The thirteenth chapter of Matthew contains a fascinating series of parables in which Jesus paints a composite image of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. The lectionary takes three weeks with this chapter – we missed the first one this year, which is the parable of the sower and the seed, where the farmer casts seed liberally over all types of ground and the mixed results are traced. It is not just the most promising soil which is sown and has the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel – it is available to everyone. The farmer’s task is to spread the word, with confidence that God is responsible for the ultimate results.
Last week we looked at the parable of the wheat and the weeds, which teaches us that the kingdom of heaven contains both good and bad and that it is not our job to weed out what we believe to be bad. God will take care of that at the harvest time – otherwise we would do more harm than good.
Today’s reading includes several short word pictures to show other facets of the kingdom of heaven. They include another farming story, a baking story, a businessman story, a fishing story, and a story I’m not sure how to classify. They seem pretty straightforward at first glance, but they have some surprising elements as well.
Before I start talking about these five parables, I want to talk for a minute about why Jesus might have been telling all of these parables to illustrate the kingdom of heaven. First, we need to not get confused and think he is describing heaven, as a place we go after we die. We would all like to know exactly what heaven is like, but that is not the topic. When Jesus began his ministry he went throughout Galilee preaching, teaching, and healing. Matthew sums up his message with these words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” or “is at hand.” I can imagine that the disciples had lots of questions about what this kingdom of heaven was and what it looked like.
Kingdom and heaven are both pretty lofty words which carry a lot of expectation. “Kingdom” is a word of power and authority, and “heaven” is a word of perfection and blessedness. What does it mean to live in this kingdom, and how will we recognize it? A lot of people were expecting a Messiah to produce a kingdom of a different sort – a powerful leader who would drive the Romans out and re-establish the nation of Israel. That would have been heaven for many. But Jesus was never about this. So instead of stories about kings and armies and victories to explain this kingdom of heaven, he has stories about farming and baking and fishing and being about your daily work.
I imagine Jesus going from place to place with his disciples proclaiming this message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” while having no homes, no income, lots of opposition, mixed results from hearers, and the disciples saying, “Tell us more about this kingdom of heaven you talk about. We are not seeing it.”
So Jesus starts telling them. “It is like walking all over Galilee throwing out seeds of faith, knowing that some will be fruitful and some will not. It is knowing that whenever you plant a garden of faith there will be weeds as well as faith and it is hard to tell the difference between the two and you have to patiently let both grow together until the day God separates them.”
“And the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” This is a surprise from the beginning. No one in Palestine would have intentionally planted a mustard seed in their field. It was the kudzu of its day – it grew like crazy, had tons of tiny seeds that would blow everywhere and would infest the field. Just think of how dandelions or crab grass takes over your yard. Before you knew it, a mustard seed would grow into a bush. The meaning usually taken away from this parable is the straightforward teaching that the kingdom of heaven is like the tiniest of seeds which surprisingly grows into a very large bush which is capable of supporting bird nests. But I wonder if Jesus was also talking about the nature of his movement. People were looking for a king, an army, a nation. Symbols you would expect for that would be a mighty oak tree or the much prized cedars of Lebanon or the palm tree, symbol of kings. You expect power, money, warriors, a great leader. Instead, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like a plant in your field which is not chosen or desired but which grows despite not receiving favored treatment and is capable of providing shelter and a home for the non powerful of society. Just because the means and the results of the kingdom of heaven don’t look like you expected them to does not mean that it is not growing as God intends.
Then he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” We see this as a very positive act, adding yeast to flour so that bread rises and becomes fluffy and light rather than thin and hard. But in biblical times yeast was regarded as a corrupting agent. The positive saying for us that “a little yeast leavens the loaf” was equivalent in those days to saying “one bad apple spoils the bunch.” Elsewhere Jesus uses this sense when he tells the disciples to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (16:6) In preparation for Passover, purging your home of any yeast was required for purity (Exodus 12:15). I’m pretty good at making pound cakes, but a couple of weeks ago I had a catastrophe. By mistake I picked up self rising flour at the store instead of all purpose flour. It looks exactly the same, but there is something mixed in that undermines a pound cake. After a half hour there was an unusual smell, so I went to check on it and it was bubbling out of the cake pan all over the bottom of the oven.
So here Jesus again uses a questionable agent as a sign of the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour. The word which is translated “mixed in” actually means “hid.” She hid the yeast in the flour, a subversive sounding action. You can’t tell it has been done until the dough starts to rise. It is like last week when the enemy came at night and planted the weeds amongst the wheat. And three measures of flour doesn’t sound like much, but it is 50 pounds! She is making enough bread for the neighborhood! Only a little leaven is required, but a lot of work to knead it in to the whole batch of flour.
