Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
[Jesus] put before them another parable: “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.”
He told them another parable: “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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “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.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Probably most of us have benefitted from mnemonic devices at some point. We might remember the primary colors in the visible light spectrum by remembering the name Roy G. Biv (which in turns gives us Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet). A strange one used by my junior high science teacher has nevertheless stuck with me: King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti that helped me remember Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.
In my seminary preaching classes I learned about a 4 page sermon, but on my CPE summer in New York I heard from students with learned Paul Scott Wilson’s little mnemonic device to ensure sermon unity: The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine or TTDINM in which each of those letters is preceded by the word “One”: One Text, One Theme, One Doctrine, One Image, One Need, One Mission. This made sense to me, but many of them told me how they struggled with the One Image. One good image in a sermon is much better than 4 or 5 competing and disparate images that bombard listeners and become jumbled in their imaginations.
But in today’s part of Matthew 13, Jesus is on something of an image binge. The kingdom is . . . a mustard seed . . . a bit of yeast in dough . . . a hidden treasure . . . a pearl of great value . . . a net catching fish. Jesus here slides easily from the agricultural to the culinary to the marketplace and to the fishing trade. It all seems jumbled together at first glance.
But even though Jesus is throwing out these various images at a fast and furious pace, he’s also teaching one of the most remarkable truths that emerges from the gospel: the unexpected hiddenness of the kingdom of God.
So it’s parable Sunday! This week we hear five short parables all about the kingdom of heaven.
- What is God’s kingdom like?
- What does it do?
- How is it unlike other kingdoms?
Jesus answers all of these questions—but does so indirectly by giving stories to describe what the kingdom is like. If we are wise, we approach these parables carefully and respectfully, recognizing that they were difficult to understand even for those who studied with Jesus full time and lived immersed in the context in which he taught.
The first 3 parables usually get all attention, but this week the last 2 parables spoke a lot to me. A quick summary of the first three:
First, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and yeast. These two images are powerful because they have small beginnings but have quick takeover potential.
Then we hear the kingdom of heaven is also like yeast that a woman hid in three measures (probably an overwhelming 10ish gallons) of flour. The yeast leavens the whole batch. In other words, Jesus is saying that the kingdom is small and modest. It works not by making grand displays or being impressive, but by spreading uncontrollably.
Then Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. A man finds it, but instead of stealing the treasure, he reburies it. Then he joyfully sells everything he has to legally acquire the field and the treasure therein.
The last two parables move the subject from humans to the kingdom itself. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When the merchant finds a precious pearl, he sells all that he has and buys it.
Like the human in the parable of the field, the kingdom, embodied by Jesus, is also willing to give up everything else to acquire its goal—humankind as a pearl of great value. We must pay attention to the reversal going on here. The kingdom of heaven is not the pearl—it is the merchant. Jesus is teaching about the lengths that he will go to rescue humans from sin and death. He will give up everything and empty himself (Philippians 2:7)—as a good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
Jesus’ last parable for this week says the kingdom is like a dragnet that is tossed into the sea and then pulled to the shore, indiscriminately catching everything in its path. This image is comforting to me in troubling moments in history. Eventually God’s reign of love and justice will capture us all up in. In describing the sorting of the fish that the net catches, Jesus presents another example of an eschatological selection based on what kind of fruit we produce—evil or righteousness.
Jesus, although not using many images (evidently he didn’t go to seminary), painted for his discerning listeners several images of what his kingdom is like. One of the hidden truths of the kingdom is that we, each of us, and all of us together as God’s people, are the pearl of great value.
That is how much our God loves each and every one of us – so much so that God would send his only son to walk among us and as one of us to show us the way of the Lord.
So much so that he did not let us get away with killing his only son, but returned him to us, so that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus himself is in the midst of us, calling us to return to the God from whence we came. We come from love. We return to love. And love is all around. God is love and loves us even more than the merchant who gave everything for the pearl of great value.
Recognizing that we are precious in the eyes of our God maybe every day we are to leave some silence in our prayers and to allow ourselves to feel God thanking us for all that we do for God in this world. It sounds so easy. But are we really capable of believing and knowing that God loves us that much? Do we feel like pearls of great value? We can—and, more importantly, we must. It is central to the life of faith to accept and receive God’s love—to know how much God values us and what we do.
This is why all of these kingdom parables are so very important to understand. They each point to the hiddenness of God’s reign in our midst. They each suggest that the life of faith begins with something as small as a little bit of yeast or a single grain of mustard seed. We do not need to do what the world perceives as big and heroic things. As God’s own pearls of great value, every little thing we do for others brings a smile to the face of God.
The more we let God thank us for what we can do for God, the more confident and empowered we become as God’s own people. Soon, the people around us and the people we meet begin to feel like pearls of great value as well. All we really need is faith as small as a mustard seed to make all creation new!
- To give new life to our own tired bodies.
- To put a smile on the face of a stranger.
- To plant seeds of God’s love throughout the neighborhood in which God has called us to make our home.
As we hear these explanations of the Kingdom of God from Jesus, I am reminded of the explanation of the Holy Sacraments as well. Sacraments are explained as ordinary things that become extraordinary through the word of God.
- Bread and wine are simple meal preparation pieces until Christ uses them and blesses them to show us and remind us that we are forgiven and redeemed and welcomed to the table of Christ together.
- Things like a simple font filled with water suddenly becomes a symbol for the ways that we are brought together by Christ, named, and claimed by our Creator.
The crux of our faith leans heavily on the ordinary becoming extraordinary, and yet sometimes when we talk about the Kingdom of God it is almost as if we expect to understand it all. We expect to be able to tell folks what it looks like, what it takes, and who is in and who is out. Christ responds to those expectations with parables about people’s expectations being blown out of the water and new life surprising them in new and incredible ways that they never could have fathomed before.
Take time today to be silent and to let God thank you for what you have done for God today. Don’t worry about tomorrow.
- Just feel God’s thanks and love for today.
- Imagine God washing your feet at the end of a long day.
- Imagine God offering you a piece of his bread and a sip of his wine.
- Imagine God making you an integral part of his body, that sacred mystery, the Church.
Beginning today, make time every day for God to thank for what you are doing for God. Persevere in accepting that you are God’s pearl of great value. As we bask in God’s thanks, mercy, compassion, and love, we will become a new people. We will come to accept that we are God’s pearls of great value.