Jesus speaks to us in parables. Indeed it says in today’s Gospel that Jesus wouldn’t speak to the ordinary people except in parables. However, we are told that he did explain everything to his disciples in private.
This seems manifestly unfair! If Jesus had a message of real significance for the world then why did he not speak it in plain language for everyone to understand? Using cryptic forms of speech surely obscures the Good News of the Gospel and so runs completely counter to Jesus’ purpose.
We are left asking: Why can’t the poor and simple ordinary folk hear God’s message in a way that they can appreciate?
There are several answers to this question. One is that yes, poor ordinary simple fold can understand the message of Christ; in fact, anyone can hear it. But in order to appreciate the full meaning of the Gospel you have to be correctly disposed. Only someone who is truly ready will understand the deeper significance of Jesus’ words and their very personal nature.
Parables are not literal stories. For example, it doesn’t take a minute before we realise that there is something fundamentally wrong with what Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading. In actual fact, the mustard seed is not the smallest of all the seeds and neither does it grow into the biggest shrub of them all.
The premises of Jesus’ story are all wrong. But this shouldn’t upset us because what we are dealing with here is exaggeration; if you want to know the technical vocabulary it is called ‘biblical hyperbole’.
Jesus is a storyteller and storytellers are not required to stick to the precise facts. Like any good public speaker Jesus frequently uses exaggeration for effect. And we can easily visualise him enrapturing his listeners and painting for them a wonderful picture of this large tree emerging from a very tiny seed. A seed which when it sprouts grows into a tree so big that, as he says, all the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.
What we, who look deeper, understand very well is that the truth is not to be found in the facts of the story because the facts here are plainly false. The truth is to be found in what the seed represents, in this case the Word of God planted in our hearts.
Some of the listeners will remain at the surface; yes, they understand quite well that this is not a true story, they know that Jesus is exaggerating and they are aware that that the story works on a number of different levels. They will even realise that the seed represents the Word of God. But what many won’t do is follow through with the consequences of Jesus words.
They will fail understand that by the very act of listening to the story that the Word of God has been planted into their hearts and that the consequence is that they must change their lives.
They will not understand because they are not ready, they are not receptive enough; they are not at a point in their lives where they are prepared even to begin to make the personal changes that the Gospel requires.
The private instruction that the Apostles receive is not some secret teaching about the hidden meaning of the story. No, it is private instruction on the implications of the Gospel message for their lives; it is instruction in about how to be a disciple of Christ.
The Word of God is like a seed planted in our hearts. It is small because in the beginning we do not notice it; we only realise its presence gradually over a long period of time. It takes a good length of time before we realise that we have been marked out and chosen by God.
All of us gathered here have faith, it’s the very reason we are assembled in this Church. But not all of us have realised that God wants us to be his disciples. Some are too young to understand what this means and it hasn’t yet dawned upon some others of us.
God doesn’t only want us to conform to a few laws; to go to mass on Sunday, to say a certain number of prayers, to be faithful in marriage, to refrain from stealing or murdering anyone. Well, he does want all those things! But he wants something else as well. He wants the whole of us.
He wants us to give our whole lives over to him. He wants us to realise the depth of his love for us. And he wants us to open up our entire lives to him so that he can possess us completely.
He wants the lot! And he won’t be satisfied till he has got the lot! Not in any coercive way, but given freely in love to him.
This is what we are about in the Church. This is what discipleship means. It is about self-giving, self-emptying love; in the words of TS Elliot, ‘costing not less than everything.’
This is not something that is just one-way, it is entirely reciprocal, and God gives as well as takes.
Of course, God gives more to us than we could ever give to him. We owe him everything; he is, after all, the very author of our lives. Nothing we have came as a result of our own doing. Actually, our entire lives and everything we have is his gift to us. And more than this, because, as we know, he gave his Son to us to suffer and die for our sins.
And if that weren’t enough he is constantly showering wonderful blessings on us, if we were only aware of it.
In the face of these overwhelming gifts we can hardly refuse God anything. And yet! And yet we still hold back. We still try to keep something for ourselves. We still want to hold on to a private little corner and not let him in.
The important thing about that parable is that the seed grows. It doesn’t reach its full stature all at once. It doesn’t begin in a fully formed state. No, it is always growing, always stretching, always developing.
Our faith might be small or it might be large; but, whatever state it is in, it is organic. It changes, it grows. And this dynamic process continues our whole life long.
Let’s hope and pray that when we come to the Gate of Heaven, and by the time we get there we will probably find that there will be a lot of nests and birds and who knows what other creatures taking shelter in our branches.