James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Sits by the Seashore and Preaches” (Public Domain)
How do people receive the Kingdom of Heaven? How does it grow in this world? And what’s worth doing to reach it?
For the next three Sundays, the Church’s Gospel will tap Chapter 13 of St. Matthew, which contains five parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew, as a devout Jew, prefers to speak of the “Kingdom of Heaven” rather than the “Kingdom of God”). As we read these three Gospels, we should not lose sight of their unity.
The “Kingdom of Heaven” is, after all, our goal. “God created me to know, love, and serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next,” taught the Baltimore Catechism. And, as Our Lord asks, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
For Jesus, the Kingdom is the goal. Reaching it is the success of one’s life; not attaining it, one’s failure. That’s why Jesus even seems in one place (the parable of the wicked steward who cooks his master’s books) seems to endorse cutting corners to reach it. Jesus really doesn’t, but asks us to think: if people are willing to cut corners for merely temporal benefits, why are they so indifferent to the Kingdom?
For the next three weeks, the Gospels focus on different aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven. How do people receive it? How does it grow in this world? And what’s worth doing to reach it?
This week, the Gospel focuses on the Parable of the Sower. The sower goes out into the field with a bag of seed. The fate of the seeds is the Gospel focus. Some falls on rocks and stones and never grows. Some falls on poor ground, starts growing but never takes solid root. Some lands on ground that hasn’t been weeded and so gets choked off amidst other vegetation. Some germinates on good soul but, even there, the harvest is different, from average to extraordinary. All the seed has potential, but the surrounding conditions affect it. Once upon a time, Catholics also examined their conscience in terms of friends, associates, and “occasions of sin” (and grace) to see how these helped or hindered their spiritual life. Environment matters: spiritual ecology is important, too.
Jesus explains the parable with the soil representing different human souls in which the seed of God’s Word falls. Some stony hearts never allow the seed to sprout. Some are superficial, the “fair weather friend” that never acquires the depth needed to survive inevitable trials and tests. Some are willing to let the Word of God grow, as long as it does not demand much of the other things I love; when He does, those other things choke him off. But even where the seed finds good ground, the richness and fertility of that ground varies. The ground of our souls is love and, based on that ground’s soil nutrient analysis, its spiritual nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, will we yield harvest 30-, 60-, or 100-fold.
Next Sunday, Jesus takes us on a tour of a real field, in which the good seed is mixed with the bad, the wheat with the tares. Wheat and tares, especially in the early stages, look very much alike. It’s not like they’re equated: the Gospel recognizes that the tares are the work of “an enemy.” Jesus is quite aware that there are dangers: as this week’s Gospel notes, thorns and weeds can “choke off” the good seed. On the other hand, premature gardening can rip up the wheat along with the weeds but, for the Lord, saving the wheat is more important than the purity of the garden. There will be a sorting of wheat from chaff, but it takes place in God’s time (the end of the world), not man’s (the growing season) and by God’s agents under His commission (the reaping angels) not man on his own warrant (the overzealous field hands). As Manfred Lütz observes in his recent book, the parable of the wheat and the tares is the Christian foundation for tolerance, where God allows time for persuasion, ideological purity is not imposed by force and destruction, and where the final division is not man’s doing but God’s.
Two shorter similes also appear in the Gospel for July 19: the mustard seed and the leaven. Both, like the seed the week before, talk about the humble and seemingly insignificant (at least unobserved) origins and spread of the Kingdom. Heaven is not born of grand plans but of the individual seed that, by God’s grace, realizes its potential. The small mustard seed has the potential of being a great plant that shelters and supports others. The leaven is unnoticed, but without its action you have no bread. So, too, how often do we fail to notice that the Kingdom of Heaven is not built by some grand strategy, but by the quiet saint working out his salvation in fear and trembling next to me?
[There is a line from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, often neglected, which captures this point. Marley, regretting how he squandered his life chasing lesser priced pearls, laments: “Not to know that any Christian spirit, working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life to short for its vast means of usefulness.” Good 19th-century Briton, he speaks of utility instead of just plain goodness, but in the end the point is the same: as St. Thérèse of Lisieux pointed out, heaven can be earned — for one’s self and others — sweeping the kitchen floor].
In two weeks, on July 26, the Gospel will feature three short parables. The third of the three connects with the previous week’s parable: just as the wheat and tares grow up together, so the fishermen’s nets catch both the golden fish and Charlie the Tuna. Likewise, just as the reapers in the end separate the wheat and weeds so, after bringing them to shore, the fishermen also sort out their catch. (This is also an interesting parallel to the other miraculous catch of fish described in the Gospel (Luke 5, John 21), where the size of the take points to God’s generosity and the universal charge to the apostles to go out to all peoples.
The other two parables focus on the value of the Kingdom. One man finds the Kingdom like a treasure hunter who discovers buried treasure, selling all he has to acquire his valuable discovery. The Kingdom catches him by surprise, but he is wise and seizes the opportunity. Another man is looking for that valuable pearl. He surveys what’s available and, when he finds “the pearl of great price,” he also puts everything up to make it his.
Heaven is the goal, but Jesus does not, as Paul Harvey used to put it, leave out “the rest of the story.” There is a heaven to be gained; there is also a hell. The “fiery furnace” is mentioned twice (vv. 42, 50), both times in connection with the definitive separation of the harvest and the catch. “He who has ears, let him hear.”
These three Sundays of Matthew 13 offer a mini-retreat in terms of assessing my priorities and focus in life.