Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Of First Fruits, Yeast, And Mustard Seed.

Today’s First Reading is taken from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (8:18-25). Paul is contrasting the sufferings we endure in the present life to the glory that will be revealed later. Paul can speak about troubles and suffering from his own experience. The Pharisees and other leaders of the people opposed Paul because he now preached the gospel of Jesus. He suffered cold and hunger in his travels on land and on sea. He has also spoken about a physical problem that was a particular nuisance to him, which he calls “a thorn in the side”.

Paul then speaks of the suffering of the whole world, which is affected by human sinfulness. When trees in the forests are cut down without regard for planting new ones, the land is made bare. The animals that live in the forests cannot continue to survive in the altered environment. When crops are grown on farmlands without regard for nourishing the soil, the next harvest is not as plentiful or as rich as the previous one, and the land eventually loses its fertility altogether. Paul looks forward to the day when all creation will be freed from its bondage to decay, and will share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Not only that, but we ourselves, who have received the first fruits of the Holy Spirit in baptism, and who are nourished by God’s loving grace, look forward in hope, groaning inwardly as we await for our adoption as children of God, and co-heirs with Christ, will be made complete, and we share fully in the merits of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. It is in this hope that we have been saved. Paul ends this section of his Letter with a conundrum (a riddle not of words, but of ideas). “Hope that is seen is no hope at all”, he writes. To say it more plainly, there is no longer need to hope if we have already gained what we had been hoping for. No one hopes for what they already possess. We hope for what we do not possess, and cannot see as yet, and we wait with eager endurance.

Today’s Gospel is taken from Luke (13:18-21).

My mother's mother (my mémère) used to put mustard seeds, black pepper and other spices into a mortar, grind them together with a pestle, then add a little bit of cider vinegar and mix the ingredients with a big wooden spoon. She was making her own mustard which she served with baked ham, and sometimes, when the grandkids were visiting, on hot dogs.

Mustard seeds are quite small, but the shrub on which they grow can get quite large. The man in the first parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel took a single mustard seed and planted it in his field. The plant began to sprout, and when it was fully grown, it was a shrub so large that the birds of the air came and built nests in its branches.

While I liked to watch my grandmother preparing mustard, there was something else she did in her kitchen that I enjoyed even more. It involved flour and water, which I got to mix together in a big bowl. When I got a bit older that task got handed off to my brother and sister, and I got to use a paring knife on the skins of a dozen or two of apples. What kind? Don’t ask! All I can tell you is that some of them were red and some were green. My dad’s older sister, Aunty Mary, also made apple pie, and I helped her too. Aunty Mary’s pies were very different from Mémère’s, and even today I don’t know exactly why, but I can tell you they were both delicious.

The woman in the second parable Jesus tells today is baking – probably not apple pie, but bread. She mixes some yeast in with three measures of flour and stirs it until the whole batch is leavened. Then (although Jesus doesn’t say so) she puts it into the oven until the crust is just the right shade of brown.

No one can see the yeast working as it transforms the dough. All we can see is the results. In much the same way, God works slowly to change for the better our attitudes and our abilities as members of his holy people. Just as the yeast affects the dough, the faith, hope, love of Christ’s disciples affects society, The people of Thessalonica said that the Christians had “turned their world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Yeast changes dough. Trust in God changes people.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

I tried to find a mustard tree on Google images. According to many, it seems likely Our Lord was referring to a plant now called: salvadora persica (www.flowersinisrael.com/Salvadorapersica_page.htm) Some of the pictures show it as extraordinarily green in the middle of the scorching desert! It looks like the kind of bush I imagine for the burning bush. Apparently, it has tasty pink berries. Desert birds must love it. The twigs are still used for toothbrushes and I expect many families would have had a scruffy old specimen in the yard, much hacked about in the cause of oral hygiene!
The reason I like the USCCB version of the daily readings is the layout. The mustard seed and yeast comparisons are set out like two verses of a psalm. I only learnt to appreciate the psalms when someone told me that the rhyming system in them is a rhyming of meanings, not sounds. The psalmists manipulate symmetries, reflect, rotate and translate meanings.
Reading these two comparisons as a psalm makes me think of Adam and Eve, the new Adam and the new Eve, the tree of life and the bread of life. The birds of the air and the woman's children (assuming she has children) benefit from the tree and the bread in a careless way. But surely most of them, at some point in their lives, will recognize the gift they have received and be thankful.