Knowing Christ through Matthew — Part 7: The parables of Jesus

The parable of the mustard seed is illustrated in this 17th century etching by Jan Luyken. Public domain


This is the seventh in a 12-part series of In Focuses dedicated to exploring some central themes and texts in the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus teaches that “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (Mt 13:31). It seems that the meaning is simple enough. However humble its beginning, the kingdom is something that grows to great stature. Why then the fuss about seeds, weeds and wheat, pearls of great price and all the rest? Would it not have been simpler and more to the point for Jesus to say, as Anthony Esolen once humorously suggested, “The kingdom of heaven has relatively inauspicious beginnings”? That does seem to be the point after all.

I think part of the reason Jesus speaks in parables is that their imagery, like all poetry, takes root in the imagination. One might remember a “beautiful sunrise,” but there is just no forgetting Homer’s “rosy fingered dawn.” Flannery O’Connor made much the same point in writing of her own work. “A story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.” It is true that the kingdom — then and now — has “relatively inauspicious beginnings,” but that is only half the truth. Or that is the truth only half expressed. To speak of it as a mustard seed is to make things more memorable, and it is to give someone an image that will hang on and expand in the mind.

The latter idea gets more to the heart of the matter. Parables are not just memorable. They are productive. Consider the rest of what Jesus says: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush [dendron], and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches'” (Mt 13:31-32). Such things happen in nature. (Outside my window is an oak tree some 150 years old, and in it all the squirrels of northern Indiana have come to dwell!) Because of this we are moved to accept the parable and to enter into the world of its imagery. We are, in other words, invited to trust. If we do, we discover that the imagery is often not so plain as it seems and that it implies more than first comes to mind.

  • What does the parable of the mustard seed reveal? How does the “unreal” contribute to this meaning?
  • What are parables so effective? What role do parables play in the ministry of Jesus?
  • With respect to the parables, what does it mean to be “childlike”?

Take, for example, the fact that there is no mustard tree! In Palestine, mustard plants grow quickly and can reach 10 feet in height, but it does not become a tree, and no birds come to dwell in its branches. As some commentators note, the parable is purposefully unreal. In writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul said of his missionary work, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). The same hidden source of growth is at work in the parable. Not by its own power does the seed reach to such heights, but only by God who causes the growth. So, too, the kingdom. As St. Paul says of himself in the same letter, “God has chosen the weak things of this world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). He is one such mustard seed, grown far beyond what his weak presence and contemptible speech should ever allow (cf. 2 Cor 10:10).

In the second place, we might wonder about these “birds of the sky.” The image is an allusion to a passage in Ezekiel. God speaks of his people, then in exile in Babylon, as a cedar shoot he will plant “on the mountain heights of Israel” (Ez 17:23). Grown strong, “Every small bird will nest under it, all kinds of winged birds will dwell in the shade of its branches” (17:23). In the prophet, the birds serve only as a sign of the cedar’s great size (cf. Ps 104:16), but in the context of Jesus’s mission, we might wonder if these birds represent even those outside of Israel (cf. Mt 21:43).

By aligning his own work with that spoken of in Ezekiel, Jesus’ words carry an unwelcome promise to the “chief priest and elders” (Mt 21:23) who exercise authority in Israel. In Ezekiel, God ends the parable by saying: “Every tree of the field will know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, Wither up the green tree, and make the dry tree bloom. As I, the Lord, have spoken, so will I do!” (Ez 17:24). If we follow the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, two meanings are present in these words. God would cut down Babylon (the “high tree”), and he would remove from authority that portion of Israel that remained in the land (the “green tree”). In its place he would elevate the portion then in exile and so “make the dry tree bloom.” Jesus promises a similar displacement. As the parables in Matthew 21-22 will make all too clear, the authority of the “chief priests and elders” will give way to his own.

Inspiring ‘this generation’

There is more, but I would like to return to the question of parables in general. They are more than memorable and productive. According to St. Matthew, they are the principal instrument in ministry of Jesus. Why?

In his fresco “The Last Judgment,” Michelangelo depicted Christ below Jonah (IONAS) to qualify the prophet as his precursor. Public domain / CC BY-SA 3.0

At several points in the Gospel, Jesus laments the failure of his fellow Jews to receive him. “The men of Ninevah,” he says, “will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here” (Mt 12:41). So also, he goes on to say, the “queen of the South … because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here” (Mt 12:42). If the people of Ninevah and the queen of the South were able to hear and receive what was spoken to them, how much more ought those who stand in the presence of Christ? And yet, the response of this generation is worse than what one might expect from even the foreign cities of Tyre and Sidon (cf. Mt 11:22-24)! Nothing, it seems, succeeds in moving his contemporaries to belief.

“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners'” (Mt 11:16-19).

