By Johnny Tuttle
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
I am a sucker for the universality – the “catholicity” – of this string of parables. They seem concerned, not simply with identifying the Kingdom of God, but the universal reach of its presence.
Certainly, the mustard seed is a speck in the field. Yet, as the parable announces, it grows into “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” I suppose you could debate whether the mustard seed is indeed the smallest seed, or whether it is the greatest of shrubs when it is grown; I’ll pass on that debate. It seems the point, rather, is that the entirety of this “sprawling” plant – one large enough to house the birds of the air in its branches – is contained by the seemingly insignificant seed.
It is, of course, understandable to see this as a lesson about the smallest of acts or the “least of these” bearing fruit disproportionate to its size. But, as Stanley Hauerwas cautions, “Jesus is teaching us to see the significance of the insignificant…We must be careful, however, in drawing attention to the ‘smallness’ of Jesus beginnings, because such attention can be used to suggest that Jesus’ proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom is justified because we now know its power in Western civilization.”
While I am sympathetic to reading the mustard seed as a parable of the “significance of the insignificant,” we have to be careful that the “lesson” of the parable does not betray the cross by suggesting that the relative success of the tiny seed is its virtue.
What if, instead, we understood this seed to be the Word – the insignificance of which is manifest in the poverty of the Incarnate God? Yet, in the same way that the tiny seed of the plant contains the whole plant, this incarnate God, this kingdom-of-heaven-in-the-flesh, contains whole of creation. The Word-made-flesh is the Word that sprouted creation, and in this seeming insignificance of a poor man from Nazareth, the truth of the whole of creation is revealed and finds its end, its rest.
The leaven, too, is a parable of this catholicity of the Kingdom, permeating every part of the dough, breathing into it the breath necessary for the dense mixture to lighten and rise. Here, Robert Farrar Capon offers an insight that might challenge our assumptions: “[F]or every second of the time the dough is dough, the yeast is inseparable from it. Therefore, for every second of the time the world has been a world, it has also been the kingdom. Its progress through history is not a transition from nonkingdom to kingdom; rather, it is a progress from kingdom-in-a-mystery to kingdom-made-manifest.”
We might like to think of the Kingdom as something separate from the world, and in one manner of speaking, that would be correct. If the task of the church is to bear witness to some kind of alternative, the (correct) assumption is that the alternative looks different from the world! But these parables speak of the kingdom as something hidden, something that needs to be uncovered and signified by revelation and witness. And this “something,” is the Kingdom present in creation and hidden beneath the world we have built on top of it. The Word that breathed creation into existence has been present to it, and that same Word reveals the same ever-present kingdom in flesh and blood. The universal presence of the kingdom does not mitigate the church’s call to be its sign; yet its universal presence reminds us that the work of the Kingdom’s growth and fulfillment is God’s.
The treasure hunter, of course, buys the entire field wherein the treasure is hidden, wrapping the whole field into this treasure’s great value. The presence of the treasure (quite literally) redeems the entire field, and the treasure hunter lays claim to the whole thing for the sake of the treasure.
Both the merchant and the treasure hunter sold everything they had to purchase these invaluable treasures, pointing us back to Jesus’ words that the Kingdom demands we unburden ourselves of everything for its sake – “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). The claim of the Kingdom, just as its presence, is universal.
Parallel to the parable of the wheat and tares, we have the parable of the net that catches “all kinds” (“fish” is not in the Greek). It is an indiscriminate dragnet that pulls in every sort of anything in the water. Once again, the Kingdom image Jesus offers is (initially) indiscriminate and all-encompassing, leaving the final sorting to the end of the age – an age that has been ultimately defined, if the church is to be believed, by the Kingdom’s presence in Christ and his resurrection.
We are conditioned to want a “So what?” at the end of any study of scripture – “what do we do?” I am more inclined to leave it with this simple proclamation: the Kingdom of God is at hand, permeating our world, and filling all things. The church’s gathering in worship around the table proclaims this truth, blessing and offering seemingly insignificant elements and giving thanks for their immeasurable significance.
If there is any “so what” to emerge from these parables, it is that the church is called to be a sign, a sacrament, of this Kingdom’s universal reign, pointing to its cosmic sovereignty by its very gathering and worship – the right ordering of community and creation toward Christ the King, who is all in all.
Robert Farrar Capon, Parables of the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985). Kindle Edition. This use of the term “catholicity” and its application to these parables moves throughout this book, and his reflections on these parables have shaped much of my own, here.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, BTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 133.
 Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, Kindle Locations 1246-1248