As Jesus presents two images of the kingdom of heaven, the theme of today’s gospel passage seems to be “disproportion”. There is indeed a seeming disproportion between mustard seed or leaven and the ensuing results, even if we know that both contain in themselves the potential for those results. I surmise that the “surprise” has its roots in the expectations. Unless one is observant or somewhat educated in the natural sciences, one does not expect a large bush from a tiny seed or a rising mass of fermented dough from a bit of leaven. Hence the sense of disproportion.
But I believe that, in using those two images, Jesus is pointing to real, not just seeming, disproportion as an image of the kingdom of heaven and perhaps more specifically as an image of what we can do to bring about the kingdom of heaven. There is indeed a true disproportion between what we can contribute and what God can do with what we make available to a given situation. It is the disproportion between the five loaves plus two fishes and the feeding of a hungry crowd [Lk. 9:12-17], a result beyond the disciples’ expectations. It is also the disproportion between repeating the motions that had yielded no catch in a whole frustrating night and having to call for the help of a second boat to collect the catch when the nets are cast “in your name”[Lk. 5:4-11], something the disciples did not expect either. What overcomes the disproportion is not a “potential” hidden in what we contribute, as was the case with the mustard seed and the leaven, but Jesus’ power at work as a sign that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Besides the disproportion between contribution and results, there is also a disproportion between contribution and reward. Indeed, the workers called to the vineyard in the late afternoon received a full day’s salary [Mt. 20:1-16] in a parable intended to teach the listeners what the kingdom of heaven is like. It was those workers, who expected a proportion, that were disappointed.
Because the kingdom of heaven is beyond what we can humanly expect, it will help to watch our expectations, lest we become frustrated. After all, frustration is the direct result of an unfulfilled expectation and it is generally much easier to deal with expectations than it is to deal with frustrations.
Coincidentally this year this set of readings occurs on the memorial of St. Alphonsus Rodríguez, a saint of disproportion. A man, who lost his wife and children to illness and then saw his small business fail. He joined the Jesuits as a Brother at age 38 and spent the rest of his life as the humble porter of a Jesuit high school. An uneducated man, to whom the city’s people flocked for spiritual advice. An unordained Jesuit, who inspired a young ordained Jesuit, Peter Claver, to go to “the Indies” as a missionary to become there the apostle of the slaves being transported from Africa to Cartagena in Colombia and is now honored as St. Peter Claver. Indeed beyond proportion.
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