It’s all about small things, insignificant things, becoming great: a mustard seed, yeast, something hidden, something sought, faith, the body of Christ, and love; it’s about priorities – taking the treasures the Kingdom of Heaven affords over those on earth.
Life comes from a spark of almost nothing and becomes something extraordinary. The arrival of the reign of God – the greatest event in the history of creation is a work with beginnings so small as to seem hardly perceptible. Phenomenal results from seemingly insignificant beginnings.
We have today the second of three lections from Matthew 13 consisting of parables, the third major body of Jesus’ teachings found in this Gospel, the first being the Sermon on the Mount and the other, the Mission Charge.
Okay, so what’s a parable?
It’s a tool for teaching that Jesus used – they are powerful, because what stays in the memory better than a good story?
But these are stories that allow the listener to teach themselves. Jesus’ parables are disorienting; they turn society as we know it inside out and upside down, takes us out of the predictable and comfortable and challenges us to look deeper, closer.
Let’s put ourselves in Jesus’ sandals for a moment. He’s trying to explain to his twelve best friends this different way of thinking, of being, of living. It’s not an idea but a real concept. They, and we, can be dense – okay? Every day living with its challenges, joys, intrigues, the nine to five rat race that you and I run, catch us up and that’s all we know. Jesus wants us to step away from that life and try the life he’s offering. But we don’t get it. Sometimes it can be painfully impossible to even think of looking at the world through a different lens, let alone understand.
To help us along, move us away from the life we know all too well, Jesus applies the parable: sometimes they are little stories, such as those in this part of Matthew, or we get an epic tale, such as the Prodigal Son. In any case, these stories and vignettes, these images show us what’s hidden behind the usual way we look at things and think about them.
And Jesus, realizing that people just didn’t get it, tried something and it worked. He spelled it out in terms and language the audience can understand.
He showed them images and lo, we got it!
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”
Well, what is this Kingdom and what is it like?
We hear and read the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven,” or “the Kingdom of God” is near, at hand. Jesus used it over and over to drive home the message that a new world order had arrived. To the merchant sitting in the Jerusalem market square, or the scribe in the Temple, the kingdom meant a temporal lord, a sovereign. But that isn’t what Jesus meant – I believe he meant that the kingdom was deep within the heart and mind, and it came with a new way of thinking, of living. It was what Jesus preached: loving one another as God loved all that was created, holding respect for one another and creation, a belief that with God nothing is impossible, and it affords equality and justice. All are welcome who believe.
To get people to understand this, and to accept it, Jesus showed his audience then and now what it would be like with subject matter equally familiar. A gardener could understand the mustard seed. In a single season a tiny seed
becomes a shrub with branches large and strong enough for birds to roost in them. Now apply that to Jesus and his
disciples. They travel the length of Judea spreading the good news – the seed is planted. One neighbor tells another, and another, and soon the movement grows, flowering, branching out.
The same could be said of the leaven the wife uses to make the dough rise. There is rapid growth from beginnings that
are hardly significant: a bit of yeast is mixed in warm water, then with flour and left for an hour or two – the dough rises out of the bowl. The message of this parable is that just as a tiny lump of leaven, or yeast, can enlarge a basin of dough, so will the ministry of Christ, and ministries given to us in Christ, expand and encourage a new world vision and reality with results greater in proportion to its present size.
The shrub the seed became continues to grow and the bread becomes more nourishing. These are analogies to our faith and our community – the church.
Belonging to this community, however, comes with responsibilities.
God’s kingdom has infinite value – no rust or moths will destroy its treasure. Weeds do not grow among the sheaves of wheat. Jesus gives us two more parables and these concern the kingdom’s value over our workaday values: first, the treasure hidden in the field. People hide their valuable possessions to keep them safe from theft. In centuries past, they buried them where they thought no one could find them – and hopefully they remembered where the
valuables were placed. Here, we have a treasure found by accident and the one who found it is so overjoyed that he
sells everything, maybe even the treasure to buy the field. And then we have the parable of the
pearl. The merchant intentionally seeks the one, exquisite pearl and gives up everything he has for it. The message in both of these parables is that God’s kingdom is a prize beyond comparison of any jewel or good fortune we can
imagine. We are encouraged to reevaluate what is truly valuable to us.
Finally, we come to the last parables in this chapter – one stressing God as the ultimate judge and arbiter, and the other showing us that old and the new both are welcome in the kingdom. As fishermen sort their catch between consumable and non-consumable, so too will God sort out people – but it will be God who judges between the true and the false. Jesus concludes his teaching in this part of the Gospel by saying that those who understand Mosaic law as well as what is new in his teachings are like masters who bring out both new and old treasures – both have a place and both should be honored.
As in the first century, these stories have life and meaning today, in a time where values continually shift from seeking the greater good to acquiring greater goods. Today, especially today in light of Friday’s horrific event in Norway, we should be ready, willing, and able, be equal to the challenge and task of planting seeds of faith and love and show the
world that we are advocates of equality and justice, that we espouse love and fellowship. What we can do is accept this incredible place, this Kingdom that God offers to us in Christ.
Dare we believe that such a life exists for us in the Kingdom? Yes. Can we get gleeful and excited about what Jesus promises? Certainly! Is it ours to take, this life, filled with such promise, such joy, such confidence, such power, such possibility? Again, I tell you, yes. Because my friends, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where seeds of faith are planted daily, where faith grows as easily as leaven mixed in with flour, where one’s good deeds and right action taken to make the world a better place for all are pearls of exquisite value and where nothing now or in the future can separate us from the love of God.