For the good folks at St. Thomas More parish in Omaha, NE–hence the allusions to St. Thomas More…
Once, while I was working at a parish in El Salvador, I watched a youth minister assign an activity to her youth group to help them reflect on the Kingdom of God. She asked them to take newspapers and magazines and cut out all the “signs of the Kingdom” they could find. The young people enthusiastically started clipping articles about clean water initiatives, increases in the minimum wage, donations to the poor, and the like. All good things. And though I could see that the assignment was meant to foster hope of a better future, something about the assignment made me uneasy.
I felt that if the Kingdom could be spotted in news clippings, its growth would be “obvious” and measurable—even in this present life. Logically, of course, we should be able to detect the decay of the Kingdom by similar criteria—corporate greed, pollution, and secularism. But once we start thinking that way, of course, then the Kingdom becomes quite a frail thing—no longer the source of our strength, but now the object of our anxiety.
But Christ has come to “deliver us from every anxiety.” And perhaps for this reason He left us today’s three parables, each of which stresses the present hiddenness of the Kingdom. This point is easy to miss. For one thing, the third parable is currently translated to read that the woman “mixed” the yeast, which suggests a Kingdom advanced by our headlining activities. More literally, however, the Gospel says that she “hid” [ἐνέκρυψεν] the yeast in three measures of flower.
For another thing, each of the parables includes a grand manifestation: the decisive separation of weeds and wheat, the mustard tree in which birds could nest, the enormous batch of bread (scholars say the three leavened measures could have fed 100-150 people). It seems like we should be able to spot the action of the Kingdom with some confidence. When Christ interprets the parable of the wheat, however, he places the manifestation “at the end of the age” (Mt 13:39). He suggests, then, that the present aspect of the Kingdom is more like the mixed field than the grain-stocked barn; more like the mustard seed than the tree; more like the hidden leaven than the risen bread. In other words, the Kingdom advances in weakness and hiddenness—like wheat, and seeds, and yeast.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, Jesus almost certain intended these parables of hiddenness as an encouragement to his disciples. There was no point denying what they could plainly see. The crowds following Jesus were a mixture of weeds and wheat: some were faithful and generous, to be sure, but there must have also been the merely curious, the insincere, and the traitorous. Christ’s words must have then appeared the smallest of seeds. They brought him ridicule from influential circles, from those that seemed most able to shape public opinion and determine “political correctness.” Christ’s healing ministry must likewise have come across as a very hidden leaven: Jesus healed somewhat at random, most often helping those who counted for little in the eyes of the world. The temptation to discouragement must have been strong.
Nor was the age of the apostles unique in this regard. We might also think of how St. Thomas More, patron of this Church, experienced the Kingdom. More would have experienced firsthand the impossibility of discerning the weeds from the wheat in his own life. Even in 16th Century England, in a nation that considered itself Catholic to a person, More found himself one of only six citizens refusing the Oath of Supremacy. To all appearances, the true faith was everywhere in retreat. Driven underground by the King. Abandoned by the clergy. Its few defenders imprisoned. How strong the temptation to lose heart must have been!
And doesn’t this same temptation to discouragement touch our lives too? The good wheat seems so hard to identify; scandals emerge precisely among those who presented themselves as most dependable (e.g., Corapi, Maciel). The impression grows that the Church is reverting to seed—her disciplines less appealing to the young, her message less influential in culture, her voice more marginalized in centers of policy and learning. The doubt begins to rise in our hearts—will His kingdom endure? Or is it a spent force, destined to lose ground indefinitely?
But through today’s three parables, Christ speaks the same message to his disciples, to St. Thomas More, and to us: “Take heart!” My victory is slow and hidden, but it is sure. In every land and in every age, my goodwheat is ripening, and is being gathered into the barns of eternal life. Though weeds temporarily obscure the growth, they cannot stop it. Though the worldly influence of the Church fall, still, the leaven of my life is rising in generous hearts. In the end, my truth will tower like a tree above all the lies and all the confusion arrayed against it. And those who have held fast to that truth will make their eternal home in its branches.
St. Thomas More came close to summing up the message of today’s parables when he said, “Time trieth truth.” The Pharisees have long been disbanded, but Christ’s apostles remain. The Oath of Supremacy has long been a dead letter, but the words and witness of More live on. Christ has overcome the world. “Take heart.”