The kingdom of heaven is like this. It doesn’t take an army, it doesn’t take a lot of flashy actions. One woman can make a big difference. One band of unlikely looking disciples moving around the countryside may not look like they are changing anything, but over time the truth will be seen.
And here is a doozy: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Doesn’t that just raise all kinds of moral and ethical issues in your mind? It is paired with a second parable about valuables: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Parables are only intended to make one point, so it is fruitless to wander off on all those moral and ethical rabbit trails about the person who stumbles over treasure, re-hides it, then buys it from the owner without telling him, nor should we take this as suggesting that we can buy our way into the kingdom.
The point is that it is possible both for people who are looking for nothing and for people who have been on a lifelong search for this specific thing to recognize the all surpassing value of being a part of the kingdom of heaven and be moved to invest everything that they have and are into becoming part of it. Both people in the parables immediately sell everything else they have in order to gain this treasure. It is not going to be one treasure among many that they own, it will be the one and only. It is not being purchased in order to sell at a higher price, and they have nothing left with which to buy anything else. It is a terminal purchase. Tom Long writes, “When people truly encounter (the kingdom of heaven) and realize what it is, it enters their hearts, seizes their imaginations, and overwhelms them with its precious value. No price is too great; nothing that they own can rival its value.” (Westminster Bible Commentary, Matthew, p. 156)
The disciples know, however, that this treasure is not a pearl, not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Whether stumbling upon it or actively searching for it, it will require looking past the world’s definition of valuables to see the extraordinary value of the kingdom. The hidden treasure might be a mustard plant you trip over in the field. The pearl of great value might be a warm loaf of the bread of life just coming out of the oven. The key is in training your eyes and heart to discern the priceless in the everyday and to act decisively upon that realization.
The last kingdom parable in this group returns us to the message of the wheat and weeds. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind – some were keepers and some were the kind you throw back for one reason or another. All are brought into the kingdom net, but at the end of the age the angels sort them out just as a fisherman would. Our job is to cast the net and bring in fish. It will be God’s job to sort them out.
At the end Jesus asks the disciples if they have understood all of this and remarkably they answer, “Yes.” Then Jesus says something that many have seen as defining what he saw himself doing and what the church would need to do. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Scribe is a Jewish role – a teacher and interpreter of the law. A scribe who is trained or retrained for the kingdom of heaven is one who will teach and interpret the new covenant. The old is still relevant but is not enough. The scribe brings out of the treasure available to him what is new and what is old and combines that in teaching the way of Christ. The disciples will need not only the Scriptures of Judaism but these teachings and parables of Jesus in order to bring people into the kingdom.
Where is the kingdom of heaven? It is all around you and within you. It is trying to take root in every type of soil. It is in the midst of a field of wheat and weeds growing together. It is in the mustard plant that grows up overnight in your field. It is in a treasure that you stumble across in the middle of nowhere and in the treasure you have looked for all your life. It is thrashing around in a net full of salmon, sea bass, toadfish and sting rays you have pulled up. It is not an idyllic place where everything is perfect, it is a messy place where life is lived every day. How we discern the kingdom and how we receive the kingdom and how we live in the kingdom are at the heart of faithful Christianity.
Wendy Farley writes, “This kingdom… is not like the kingdom that rules through soldiers, taxes, and crosses. This kingdom is like tiny seeds that become a shelter for all beings. It is like a farmer sowing seeds. The kingdom of divine nearness is more like an old woman kneading dough than a great king on a throne. The kingdom is like all of those women who fold the dough over and over, slap it on a wooden slab, turn it over with work-hardened hands. The kingdom is an old woman kneading dough, but inside the dough she is hiding something precious. She is not making hard biscuits, food of the poor. She is making light and soft bread; hidden within the bread is something almost invisible, tiny, insignificant. As she folds the bread over and over, the agent of change is broken into the dough, and soon the dough rises. Its featureless flatness becomes soft, pliable, warm, and delicious.
The kingdom of divine nearness is an old woman. An image like this issues a challenge that is as radical today as it was two thousand years ago. We are invited into a logic, a way of life, that is utterly present here on earth, in this world, and yet utterly alien to the dynamics of power that structure our nations, our families, and even our churches. If we allowed this image of an old woman to enter us, it might be like a small and invisible agent of change breaking down our resistance and raising us up nourished and nourishing.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, p. 384)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
July 27, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church