July 30, 2023
Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Kings 3:5/12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from our great storyteller. Amen
Today we have more parables from Jesus.
This is our third Sunday in a row of parables
and while the last two weeks
we’ve had one substantial story per week
this week we have a whole series of one or two line parables,
one after another after another.
So what’s the point of these stories?
Especially the very short ones?
Professor Amy-Jill Levine
(she was one of the authors of The Marvelous Seed, I took a deep dive into her work this week) in her book “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi”
remarks that parables are stories
that are supposed to surprise the listener
and challenge them to see the world in a different way
particularly by comparing two things
indeed “the term ‘parable’ comes from the Greek para, ‘along side, together with,’ as in ‘parallel’ or ‘paradox,’ and balo, ‘to cast,’ ‘to throw’”.
So these stories,
throw together two things
and challenge us the listeners
to draw meaning from the contrast.
So back to Jesus,
the teacher, the storyteller,
who is addressing the crowds
who have gathered around him,
drawn by his healing, his feeding, and his teaching,
and he throws out five parables in rapid succession,
the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure, the pearl, the net.
A wide variety of images
but they are all being contrasted with the same thing:
The kingdom of heaven.
What is the kingdom of heaven?
Well that’s the question isn’t it?
That’s why we’re listening to Jesus.
But even as we approach Jesus
hoping to learn more about the kingdom of heaven,
we already have images in our own mind
that will influence how we are surprised and challenged by Jesus’ teaching.
Some of our images for the kingdom are biblical,
a new heaven and a new earth
where there will be no more pain,
a place of division
where the sheep are separated from the goats,
where good is separated from bad.
Some of our images are less biblical and more cultural,
fluffy clouds and pearly gates,
people becoming angels.
But whatever we imagine,
I think we tend to imagine it in the future,
the good news that he and his disciples have been proclaiming,
is that the kingdom of heaven has come near,
that it is already breaking into this world
and that causes us to pause and say
‘wait a minute, what is the kingdom of heaven?’
because our images
and the inbreaking of the kingdom don’t always mesh together.
What is this kingdom that you’re proclaiming Jesus?
This Kingdom that you say is coming near
and that the coming is good news?
Well Jesus says:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that is planted.
And when it grows up, instead of becoming a bush,
it becomes a tree,
a tree so big that birds can make nests in it.
All it takes is one seed that when planted
then left alone will provide food and medicine
for anyone who needs it.
From this are we to learn that the kingdom will start small and grow surprisingly large?
That doesn’t seem too challenging.
Or perhaps we’re surprised
by the time needed for the kingdom to come to its fullness,
a seed growing into a big plant needs time to grow
and there’s not much anyone can do to speed that process along,
it will happen in its own time.
The is good news that this process has started,
even though it puzzles us why it can’t just happen all at once.
Also puzzling is how the kingdom of heaven is like yeast,
or more accurately, leaven, sourdough starter,
that a woman takes and hides
-our translation says mixed but the Greek is specific-
she hides this leavener in three measures of flour until all of it is leavened.
Here too we have the image of something small growing into something great
but in a different way than the previous mustard seed.
First, sourdough starter, to thrive,
needs an odd mixture of neglect and care,
water, yeast and flour are combined
and then you just have to let it sit,
give it time for the yeast to break down the flour
and begin to ferment the mixture
and it’s the fermentation that makes the bubbles that raise the dough.
It does this all on its own
but it needs to be at the right temperature,
too cold and the yeasties don’t want to work,
too hot and they die,
and then the mixture needs to be tended,
fed every few days with a little more flour.
Does the kingdom too need this alternating attention?
Where sometimes we need to leave it alone to do its thing
and sometimes we need to care for it?
Or perhaps we will find meaning in the vast amount of flour
that the woman hides the leaven in.
Three measures is somewhere between forty to sixty pounds of flour,
that’s a lot of bread,
way more than any one person or family could eat,
it’s enough for a whole community,
is this woman baking for her whole community?
Making sure all are fed?
-It’s not much of a challenge for me to imagine
all having enough to eat in the kingdom,
especially the extravagant way Jesus feeds people throughout his ministry.
But what was it about the woman hiding the leaven in flour?
We find this image of the kingdom hiding/ being hidden in the next parable too,
where the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field,
and then someone finds it,
hides it again,
and then goes and sells everything that they have
to buy that field with the hidden treasure.
Is it that the kingdom is hiding, perhaps in plain sight?
Or perhaps, it’s a treasure, when found,
is worth giving everything up to attain.
Which sounds reasonable and not at all challenging,
until we remember the young man
who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life,
and Jesus tells him to sell all that he owns and follow him,
and the young man is sad because he is very wealthy
and turns and walks away from Jesus.
And yet the man in the parable
joyfully sells all that he has
to obtain this treasure.
We see this same formula again in the next parable
where the kingdom is like a merchant in search of pearls,
who when he finds one,
sells all he has to buy the pearl.
It sounds similar initially
and we tend to focus on the one amazing pearl,
but that’s not the contrast with the kingdom of heaven,
it’s what the merchant does when he finds one amazing pearl
- he gives up everything,
-remember he was searching for pearls to sell to make more money-
and his possessions
for this thing he found
that he wasn’t even looking for.
Is the kingdom something so unexpected
but so obviously desirable
that when we encounter it,
it causes us to drop everything for it?
What if we haven’t come across something like that in our lives?
Have we not encountered the kingdom?
And what about all the bad things
that are still present in the world,
what do we do with them?
The last parable about the net seems to address this.
The kingdom of God is like a net thrown into the sea
that catches all kinds of fish,
but only when it is drawn to shore
are the fish sorted out, good from bad.
Are we to accept that this good news kingdom contains good and bad?
Do we trust God enough to wait to the end
to get it all sorted out
even as Jesus proclaims that it’s good news right now?
Jesus like the good teacher he is
pauses here to check his student’s comprehension.
“Have you understood all this? They answered, Yes.”
then he tells them one more parable:
“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.”
With this last parable Jesus encourages the crowd,
and all of us to continually reexamine our understanding of the kingdom of heaven,
throwing together the stories of Jesus and the stories of our lives,
treasures old and new,
and in the contrast,
in the ways we are surprised,
each time we visit them,
we hear something new,
something that speaks good news to us.
Good stories do this,
especially good stories told by good story tellers,
and we have the best story teller of all,
who doesn’t dictate what is good news for us
but lets us discover it for ourselves
sitting us down, saying let me tell you a story…Amen