THE final detail of the parable of the Mustard Seed refers the listener back to the stories of two empires. In Daniel 4, King Nebuchadnezzar is likened to a great and strong tree reaching to heaven. We are told that “the beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the air dwelt in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.” Likewise, the prophet Ezekiel compares Pharaoh to “a cedar in Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade” (31.3).
Both of these great “trees” are doomed because of their pride. The Kingdom of heaven has “a solidity grounded in lowliness” (Erasmo Levia-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St Matthew). It never forgets its dependence on the divine Sower.
The contrast is often made between the smallness of the mustard seed and the speed and size of its growth. It is important to note that, even as it becomes “the greatest of shrubs”, the mustard tree retains a humility that contrasts with the “cedars” of imperial power.
The story of King Solomon offers us a vision of earthly power that remembers its dependence on, and accountability before, God. Offered the opportunity to ask the Lord for anything, Solomon reveals a heart set on true treasure: the wisdom that he will need to govern God’s people. As Gina Hens-Piazza explains, wisdom is understood in the Hebrew scriptures as “a kind of divine presence”. It is neither heritable, nor the product of human exertion. “Wisdom can only be received” (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: 1 and 2 Kings).
Our second parable develops these themes of humility and dependence. The Greek text speaks of the woman ‘hiding’ the yeast within the dough. “There seems”, as Levia-Merikakis writes, “a direct correlation between the hiddenness of the agent of growth and the effectiveness and abundance of that growth.” The deeper the presence of “the true Cause of life”, the freer it is to do its work within us. The parable invites us to recognise our “self-limitation”; the mysterious work of transformation is God’s before it is ours.
This message has an echo in our epistle, where Paul writes of the Holy Spirit interceding; crying out from the depths of our being. Because “we do not know how to pray as we ought”, we must yield to the Spirit’s intercession in “sighs too deep for words”,
Both our Gospel and our epistle invite us to reimagine the whole of our discipleship, and in particular our life of prayer. Paul is inviting us to understand prayer as “a delicate ceding to something precisely not done by oneself”. It is “a call and response of divine desire — into which the pray-er is drawn and incorporated” (Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’).
To receive the Kingdom of God we must abandon any fantasy of self-sufficiency. “It is God who justifies”, and the journey of discipleship involves allowing his Spirit to conform us to the image of his Son (Romans 8.33,29).
Our second pair of parables concern the response that is required if we are to receive the gift that God is offering us in Christ. All our other attachments must become subservient to our embrace of his Kingdom. In each story, the recipient “sells all that he has” to possess it.
These parables also reveal something of the divine humility. As Levia-Merikakis observes, God often “searches” for us in part by hiding himself in the very depths of our being, and waiting patiently for us to find him.
The parable of the Dragnet has a more challenging aspect; for it reminds us that, when we reject God’s Kingdom, we pronounce judgement on ourselves. Solomon’s fate was to allow his order of priorities to become inverted — to become forgetful of divine wisdom, turning the gifts God showered upon him into idols. Jesus’s parables of humility, growth, and fruitfulness must be set alongside this sobering parable about the urgency of our conversion.
Jesus concludes this sequence of parables by reflecting on the way in which his proclamation of the Kingdom fulfils the Law and the Prophets (cf. Matthew 5.17). As St Augustine explains, its teaching must be brought forth from the “storeroom of our heart”. Jesus is inviting us to set our hearts on a wisdom that goes beyond purely intellectual knowledge, but is the fruit of God’s transforming presence.