Who or what is this grain of mustard seed?Ordinary of the Mass
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Very often, it is possible to take one of our Lord’s parables and find in them various levels of meaning. Today He tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the leaven which makes dough rise, and that it is like the tiny mustard seed.
At the most casual level we can see in this parable an invitation to rejoice in the great fecundity of life in God’s creation. All of our Lord’s listeners understood the way bread was baked. For most (or all) of them it was not a store-bought item, but something made at home or even in the field. Our Lord Himself baked bread for the Apostles on a campfire along the sea shore in Galilee. The leaven was not store-bought either—not that little yellow packet that one gets at the market. The yeast in a small bit of leavened dough would grow through the entire batch until it all was leavened—a small bit would be saved before baking, and that small bit would leaven the next batch, and so on for batch after batch. More than fecundity, leaven seemed to symbolize immortality, batch after batch after batch.
Likewise the mustard seed. The seeds are absolutely tiny—they look like the little black seeds on Kaiser rolls, but some are even smaller. Yet they do sprout and grow into something that is literally the size of a tree.
But our Lord’s parable goes much deeper than this. It is found in a chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, among other parables that are intended to demonstrate the Christian way of life.
So, who or what is this grain of mustard seed? Saint Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, who brought Saint Augustine into the Catholic Church toward the end of the fourth century, suggests that the mustard seed is none other than Christ Himself. An earlier parable in the same chapter spoke of seeds falling on good ground and bad ground, and our Lord explained that the seed was the word of God, and that it developed and had its good effect (or not) depending upon the dispositions of those who heard it. And Jesus, of course, is the Word of God—those who receive Him with good dispositions will do good things, but others will receive Him for naught. In His last hours Jesus referred to Himself as a seed—a grain of wheat in this case—if the seed merely remains on the ground it does nothing: “unless the seed, falling on the ground dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.” For the mustard seed, or the wheat seed, or any other seed to grow, it must seem to die—the moisture of the earth and its warmth must cause that seed to break open and bring forth the new plant. Our Lord was suggesting, as His hour was at hand, that His death on the Cross would be fruitful. Like a seed, He would appear to die on Good Friday, but would burst forth from the earth in new life on Easter Sunday. And that first “shoot” of the Resurrection would acquire many branches as it matured between than and Judgment day.
So, who or what is this grain of mustard seed? Well, together with Saint Ambrose, we can agree that it is Christ Himself. Yet, we certainly can take the analogy a step or two farther. In a very similar way, the Catholic Church is like that grain of mustard seed. In its origins, the Church was just about as tiny and unpretentious as the little seed. It was founded on one, rather average, human being—Simon Peter, a man who toiled in obscurity in one of the most obscure parts of the world then know to civilized people—a fallible man whose emotions and whose fears had a powerful influence on his life. Yet out of the seed that was Simon, there sprung a great leader; one who “confirmed his brethren” the Apostles; a fallible man made infallible when the need arose to teach the Catholic faith or morality. And Peter, and the Apostles too, were like seeds planted in the ground, for in their deaths they brought forth many many more disciples. And many of those disciples also gave their lives—literally or figuratively—to bring forth many more. As it has been, even down to this very generation, and as it will be until the very end of time.
So, who or what is this grain of mustard seed? Yes, Christ, and Peter and the Apostles, and those who came after them. But, hopefully, there is a place for each of us among those seeds as well. In Baptism, we are said to die with Christ as we are plunged under the water, and to rise again with Him, as we come forth from the waters of life. So, in every baptized soul there has already been something of the germination of new life.
Yet, it cannot end there if it is to be successful. Man is a self centered animal—as an infant he loudly demands the necessities of life from his parents—as an adult he busily goes around trying to pile up comfort and treasure for himself, still demanding things from those around him. In this too, he must die a little bit if he is going to live and bring forth life. To grow and to live, man must die to his own desires. His wants must become the wants of his spouse and his children and his society. Ideally and perfectly, his will must conform itself to the will of God. For the sake of his own soul, man must bring himself under discipline to God’s Commandments—but in doing so, he will be successful in bringing others to God as well. If he dies with Christ, his death of self will “bring forth much fruit.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed ... sowed and planted in a field....” The Kingdom of Heaven is God and His holy Word, Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead for us. The Kingdom of Heaven is Peter and James and John and Andrew, and all those of the Church until the end of time on Judgment day. But the Kingdom of Heaven must also include us. And it will! But only if we are willing to allow our worldly selves to die, in order to be remade in the will of God.