Today’s gospel come from the heart of Matthew 13 which is filled with parables as you can see in the table following.
Yesterday (Sunday) we heard the parable of the Hidden Treasure, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Parable of the Net. The Sunday previous to that we heard the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds. And the Sunday before that, we heard the Parable of the Sower. And now today we hear the shorter parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast.
Why all the parables? It is the questions the disciples ask in Matthew 13:10. Jesus responds in v.13: he speaks in parable to the people because “they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” At first blush it seems counter intuitive. Shouldn’t Jesus explain to ones having difficulty understanding? Or should there be some accountability on their part – after all – this is Matthew 13. It is not as though this is the first encounter of the people and Jesus. He has been performing miracles, teaching extensively (think Sermon on the Mount) and proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. The question that rises to the fore is “what is keeping the people from understanding?” It is not a new problem. In all of the writings of the prophets you will come across passages in which the prophet laments/accuses the people about their refusal to listen, to hear.
It is not a lament limited to the OT prophets. “This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them. (Matthew 13:14-15, referring to Isaiah 6:9) There are 43 similar verses in the Hebrew scriptures in which Israel is accused of not listening.
The word for “listen, hear” in Hebrew is shema – the daily prayer of all faithful people of the Jewish faith: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength“. (Dt 6:4-5). The prayer takes its name from the first word “hear” or “listen” – and that simple word is deep and complex.
In Latin ob+audire becomes “obey” in English. No doubt you noticed “obey” is founded on the Latin audire, “to hear.” The expression can be understood as the “hear through” as to hear more deeply than just the surface. That is what the prophets and Jesus are asking of the people: to hear and understand that God is at work in the world. When one is attuned to the omni-presence of God that is when notices the “buried treasures”, great things growing from the smallest of starts like the mustard seed, and the “yeast” of the divine making things so much larger than you would have thought. When one is attuned, one begins to peer into the edges of the mystery of God operating in the world. With that in view, we begin to adjust and peer even more deeply into the mysteries of God. We begin to notice the small things blooming to new life, the miraculous growth – more than we thought or expected.
That was the challenge for those listening to Jesus then – and now – to let prayer and grace enable us to do far more than we thought possible.