Sunday 30 July 2017
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
In seminary, the toughest professor was Prof. Edward Antonio. He had been educated at Cambridge in the old school, and he seemed to assume that everyone was just as intelligent and well-read as he was. We were not. Every day at the end of class he would assign one or two hundred pages of the most difficult theological writing you can imagine: Barth, Kierkegaard, Descartes. And every day at the beginning of class, he would ask, “Are there any questions on the reading?” Now, some of had done all of the reading, some of us had done some of it, some of us, no doubt, had done none of the reading. None of us, though, completely understood the reading. But we were intimidated by it. And we were intimidated by Prof. Antonio, who in addition to having photographic memory, was also just brilliant. And so, when he asked, “Are there any questions on the reading?” the entire class would just sit there in stunned silence. None of us wanted to be the first person to say, “Um… actually, I have about a thirty questions on the readings.” He would take our silence to mean that we had understood everything perfectly, and then he would go on to lecture on a completely different topic.
And I wonder if that isn’t something like what the disciples experienced hearing all of those parables. Jesus asks them, “Have you understood all this?” And they answer, “Yes.” No, not very likely. First of all, parables are designed to be hard to understand; that’s the way they work. If they can be easily deciphered, then they stop being parables and become allegories or metaphors or morality tales. Parables can’t be easily boiled down. They are meant to read you, as much as you read them. And that is what makes them stand the test of time, because they keep having new meaning as people read them from different perspectives.
But secondly, we know from all the available evidence that the disciples aren’t all that smart. They never seem to understand what Jesus is talking about, even when he isn’t speaking in parables. How likely is it that they actually understand now? It’s much more likely that, like those students in Prof. Antonio’s class, they were simply terrified of looking foolish in front of the master. And so they answered, “Yes, of course we understand.”
So what makes us think that we can understand these parables now, some 2000 years after they were uttered? The truth is that we probably can never completely understand them. Even the most skilled Bible scholars still struggle with and debate their meaning. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study them. If fact, that is precisely what they are meant for: to be studied, to be engaged. Like riddles that can never be fully unraveled, they keep working on us, teaching us new things about the life of faith.
The five parables that we have today are all about the same topic. “The kingdom of heaven is like…” The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure in a field, a seeker of fine pearls, a drag net. Very common things in their day. Simple, everyday examples to explain the mysteries of God’s kingdom.
But before we explore the parables themselves, we should stop a minute and consider what this kingdom of heaven is that Jesus is talking about. The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, as it is called in both Mark and Luke, is a central topic of the preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus. “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near,” they both declare.
Sometimes people think of the kingdom of heaven as that thing that is coming at the end of time, the afterlife, where God is in complete control. And that is at least partially true. But if we leave the kingdom of heaven there, then we will miss the point that both Jesus and John are trying to make. For them the kingdom of heaven is imminent, right here, right now, not far away at the end of time or in some distant, unreachable heaven. The kingdom of heaven is God’s imperial rule on earth, God’s earthly sovereignty, which both John and Jesus tell us is already breaking into our present reality, already setting up shop here in our world.
So with that in mind, let’s look at these five parables of Jesus one at a time, and see what we can learn. First, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetables plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.” Mustard is a common plant in Palestine. It’s more of a weed than a crop, though it is sometimes cultivated as a condiment or for medicinal purposes. It’s an annual, and in just one season it grows from a very small seed to be a rather large bush, about 6 feet tall, sometimes as high as 12 feet. Despite what we are told in Matthew’s gospel, it never becomes a tree, and it is not a suitable habitat for nesting birds. Those are details left out of Mark’s and Luke’s version of the story, but Matthew does not seem uncomfortable with a bit of hyperbole.
What seems most important in this parable is that mustard grows from a very small seed to become a very large plant. It has tremendous potential. Something that seems very inconspicuous as a seed, sprouts to become very conspicuous as a plant.
And perhaps that is the way with the kingdom of heaven; it only needs a tiny foothold in our world in order to grow into something quite large. God’s reign seems inconspicuous at first, but before you know it, the kingdom of heaven is growing out of control. In fact, we would probably prefer at times that God would take things a little slower. But instead, God’s imperial rule can show up just about anywhere, with very little warning, freeing the captive, liberating the oppressed, healing the wounded.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.” This parable seems to be a pair with the previous one. Just a very little bit of yeast can grow and bring leavening to a whole batch of dough. Three measures of flour, by the way, isn’t just three cups of flour. In fact, it equals about fifty pounds of flour and would make enough bread to feed more than one hundred people. Again the emphasis seems to be on something very small becoming very large.
I like this parable even better than the first one. The idea of the kingdom of heaven slowly seeping its way through our world, growing, multiplying, until it has leavened all of the earth seems very appropriate. It is insidious, in its way, pushing its way into every corner of life. That is like God’s rule, always breaking through into our world, finding ways to grow and thrive out of what seems like nothing.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.” In ancient Palestine, people were used to invasions. In not very long Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. You never knew when some new army might be invading, or when there might be a local uprising. And of course, there weren’t any banks. Consequently, burying one’s treasure in a field was a fairly common method of trying to keep things safe.
In this parable, the idea is that the owner of the field doesn’t know that the treasure is there. Someone in the past buried it and for whatever reason never got around to digging it up, and it was forgotten. Then, one of the workers in the field accidentally discovers it. He buries it again, and then puts together all the money he can in order to buy the field, without, of course, telling the owner that there is treasure buried there. Consequently, he makes a great return.
The point is about how precious the treasure is, how it found in an unexpected place, and the singleness of purpose that the person puts into acquiring it. This hidden treasure is so precious that he is willing to sell everything else that he has it order to get it, and he does so joyfully.
The kingdom of heaven is like that as well. Even though most people don’t see it at all, it is so precious that we would be well advised to give up everything else we have in order to attain it.
The next parable furthers the point. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.” Though this time the treasure is sought after rather than accidentally found, the point still seems to be about the preciousness of the find, the preciousness of the kingdom, which is to be sought above all other things. Seek ye first the kingdom of God.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish. When it was full, they pulled it to the shore, where they sat down and put good fish together into containers. But the bad fish they threw away.” This is actually a pair with the parable we heard last week about the wheat and the weeds. The kingdom of heaven casts its net wide. It is not picky, not discerning about who or what it will pick up. It takes all comers. And it is not for us as kingdom workers to decide who should be in and who should be out. God takes in all people, and it is only later that sorting will happen, and those that are kosher will be separated from those that are forbidden.
The kingdom of heaven is like… It is like a mustard seed or yeast, growing forth with unexpected proliferation, breaking into our world in unexpected ways. It is like a hidden treasure or a pearl, worth seeking and giving up everything else in order to acquire it. It is like a net thrown wide, accepting of all and dealing with both the clean and the unclean. The kingdom of heaven is like…