls upon their juxtaposition, on two seemingly incongruent facts, the one being the experience of Jesus and his followers in the present, the other being their future in the kingdom of God. Our parables are then invitations to recognize that, between the minute beginning and the grand culmination, there is, despite appearances, continuity. Indeed, the one is somehow an effect of the other, so that the end is in the beginning. It may be that, for the present, the kingdom is obscure and without much influence. What matters, however, is not the beginning but the end. The kingdom may not open with great success, but success is its divinely ordained destiny. If leaven leavens the whole lump, and if a little mustard seed becomes a tree, similarly will the kingdom become, in the end, the measure of all things.

With the parables of the treasure (13:44) and the pearl (13:45-46), the theme shifts. They have to do with finding the kingdom and giving all one has to obtain it. So the focus of 13:44-46 (unlike the focus of 13:47-50) is on the present, not on the future, and readers are led to envision the actions of believers, not the deeds and fate of unbelievers. Both parables, by reference to a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, to an event one only dreams about, express the incomparable worth of the kingdom and the necessity to do all one can do to gain it. One gladly risks everything to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity presented by the presence of God's salvific kingdom with all its blessings.

Our two parables are expressions of the conviction that meaning resides principally in God and in the world to come, and they encourage us to understand everything else in their light. This is consistent with what we find throughout the gospels, wherein Jesus views earth from the vantage point of heaven and interprets the present by projecting himself into the future and then looking back. The world's chief values are not intrinsic but extrinsic; they reside in the God who is above the world and within the world and waiting at its end.

Because his God is in heaven and because the world to come has not yet come, neither reality is visible. So Jesus is always talking about things that eyes have not seen. He, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:18, looks not to the things seen but to the things unseen. It is understandable then that Jesus is above all an author of parables and a devotee of the imagination: he cannot report but only imagine. It is also understandable that he does battle with the ordinary.

Everyday life is ruled by custom, habit, and routine, and these can all-too-readily cultivate a God-obscuring stasis. Unless one realizes that things are not what they seem to be and that they will not be as they are forever--as the leaven and the mustard seed reveal--one will miss what matters most--the pearl, the treasure--and substitute a god of lesser value and meaning. People can gain the whole superficial world and yet lose their own souls.

Because he believes that one cannot serve God and mammon, or God and anything else for that matter, Jesus proclaims the one thing needful. His teachings consistently reveal that the heavenly trumps the earthly, that the future will trump the present, and that we are surrounded by empty and dangerous distractions. To choose the pearl of great price or to dig up the treasure hidden in a field is to obey Jesus' imperative not to "store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus urges us to cast aside all but the single-minded pursuit of what should be our ultimate concern.

How does he do this? Persuaded that the true nature of things is not obvious, Jesus sets out, in word and deed, to fracture the hypnotic hold of life-as-it-has-always-been. He seeks to shift our attention, to alter our perception, to expand our awareness, to change our behavior. Because he sanctions not the world as it is (where the kingdom is obscure) but only the world as it should be, when the kingdom will be all in all, he dislikes the default setting of our ordinary consciousness, whose defect is precisely that it accepts the present world as the real world. He is disconcerted that we see without seeing and fail to strive to enter through the narrow gate and that we are so wedded to everyday life and find so much comfort in material trinkets and the unstable circumstances of fleeting lives. So he constructs these parables, in the hope that we might begin to ponder soberly God's reign, and perhaps even to seek it, and perhaps even to seek it above all else.