Sixteenth Sunday In Ordinary Time
MATTHEW 13:24-43 (Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Romans 8:26-27)
Matthew’s third major discourse attributed to Jesus, the parable chapter, continues from last Sunday’s liturgy. The first parable: The Weeds Sown into the Wheat. This parable begins with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” What does Jesus or Matthew mean by the kingdom of heaven? Neither Jesus nor Matthew gives a definition, but from the different ways in which this term is used by Matthew we conclude that it can mean the Church, life after this life, the presence and ministry of Jesus, the rule of God in our lives. The parables are constructed to leave them open to a variety of interpretations.
In this first parable a man has sown wheat into a field. After dark an enemy sows weeds into the same field. Weeds and wheat germinate and grow together. The field hands re-port the germination of weeds to the owner of the field. He realizes that an enemy sowed the weeds. He tells his field hands to leave weeds and wheat grow together because pull-ing the weeds would also uproot the wheat. They can be harvested together, then sepa-rated. The weeds will be burnt, but the wheat will be stored in the barn. Matthew was inspired by a parable he found in Mark’s gospel, a parable about seed, once sown, will grow by itself, “one knows not how. It grows secretly. Mark 4:26-29.
Matthew builds on the sowing of the seed in Mark by an additional sowing of weeds secretly. Mark noted that when the grain is ripe, “he (the farmer) puts in the sickle, be-cause the harvest has come.” Sickle and harvest are a reference to the prophet Joel 4:13,
“Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, stomp, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.” Mark gave no interpretation of the parable, but Mark’s implied reference to Joel, about the judgment of God on the wicked, inspires Matthew to add an elaborate interpretation about the end of time and the last judgment, the reward of the good and the punishment of the wicked. This gives Matthew opportuni-ty to add a favorite terror-inspiring statement, “…and throw them (the weeds – wicked people) into the furnace of fire. There men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
Matthew uses this awful threat six times in his gospel, thus revealing something of his character. Luke uses it only once. The statement is inspired by Psalm 112:10, “The wicked man gnashes his teeth and melts away,” and is used also in Sirach 30:10, “…in the end you will gnash your teeth.” The original meaning of the parable of the weeds sown into the wheat was probably a warning to self-righteous Christians who wanted “to pull out” (expel) from the Christian community those whom they considered to be sin-ners.” Nothing should be done until the harvest, then weeds and wheat will be taken to their respective destinations. In the natural order weeds become fuel for the fire. Wheat becomes fuel for the body. In the supernatural order, the end will be damnation or salvation. Matthew loves his own version of God’s final judgment and devotes to its expression all his talent for drama.
Matthew adds two brief parables. Both begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” In the first of the two a man sows one grain of mustard seed in his field. The parable claims that mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, which is doubtful, but parables do not have to be accurate in botanical measurements. Mustard seed, because it is tiny, was used in proverbs. An example, a very minor infringement of a rule of ritual purity even if the infringement is “as small as a grain of mustard seed,” is still a matter of guilt. Another example, a comment on stinginess, “No mustard seed slips from the hand of a miser.” The principle is this: though the seed is so small, it grows into “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds…come and make nests in its branches.” Matthew’s version of this parable is inspired by Mark’s version, 4:30-32.
The assertion that the size of the mustard bush/tree attracts birds to nest in its branches originates in parables of Ezekiel 17:22-24 and 31:2-9. In the latter we find words spoken of a Lebanon cedar, “All the birds of the air made their nests in its branches. Under its branches all the beasts of the field brought forth their young, and under its shadow dwelt all great nations.” Daniel 4:11-12 is another influence on the formation of this parable. The “kingdom of heaven” in this parable seems to be the Church, which by the time of the composition of Matthew’s gospel had grown from the smallest beginnings to include Christians of many nations around and beyond the Mediterranean Sea. The parable there-fore justifies the growth of the Church among the Gentiles, thus speaking to a major dis-pute in the last third of the first century, whether Gentiles can be admitted into the Christ-ian Community and under what conditions.
The second brief parable speaks of a woman “hiding” a bit of yeast in three measures of flour. The yeast penetrates and permeates all the flour until it rises and is ready for bak-ing. We notice how the gospels sometimes try to be evenhanded toward the two genders, first a parable about a man, then about a woman. The meaning can be similar to that of the mustard seed, stated as follows: the insertion of the gospel into society, (into the Ro-man Empire in Matthew’s time), has the effect of drawing all nations into the Church.