We might expect that miracles would move those who are unyielding in their belief. We like to suppose, even now, that if God would just manifest his power, all would come to believe. But this isn’t true. When Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, the Pharisees “went out and took counsel against him to put him to death” (Mt 12:14). And shortly after when Jesus heals the “demoniac who was blind and mute … so that he could speak and see,” the Pharisees accuse him of being in league with the devil: “This man drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (Mt 12:22, 24). And so, though they go on to say, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you” (Mt 12:38), we know already that such things will make them neither dance nor mourn.

It is at this moment in the Gospel that Jesus mentions Jonah, and we should notice the emphasis that the comparison brings. To this “evil and unfaithful generation [who] seeks a sign” (Mt 12:39), a sign indeed will be given. Jesus, like Jonah, will be in the depths for “three days and three nights” (Mt 12:40). But just as it was not the prophet’s being “in the belly of the whale” (Mt 12:40) that moved the Ninevites to repent, so here the “sign” that is Jesus’ death and resurrection is not put forward as the means by which he will bring Israel to belief. The Ninevites “repented at the preaching of Jonah,” and if they “arise with this generation and condemn it,” it will not be for their failure to acknowledge the sign(s) that Jesus offers but because of their failure to hear and receive his words (Mt 12:41). And lest the point should pass us by, Jesus turns immediately to a mention of Solomon and the one who came to hear his wisdom. If anything could move this generation, it is the words of Jesus: “Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Mt 13:9).

Why parables?

And so it happens in Matthew that “that same day [on which he spoke of Jonah and Solomon,] Jesus went out … and sat beside the sea” (Mt 13:1). There, “he spoke to them at length in parables” (Mt 13:3). Matthew recalls seven, including the parable of the mustard seed. Taken together, these constitute a “sermon in parables” about the mystery of the kingdom. As Father Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis explains in his series titled “Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew,” the first four parables “present different kinds of growth and illustrate the expansion of God’s word. Of these, the first and second” — namely, the parable of the sower and of the weeds and the wheat — “stress the readiness of the soil and importance of patiently waiting for the process of growth to be completed. The third and the fourth” — namely, the parable of the mustard seed and of the woman with the leaven — “contrast the exceeding smallness of the beginnings with the immense results in the end. The last three” — namely, the parables of the buried treasure, the merchant of pearls and the net thrown into the sea — “make it clear that our vocation to the kingdom truly puts before us a radical choice: the kingdom cannot be appropriated in little parcels or half-heartedly, while carrying on other business on the side. It presses us to make a choice of all of nothing.”

Adobe Stock image

Matthew relates to us that “All these things, Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables.” Indeed, “He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world'” (Mt 13:34-35). These words, it seems, are the privileged means by which Our Lord wills to “bring the sublime close to us clothed in the ordinary” (“Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word,” Vol 1)

Yet, in the middle of this “sermon in parables,” Jesus says what sounds like the very opposite. Pressed by the disciples why he speaks to the crowds in this way, Jesus says, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand'” (Mt 13:11-13).

3 Key Lessons
  • The parable of the mustard seed offers more than first appears. The seed’s growth into a “tree” shows that God “gives the growth” beyond what we could ever expect.
  • Miracles are not the primary means by which Jesus draws others to belief. His words are. Among these, parables hold a unique place for their ability to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom through the use of ordinary language and images.
  • To be “childlike” is to entrust oneself to Jesus. It allows us to dwell with imagery of the parables and receive all that they might reveal.

We understand in the last line the difference Jesus draws between looking and seeing and between hearing and understanding. We learned from the Pharisees that the sight of Jesus’ miracles was not sufficient to make them see. Nor, by themselves, are the words of Jesus enough to make one hear. Thus the charge, “Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Mt 13:9). At bottom, it is God who moves one from looking to seeing and from hearing to understanding. Jesus is truthful when he says that the mysteries of the kingdom have been “given” (dedoti) to the disciples, and that to such as them God will give even more. This, though, is not to hand all things to fate. What is given must be received, must be welcomed in, and in the words of the parables, Jesus offers the most subtle and enticing invitation to do just that. As those who “look but do not see,” the crowds are poised to have even more taken away. Precisely “because ‘they look but do not see,” Jesus speaks to them in parables and invites them in.

The “sermon in parables” is a catechesis of the kingdom, the whole of which, like the parable of the mustard seed, asks for trust — childlike trust — in the imagery in which Christ clothes the kingdom. Unlike the miracles whose reality confronts the crowds, the parables reveal by concealing, by veiling the mysteries of the kingdom in the language of the (seemingly) ordinary and inviting us to dwell with them. To be childlike is not to be dumb; it is to be trusting. “Come, and you will see” (Jn 1:39). “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike” (Mt 11:25). Said otherwise, “you have revealed them to the small.” Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.

Anthony Pagliarini is an assistant teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Next Month: “Little Ones” — “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). Matthew makes frequent mention of children in his Gospel. Contrary to the sentimental reading we might wish to give to these texts, Matthew’s emphasis seems rather to be on the rote obedience that children offer. In this, they are a fitting exemplar of the servant / master imagery that he also uses. Next month we will explore this theme is chapter 18 and elsewhere in the Gospel.

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