A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 27, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-51
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I think the funniest thing about today’s gospel lesson is the final word:  “Yes.”  Jesus finishes his string of parables, his recitation of riddles, asking his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” and they answer him, “Yes.”

The kin-dom of heaven is like …
… a mustard seed.
… yeast.
… a treasure hidden in a field.
… a merchant in search of pearls.
… a net thrown into the sea.

Have you understood all this?  I sure haven’t.

Every three years, this set of parables comes up in the lectionary.  Sometime toward the end of July, we read or hear these five parables – riddles, really, given how short and obtuse they are.  Some years I’m on vacation or at camp and I can avoid them.  And some years, like this year, they land in my lap, challenging me to make some sense of them.  And the more I study them, the more certain I am that I can’t be certain about their meaning (or maybe its meanings [plural]).

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

A mustard seed

Now even I, as horticultural challenged as I am, knows that a mustard seed it tiny.  Hiccup while you’re examining one and you’ll likely inhale it or blow it away.  So the kin-dom of heaven is really small and easy to miss and easily destroyed.  Except that can’t be Jesus’ point.

Ah, but the parable doesn’t just say the kin-dom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  The parable says it’s like a mustard seed that a farmer plants in his field.  I suppose the farmer could like the taste of mustard, so he plants it.  Except mustard is like dandelions, or kudzu, or morning glory.  Once it’s established, it’s really hard to get rid of it.  It’s going to grow into a shrub that’s big enough for birds to nest in.  And, though I don’t know much about farming, I know you generally don’t want birds in your fields, eating your food before you can harvest.  Scarecrows have a purpose, and it’s not just to accompany Dorothy to Oz.

So, the kin-dom of heaven is something that, once it takes root, is hard to get rid of and creates a place for people you may not want to have around.  Is that Jesus’ point?

The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast, which is a little shocking in its own right.  Yeast is unclean.  According to author Jim Douglass, “In those days leaven was made by storing bread in a damp, dark place until it molded.  In Exodus leaven symbolized the unholy (Exodus 12:19).  Paul understood leaven as symbolic of the morally corrupt.  He twice cites a proverb, ‘A little leaven leavens the whole lump’ (Galatians 5:9; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8), whose meaning by his application is the same as our own saying, ‘One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.’  Jesus shows the same understanding when he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:15).  His parable begins with the common assumption: Leaven equals moral corruption.”[1]

Yeast leavening the flour

And the kin-dom of heaven is not just like yeast, but it’s like yeast that a woman (who is unclean one week a month) takes and mixes in a bunch of flour until the whole lot is leavened.  Once a woman mixes in the yeast, there’s no separating it back out.  All the flour is contaminated.  And by “a bunch of flour,” apparently we’re talking about enough flour to make bread for 100 people.[2]  One commentator says, “A modern paraphrase [of this parable] might be: ‘The kingdom of God is like a virus in a dirty needle that a junkie took and injected into a vein so the whole body was infected.’”[3]

So what do we make of this parable?  I like how Jim Douglass framed an interpretation:  “A woman, probably a poor one.  One of the oppressed.  This far cry from a king turns one’s sense of ‘kingdom’ upside-down.’

The next two parables are so similar, we’ll look at them together.  “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.
“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.”

Both of these parables have people selling all they own so they can purchase this thing of great value.  In the first case, the treasure is found by accident.  In the second case, the merchant is searching for it.  In the first case, upon finding this treasure, our guy buys the property where it’s hidden “in his joy.”  Not in his greed, but in his joy.  The kin-dom of heaven seems to have something to do with joy.  In the second case, the merchant finds the pearl and sells all he has so he can have the pearl.

It doesn’t matter how you come to the kin-dom of heaven, by accident or on purpose; once you find it, nothing else matters.  It is worth a total commitment of everything we have and everything we are.  I can’t hear these parables without thinking of the time Jesus called on a rich man to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow him.[4]

Our fifth parable is the most embellished of the five, containing its own interpretation.  “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”

That’s where the parable ends.  What follows is an interpretation, the comparing of the sorting of the fish to a sorting of the good and evil at the end of time.  The interpretation might make us think that all of these kin-dom of heaven parables are about life after death, about “heaven.”  I think we need to resist that line of thought.  Remember, Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish Christians, and good Jews don’t call God by name.  So, while the other gospels have parables about the kin-dom of God, Matthew has kin-dom of heaven parables, thus avoiding using the word “God.”

