Sunday Gospel: Everything Starts With Small Steps

SCRIPTURES & ART: Let the next 24 weeks of Ordinary Time be a time to “get to know the Lord.”

Jan Luyken (1649-1712), “Parable of the Mustard Seed”
Jan Luyken (1649-1712), “Parable of the Mustard Seed” (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Great things start small. An ancient Chinese proverb from Laozi’s Dao De Jing, the foundational text of Taoism, reminds us “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” The 20th-century pop singer Roger Whittaker, who had separate followings of fans in the English- and German-speaking worlds, had a hit with the song, Mit kleinen Schritten fängt alles an” — “Everything starts with little steps.” 

Jesus reminds us of that truth in today’s Gospel, giving us two agricultural parables: the growth of a seedling and the mustard tree. The little seedling sprouts, breaks through the soil, grows, matures, and feeds a hungry world. Grains of mustard are among the smallest seeds (if you don’t believe Jesus, take a look next time in the spices section or buy a bottle of coarse ground mustard). They also produce a shrub that can grow up to nine feet tall. If you haven’t run into a mustard “tree” recently, consider the disproportion between an acorn and an oak.

That great things start small is a good message with which to start Ordinary Time. As Ven. Tomás Morales points out, the liturgical year is almost split into two parts. The first half, from Advent through Pentecost and its adjacent solemnities, is front-loaded with a focus on the mysteries of Jesus Life, Death and Resurrection. The second half, made mostly of Ordinary Time, has us sit back and assimilate the teaching of Jesus’ Life, Death and Resurrection. The pivot, says Father Morales, is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart — the expression of what it’s all about, God’s Love — which we celebrated Friday.

Ordinary Time is much like life. We call it “ordinary” not because it’s unimportant, but because there are no specific feasts (and accompanying liturgical texts) associated with it. Much of our life is also “ordinary,” which doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. It’s where we typically make us into the persons we are through the small steps of everyday life: getting up, going to work, living with the people God has given you to live and work with, attending to one’s duties in life, studying, relaxing, thinking, praying. In those moments, accumulated over a lifetime, we grow into whom we are, for good or evil.

Today’s Gospel reminds us of that. The seedling does not grow up overnight. It takes time from when it’s planted to when it’s harvested. Depending on where they live in America, those who enjoy working in their gardens planted their seeds a month or two ago. Marigolds may be flowering. Four o’clocks are a little further in our futures. Asters and chrysanthemums won’t show up for three or four months. 

Jesus teaches us well in telling us to watch how plants grow. On the one hand, we need patience: those chrysanthemums are waiting for October. On the other hand, we need to recognize that time is fleeting: the little seed has already broken the soil, has already grown up two inches, already needs to be supported with a little stick. Those of us blessed with children learn the same lesson that Tevye captured with his musical question: “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?” 

The tree becomes a home for birds. (Whether birds actually want to nest in mustard trees is another question.) The little girl and little boy form a nest for the next generation. Time is life.

The parable of the mustard seed also emphasizes the humility of most beginnings. In his commentary on the passage, Protestant John Calvin underscored that “the Lord opens his reign [Kingdom] with a feeble and despicable commencement, for the express purpose, that his power may be more fully illustrated by its unexpected progress.” As the poem “One Solitary Life” reminds us, the carpenter who “affected the life of man upon this earth” more powerfully than anyone else was “born in an obscure village” and “never traveled, except in his infancy, more than 200 miles from the place where he was born.” 

Charles Dickens captures the lesson of that humility when he has Jacob Marley lament how he wasted his life, misspent not because of his circumstances but because of what he did with them: “Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness,” its vast capacity to do good. “Yet such was I!” Marley alludes to what St. Thérèse of Lisieux knew: a high place in heaven can be won in sweeping a floor. 

Jan Luyken was a 17th-century Dutch engraver and illustrator. Luyken’s illustration of this week’s Gospel comes from the “Bowyer Bible,” a late 18th-century project by British publisher Robert Bowyer to present a Bible containing illustrations of all its major themes and ideas. Bowyer’s project eventually extended to 45 volumes.

The engraving captures the essence of the Biblical lesson, without adding many additional artistic details. In the illustration, two men stand beside a mustard “tree” (really an overgrown shrub). If mustard “trees” typically averaged around nine feet, the proportions are accurate: the plant is a head taller than the men. The man with his hands extended appears to be using the tree to make a point, just as Jesus “spoke the word to [the people] with many such parables.” The other, in a more meditative pose, is listening and considering what he’s hearing.

One can imagine the first man’s remarks about the tiny seed and the fruitful “tree” they now see. Smaller “trees” in the background between the man and the mustard tree of the lesson, a functional of visual perspective, also serve to underscore the point about the littleness of the seed and its growth. As in the Gospel, one bird “dwells in the shade of its branches,” pecking at the ground (presumably not some sharp-flavored mustard seed) while another flies towards its branches. A typical Middle Eastern background (or at least what the artist thought a typical Middle Eastern background) fills out the picture. (Consider the sharp contrast of this black and white etching to last week’s Rubens painting, consistent not just with the art form but the stark conventions of Protestant art.)

Let the Gospel of this Sunday that returns us to Ordinary Time be an opportunity to resolve to make good use of the 24 weeks of Ordinary Time separating us from the First Sunday of Advent. Let it be a time — almost half a year — to “get to know the Lord.” Let us not fritter it away nor be like Marley, lamenting after its loss, “such was I!” Take your first, small steps today.