Fr. Roger J. Landry
SS. Peter & Paul Parish, Fall River, MA
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 18, 1999
Wis 12:13,16-19; Rom 8:26-27; Mt 13:24-43
In the passages from the Gospel that the Church has given us this summer, we will hear many parables from the Lord about what the Kingdom of God is like. The kingdom of heaven is like seed scattered on the ground, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a merchant in search of fine pearls, like a net thrown into the sea, like a a king settling accounts with his servants, like a landlord going out to hire workmen, like ten bridemaids waiting for the arrival of the Bridegroom and like a wedding banquet. In all of these things, what becomes absolutely clear is that the kingdom of heaven about which Jesus preaches so much is something very much here on earth as well. All of these images are very much a part of earthly life — seeds, grains of wheat, fields, fisherman, business men, landlords, and wedding receptions. Jesus uses them to drive home the point that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is something that begins here on earth. Earth is the place where the kingdom of heaven has a chance to grow and develop until that time when Jesus comes again, when the kingdom will be perfected and God will be all in all, forever in heaven.
Last week, Fr. Avila and I both preached on the parable of the seed scattered on the ground and the various types of soil or receptivity that each of has toward the word of God in our lives. We see today the continuation of that image in Jesus’ comparing the good seeds of the word of God to the wicked seeds of the devil. That is an image that is very easy for us to understand today, because the United States, while having many good seeds, is full of weeds today, full of difficulties for Christians to raise their families in the faith, full of threats to human life, full of threats to human’s spiritual lives.
But this parable is something that Jesus explains clearly in the Gospel and I will leave it to you to pray about on your own over the course of the week. What I would like to spend our time on this weekend are the two smaller parables that Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel, the parable of the mustard seed and that of the yeast. Although much smaller, they are equally important components of the true picture of the reality which is the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus teaches us, is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and shelter in its branches.
In order to understand what this parable means, we have to identify its important components. What is the mustard seed that, although the smallest of seeds, grows into the largest shrub? Who are the birds of the air that come and find shelter in its branches? The seed, according to the opinion of some of the greatest doctors and fathers of the Church, is Jesus himself, the seed that fell to the ground and died, so that the Church, his Bride, might be born literally from his side on the Cross — as Eve was born and from Adam her spouse’s side. From the seed of Christ, dead and risen for our salvation, from this one person in Palestine, the God-man, the Church was born and grew, grew into the largest of shrubs, in which countless people throughout the ages, including whole nations, were able to come and find shelter in her branches. That tree continues to live today, right here and how, and we’re in it. But we’re not only in it, we’re part of it, along with all Christians throughout the ages past and to come, as branches of Jesus the tree. Together we are the Church. The branches of the Church extend throughout the whole world, in areas of great sunshine and of great darkness, but all of us taking our roots in that one event, that one piece of soil on Calvary, that one seed that feel to the ground three times and died, but rose again, like a plant in springtime, giving life to all of us throughout time.
What a beautiful image this is! What an ever more beautiful reality! But today this reality is under threat. In so many parts of the world, rulers and peoples are trying to stop the Church’s growth. Here in the United States, in the name patriotism, using falsely the name of our forefathers who built this nation on judeochristian principles with great respect for religion, so many are trying to take an axe to the tree itself, à la George Washington in the story of the cherry tree. But oftentimes, their means are subtle and far too many of us fail to recognize them. They’ll claim to support the growth of the tree, but at the same time, try to circumscribe or limit the tree’s growth by references to a “separation of Church and State,” by soundbites telling us not to force our morality on them while they’re forcing theirs on us, by, basically saying, “all right, we’ll give you your Churches tax free, but the rest of the country is ours, so don’t try to take your faith and your morality out of your churches on Sunday and have it influence our culture.” Sadly, these weeds — and that’s what they are — are everywhere, and you can even find them sometimes in the Churches themselves. What is a faithful Catholic to do in the midst of all of this? Let us take a look at the second parable.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus adds, is like the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. Each of us knows that all it takes is the littlest amount of yeast to leaven an entire loaf of bread. What or who is this yeast from the parable? The great saints have interpreted it as — us. We are the yeast. Together with the unleavened bread that we offer at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, God turns it and us into the true Body of Christ. What was formerly bread is transubstantiated completely into the Body of Christ. We are the leaven for that Bread of Life who is Christ. Together with Jesus, we are meant to be the leaven for the entire world, to take Jesus out from the Mass into the world, to make his love, his life, his kingdom grow in us first, and through us, in the whole world. We get the word “Mass” in fact from the Latin word “missa,” which, those over 45 or so might recall were the words that the priest would say at the end of Mass: Ite, missa est!, which translates, more literally than the translations we have today, as “Go! You have been sent!” Go out to the world and bring the Good News who is Jesus.
Let me be a little less theological for a moment. What the parable describes is that we, although very small in number, are meant to go out into the world and, with God’s grace, transform it into the kingdom of God. Take a look at the first yeast. Jesus chose twelve simple fishermen and they were the yeast that brought the faith into the entire known world at the time. To give you a comparison of what this would be like today, it would be as if Jesus went into the state of Rhode Island (which is geographically about the same size as ancient Palestine), and chose 12 garage mechanics, and told them to go out into the whole world and proclaim the good news — and they succeeded! Jesus uses the image of yeast to describe his true disciple’s mission in the world; because just as it doesn’t take much yeast to leaven a whole loaf, so one disciple of Christ, or a few, can effect immeasurable good in the world. Take a look, for example, at what God was able to do this century through the life of the simple Albanian farm girl, Agnes Bojaxhiu, known throughout the world as Mother Theresa. Starting on one street corner in Calcutta, caring one at a time for her maggot-infested brothers and sisters dying without even the dignity of a deathbed, she was able to bring God’s love and face throughout the entire world.
Imagine what would happen if we began to take our faith as seriously as Mother Teresa did hers, as the apostles did theirs. When it comes right down to it, in many ways, we’re much more gifted than they were, much better educated, with many more material resources than they ever had. What distinguished them from the others is a choice they made, a choice that we, too, are completely capable of making. The choice to say “yes!” wholeheartedly to God, to say “yes!” to his plan for us, to say “yes!” to him in each moment of the day, and to follow through. To say yes and be yeast at home. To say yes and be yeast at school, bringing Jesus to others. To be yeast at work. To be yeast on the sportsfield. To be yeast in the supermarket. To be yeast in the bar. To be yeast everywhere. When others might be tempted to hate, we can love. When others would lie, we can tell the truth. When others might be tempted to seek revenge, we can forgive. When others might see in other people means to their end, we can see children of God whom God loved enough to die for. When others might sow dissension we can so peace. When others might bring despair or cynicism, we can sow hope. And when others sow materialism or sexual libertinism or atheism, we could bring the faith, hope and love of Jesus Christ. This is the yeast Jesus is calling us to be.
There are one billion Catholics in the world today. There are 380,000 here in the diocese of Fall River. There are several hundred here, right now, in this very Church. Imagine what would happen in this Niagara neighborhood, in Fall River, in Massachusetts, the US and the world, if we took our faith as seriously as Jesus’ first disciples and became yeast in our surroundings. Imagine what would happen in our families, in our schools and in our society. And it can happen. Such a call to be the yeast of the world is not just for priests and religious, but as the Second Vatican Council clearly teaches, for every one of the baptized. At confirmation, we’re sealed with the Holy Spirit to do just that. With God, though Him and in Him, we can be that yeast that the world so desperately needs.
Ultimately Jesus wouldn’t be calling us to be the yeast of the world unless he knew that we, attached to him, were fit for the task.
May God bless you and strengthen you for such a vocation!