The other passage from the thirteenth Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel that we looked at this week was Matthew 13:31-35, which includes two succinct parables:
Jesus proposed a parable to the crowds. “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.”
He spoke to them another parable.“The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables,to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.
The two parables tell the same thing: the Church is going to start out incredibly small, and it’s going to balloon into the largest Faith on Earth. Which it did. It’s an incredible prophesy, and one which would have seemed absurd at the time that it was made. Oh yeah, if you’re confused by the second parable, like I was: He’s saying that the Church is going to grow like bread with yeast. And three measures of yeast, according to the sometimes-helpful, sometimes-awful NAB footnotes, is “an enormous amount, enough to feed a hundred people.” It also, tellingly, connects the Church itself with Bread.
So we have a Church which began with a few dozen disciples, a ragtag, fumbling, bumbling crew, fishermen named Peter and Andrew, a tax collector named Matthew (who wasn’t even entrusted with the public purse — a job which went to one Judas Iscariot; cf. John 12:6), and eventually a tent-maker named Paul (to say nothing of the former prostitutes and demoniacs who followed Him as well). As Mother Angelica likes to put it, Jesus Christ entered human history with “a few stinky Apostles.” Stinky indeed. And few and far between. When “a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel” takes pity upon the Christians, He convinces the rest of the Sanhedrin not to crush the movement with the following eloquence:
“Fellow Israelites, be careful what you are about to do to these men. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be someone important, and about four hundred men joined him, but he was killed, and all those who were loyal to him were disbanded and came to nothing. After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census. He also drew people after him, but he too perished and all who were loyal to him were scattered. So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:35-39)
Christianity in its early years was compared to other insignificant cults, with their few hundred members and their charismatic leaders, and seemed to be at the mercy of the Sanhedrin for its continued existence. It was expected to quickly die out. Today, if one counts the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant members, it’s easily the largest Faith on Earth (in fact, Catholicism with either Protestantism or Orthodoxy is securely #1). Catholicism alone was bigger than any other world religion until last year, when Islam (spreading largely by the sword) overcame it. The bold prophesy came true.
But the prophesy tells us something else, two things, in fact. First, there can never be a global apostasy. There can have been no situation where all the Christians on Earth cease to be, or all fall away from the Faith, because in that situation, the parable was wrong. The seed didn’t grow into the world’s largest tree – it withered and died, and was replanted 1500 years later. Many Protestants (although certainly not all), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons take a view that at some point (and of course, it’s always unclear when, by whom, and how), the Church Christ founded was supplanted by the Catholic Church. Sometimes, to get around the obvious implications (that is, that Christ set up a Church that failed, contrary to His own predictions), they claim that “a remnant” remained. That the seed grew into a plant briefly, devolved back into a seed, and then waited it out. Problems abound with this interpretation. To begin with, we have no record of the Catholic Church ever opposing anyone representing modern LDS, Jehovah’s Witness, or Protestant beliefs – we do have record of them opposing virtually every other heresy under the sun. In fact, most of the heresies we know about, we know from Catholic records opposing them. It would take a pretty bizarre conspiracy theory to claim that Catholics effectively suppressed all record of these “true Christians” for a millenium or more (depending on which “true Chrisitans” you mean – the Anabaptists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, etc.) — all while leaving intact (and indeed, reproducing painstakingly by hand) the true Christian’s Bible. Besides that, these “remnant” Christians were also, apparently, failing to live up to even the most basic demands of evangelism — they just hid until the big bad Catholic Church had gone away, while the Catholic Church boldly faced death by the Romans until it conquered the entire Roman Empire without raising Her hand in violence [alternatively, some conspiracy theorists think this was pre-apostasy, so they’ll claim these martyrs; they just have no martyrs or even evangelists after that until the Reformation or proto-Reformation].
But besides all these problems, perhaps the most basic is that it just doesn’t comport with the two parables. Yeast and mustard seeds don’t grow and then shrink and hide and then grow again when it’s safe. Certainly, a mustard plant may lose branches (such as North Africa, whose limbs were chopped off by the sword of Islam), and disease may plague part of the tree, causing it to split off, but if 99.99% of the tree just withers and falls off, like the global apostasy theory presupposes, that’s not a branch falling off. That’s a tree dying. And you’re left with a stump.
The other instructive point that these parables raise is this: anyone attempting to “restore” primitive Christianity is behaving like a man suffering a mid-life crisis. Of course the externals of a mustard tree look radically different than the externals of a mustard seed. To an outsider, they may even appear to be different things, like the way a fertilized ovum doesn’t look like an old man. But intrinsically, they’re identical. An old man was once a fertilized egg, and remains the same man throughout. The Catholic Church now looks very different than it did at the first Pentecost, but it’s the same Church throughout.
Related to this is the fact that our understanding of certain things will grow and change over time: we’ll have greater clarity. Only the keenest eye can tell what a mustard seed is compared to other seeds. That clarity grows in time. John Henry Cardinal Newman articulates this well. Our understanding of doctrines like transubstantiation or the Trinity evolve organically, not because anything new is added to the Faith, but because we better understand what’s been there all along. The sapling’s twigs we see grow into sturdy branches with more firmness and definition. Once again, it remains intrinsically and interiorly identical.