The National Catholic Review
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), July 20, 2008
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” (Mt 13:31)

Today’s selection from Matthew 13 continues Jesus’ Parables Discourse. It contains two short parables—about a mustard seed and yeast—and a long parable with an allegorical interpretation—about the wheat and the weeds. All three parables explicitly propose to tell us what the kingdom of God (or heaven, as Matthew prefers) is “like.”

In the parable of the mustard seed the primary point of comparison is the contrast between the smallness of the seed and the greatness of the result (“the largest of plants”). The kingdom of God in its fullness will be like that great shrub, despite its small beginnings in the present. Those small beginnings are Jesus’ preaching and his miraculous actions, all in the service of God’s kingdom. The process of growth remains somewhat mysterious; it is in God’s hands. In the parable of the yeast the primary point of comparison is again the contrast between the small amount of yeast and the large batch of bread that its mysterious action can produce. And again the small beginnings (in Jesus’ ministry) will produce great results.

The longer parable of the wheat and the weeds resembles last Sunday’s parable of the sower in form and content. It comes with an allegorical interpretation and deals with the mixed reception given to Jesus and his teaching about God’s kingdom.

When a householder is informed by his servants that both wheat and weeds are growing in his field, he instructs them to wait until the whole crop is fully grown; only then will he separate the good wheat from the noxious weeds. While this parable also contrasts small beginnings and great results, it reminds us that it is God’s prerogative to bring about the fullness of the kingdom, and that God will do so in God’s own way and time. Moreover, it stresses the idea of hostility and opposition to God’s kingdom in the present, and develops the theme of the final judgment (or harvest) when God will separate the good from the bad. The allegorical explanation appended to the parable develops an apocalyptic scenario that makes even more explicit what is already in the parable.

As followers of Jesus we look forward in hope to the fullness of God’s kingdom, and so we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” We also believe that through our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection (the paschal mystery) we have received the “firstfruits of the Spirit.” This Sunday’s excerpt from Paul’s instruction about life in the Spirit in Romans 8 concerns prayer, a major element in any Christian spirituality. Paul boldly expresses the frustration that all serious religious persons feel from time to time: “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” But more important, Paul also reminds us that in our prayer the Holy Spirit is present to help us express what we really want to say to God and to ensure that our heavenly Father understands what we want to say in our prayer. This is a most encouraging biblical insight about prayer.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (formerly Weston Jesuit School of Theology) in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Readings: Wis 12:13, 16-19; Ps 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Rom 8:26-27; Mt 13:24-43

• What do the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast contribute to your understanding of God’s kingdom?

• What does the parable of the wheat and the weeds add?

• Do you let the Holy Spirit help you in your prayer? How?

Recently by Daniel J. Harrington

Receiving Scripture: Archaeology, art and faith (February 25, 2014)
Disputed Questions (February 28, 2013)
Reading Benedict (February 28, 2013)
Cultures Ancient and Modern (March 12, 2012)

Recently in The Word