The other parables in this set are about the here and now.  The kin-dom of heaven is unstoppable, insidious, almost infectious.  The kin-dom of heaven is transformative and subversive.  The kin-dom of heaven is of intense value right now.  Perhaps this fifth parable may have something to do with the here and now, as well as about the end of time.

The kin-dom of heaven is like a net that scoops up all types.  You may think you’re small fry, inconsequential, but the kin-dom of heaven will scoop you up, too.  And you know that fish get sorted, but do you know how this fisher is going do the sorting?  Don’t assume that the salmon and the sturgeon and the blue fin tuna are the “good” fish.  This fisher may have other ideas.

There is an offensive undercurrent to these parables.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to a nut job farmer who plants a weed like mustard in his grain field.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to a symbol of moral corruption:  yeast.  Jesus compares the kin-dom of heaven to both a treasure that is insanely worth giving up everything to possess and to a person who insanely gives up everything to possess it.  And Jesus says that kin-dom of heaven will scoop up everyone and it will decide who is good and who is bad.

The offense doesn’t stop there.  The English translation of the Greek, the basileia of heaven is traditionally “kingdom.”  This is because, when the Greek was translated into English, England was a kingdom.  Had it been translated during the reign of Queen Victoria, it might have been translated “Empire,” as in the British Empire.  In fact, the Greek basileia is the word used to describe Rome at the time of Jesus.  The basileia of Rome, the Empire of Rome.  Every time Jesus talks about the basileia of heaven/God, he’s setting it up in opposition to the basileia of Rome.

I believe that, in using this language and these images, Jesus is offering an alternative way of life.  He is offering a vision of hope, a possibility of life that is different than life under the Roman Empire.  For us, today, he is offering an alternative to life under militarism, corporate greed, and the various forms of oppression we have not yet overcome.

This is why I choose to translate basileia as “kin-dom.”  Are we going to identify ourselves as kin to oppression, greed, and militarism; or are we going to identify ourselves as kin to the alternative Jesus offers?

When I started really thinking about and reading about these parables early last week, the painting on your bulletin cover came to mind.  The reproduction of neither the whole picture nor of the detail really captures what I was hoping for, but let me explain.

Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

The painting, Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” is a prime example of pointillism.  This is a painting technique where little dots of color are applied to a canvas.  Take a close look at the canvas and all you see are the little dots.  You can’t make out any image.  But step back from the painting and you see the image.

Detail from Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

Detail from Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

This detail from the picture  is supposed to show you a small part of the painting up close.  Like I said, it didn’t work all that well, but you get the idea.

I was thinking it might help to use the same technique to look at these parables.  Any one of the parables is like a bunch of dots of paint, but you can’t see the whole picture until you step back and let them work together to paint the picture.

So, stepping back, I notice a theme running through these five parables:  hiddenness.  The mustard seed is hidden in the soil.  The yeast is hidden in the flour.  The treasure is hidden in the field.  The pearl is hidden and must be search for.  The net is hidden under the water.

Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if these parables can remind us “that in the most ordinary, everyday things and experiences are ‘signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullness of our days.…  [It is possible] that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives…’”[5]

Maybe Taylor has seen the bigger picture.  Or maybe Laurel Dykstra has found it:  “Serfs are buying land, a peasant woman has baked bread for 100, the kingdom of God is rising, and there we find our daily bread.  Fish are breaking through nets, the rich are selling all they have.  The kingdom is springing up faster than we can uproot it.”[6]

Or maybe they both have seen it.

What do you see?

 

[1] Jim Douglass, “A Parable of Corruption,” Sojourners, www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/parable-corruption (accessed 21 July 2014).

[2] Several sources I read make this claim, including Douglass, op. cit.

[3] Laurel A. Dykstra, “A Pearl Like a Fishnet,” Sojourners, www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pearl-fishnet (accessed 21 July 2014).

[4] See Matthew 19:16-22 and its parallels in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-25.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor in Seeds of Heaven, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-27-2014.html (accessed 21 July 2014).

[6] Dykstra, op. cit.

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