The popular musical “Les Miserables” has a scene in the second act where a young boy named Gavroche provides a critical piece of information to the band of young revolutionaries who are preparing for battle. The band has been secretly infiltrated by the primary antagonist in the story, Inspector Javert, a man obsessed with his views of strict justice which forbid any kind of mercy. The small boy, a friend of the rebels, however, knows his true identity which is revealed by Gavroche as he sings:
Good evening, dear inspector
Lovely evening, my dear.
I know this man, my friends,
His name is Inspector Javert.
So don’t believe a word he says
‘Cause none of it’s true;
This only goes to show,
What little people can do!
And little people know,
When little people fight;
We may look easy pickings,
But we’ve got some bite,
So never kick a dog,
Because he’s just a pup,
We’ll fight like twenty armies,
And we won’t give up.”
The lyricist plays on a not uncommon theme in literary works of the small overtaking the large sometimes against great odds. The theme may regard the prowess of youth as we see in Gavroche. It may involve the “underdog” going on to a victory like a Rocky Balboa character in the first “Rocky” movie.
In the Old Testament it may be the young David fighting Goliath. It may be Shakespeare’s “band of brothers” in Henry V’s victory over the French in Agincourt. The theme involves an unexpected outcome that seems to be impossible. What seems like a futile effort yields great results against all odds.
Jesus uses a similar concept in the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. The images represent the Kingdom of God and the people who inhabit that kingdom. Both the mustard seed and yeast are very, very small. A mustard seed is so tiny it is very difficult to handle. Individual seeds are not planted but handfuls of seeds are scattered. Yet this smallest of seeds when grown becomes a large bush and “the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.”
Similarly yeast is used to represent the kingdom. Yeast mixed with flour and water will make a dough. A small amount of yeast will rapidly increase the size of the dough as it starts to consume the sugars. Both images would have been readily accessible to the people of the day. Something very small, seemingly insignificant, can yield great results and effect.
Jesus uses the mustard seed and the yeast to speak about the Kingdom of God. In this section of the Gospel that theme is prominent, not just in these two parables. Even in today’s long-form passage the parable of the wheat and weeds refers to the Kingdom. Jesus comes to proclaim the Kingdom of God, perhaps best understood as his revelation of the Father’s plan for the world and for humanity. In other words, Jesus teaches us how to live according to the Father’s will. He comes from the Father and in revealing the Father, he reveals his Kingdom.
At this point in the public ministry, Jesus has not had much success from a worldly perspective. The Pharisees and scribes are growing in antagonism against him. He has a small group of disciples comprised by many who were known as sinners or outcasts. The persons who are mighty and strong in the society (represented by the Pharisees and scribes) reject Jesus while those who are powerless and weak accept Jesus. This small group has found new life through the love and mercy they experience in Jesus, and this encounter is transformative.
Jesus invites all to know the love and mercy of God. Opposed to the strict legalism of the Pharisees, sometimes described as hypocritical, Jesus calls Israel to a deeper understanding of the law and its author. The kindness of God is the source of hope as described in the first reading for today’s liturgy from the Book of Wisdom. The author describes the might or power of God as the source of his justice and mercy saying, “But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us; for power, whenever you will, attends you. And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind; and you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.”
Likewise Psalm 86 proclaims: “You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in kindness to all who call upon you … You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and fidelity. Turn toward me, and have pity on me; give your strength to your servant.”
God gives strength to the weak through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. For the past few weeks the second reading for the Sunday liturgy has come from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He has been speaking about the power of the Spirit living within us. This Sunday, he reminds us that the Spirit “comes to the aid of our weakness.” It is the Spirit within us who teaches us how to pray and intercedes on our behalf with “inexpressible groanings.”
That longing in our hearts to know and experience the love and mercy of God is a constant prayer for union and communion. God in his graciousness provides us with the Spirit so that our prayer may be constant and his presence may abound.
Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as something small, even miniscule, that is transformed into something very large. The seed grows into a bush. The yeast gives rise to bread. Through these parables he invites us to live in his Kingdom and to share in the hope it provides.
His Kingdom though seemingly weak, small and powerless brings a great transformation as it grows; especially for those who live in it. He invites sinners but makes them saints, citizens of his Kingdom, heirs to his blessing and children of his heavenly Father.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.