July 26, 2020 Eighth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52.
31 [Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 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.” 33 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.” 44 “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. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Here we are, in week three of the “Weeds and Seeds” group of parables Jesus shares with the crowds that have been following him to hear him preach about the coming Kingdom of God. And so far, we’ve been rather confident that all these metaphors have been pointing to the eternal paradise that awaits all those who follow the Way of Jesus. Perhaps we’ve taken a somewhat cursory view of the message behind Jesus’ metaphors for what the coming kingdom will be like. If we dig a bit deeper into these agricultural parables, and into the others in this morning’s gospel lesson, we may find another, more profound, if not more revolutionary layer that exists in Jesus’ descriptive allegories.
Today’s reading incudes five separate parables used by Jesus to explain what the coming Kingdom of God will be like. It’s important to note that this longed-for image is translated this morning as the Kingdom of Heaven; but for the purposes of our discussion, let’s go worth God’s kingdom. Both are valid descriptions, but the use of Kingdom of God will, hopefully become clear in a bit. These five different parables are cleverly used to make the metaphor of the kingdom understandable to the wide range of people that Jesus is addressing. We start with farmers, and quickly move on to bakers, landowners, merchants, and fishermen. With these five groups, Jesus is covering a great majority of professions in ancient Palestine; and, he has addressed shepherds multiple times previously. The kingdom to come will include everyone, and Jesus is assuring that everybody is given a metaphoric description of what it will be like; and what actions and types of behavior are needed if each is to grasp the true nature of God’s kingdom.
So, individually the parables speak in terms that those involved in the referenced professions would readily understand. And if we examine them in the way that they have generally been viewed, we come to the conclusion of what their intent was; “something small will eventually grow into something much larger”. Tiny mustard seed becomes huge tree for the birds to nest in. Small amount of yeast is able to cause a large amount of flour to rise, resulting in enough bread to feed a massive crowd.
And the conclusion that is generally drawn from these metaphors is that Jesus is telling the crowds that the Kingdom of God will start from a small, humble beginning. This, in itself is not a bad outcome, since we are all hoping for the ultimate arrival of God’s kingdom. However, this rather tame message might be what we would expect if we were to hear it from “patient, laid-back, benign Jesus”. And at times these adjectives may be used to describe our divine parable-teller this morning. However, they certainly don’t apply to the enraged man who burst into the temple overturning the tables of the money-changers. This would have been the action of the “passionate, harsh, threatening Jesus”. The Savior who didn’t have an infinite amount of time to spread his message; to drive home an understanding of the coming Kingdom, and that this heavenly realm is at hand. The revolutionary whose purpose was to make the world see that drastic change was needed, and that it would have to happen very soon!
Why choose the mustard seed as the metaphor for something exceedingly tiny, and that will ultimately grow into something large enough to shelter birds? In truth, mustard seeds aren’t really that tiny; poppy seeds are nearly invisible when compared to mustard seeds. Perhaps Jesus chose this particular plant, not for its ability to grow large, and grow quickly; and to become a place for birds to nest. In truth, the mustard plant is considered an invasive weed by gardeners, one that if it takes hold in a field, will soon overrun it and choke out whatever was originally planted there; and what was expected to be what was harvested. The seed of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God has been planted; and it will sprout and spread to overtake and overcome the status quo of the current world. This is the message not of the “Gentle Jesus”, but of the “Jesus of the overturned tables”.
Next, this Jesus known for stirring things up, turns to a baking analogy. Similar to the mustard seed parable, a small amount of yeast causes over a bushel of flour to be leavened, resulting in hundreds of loaves of risen bread. Again, at first glance, small amount of yeast results in many loaves of bread. Yet again, there may be more to this parable than is obvious from a casual examination. In Jesus’ time yeast was not the product in neat envelopes that is used today.
What was then considered “yeast” was, in fact a lump of moldy, spore-laden bread, that was saved from the most recent loaf in the house. It was kept on-hand to serve as the starter for subsequent breadmaking. And, like the mustard weed, yeast was incredibly intrusive; a tiny amount was capable of spreading through a large quantity of flour, causing the entire batch to become leavened; no longer flat pita bread, but now, raised loaves. So intrusive, in fact that “yeast” was a metaphor for “corruption” or “decay” in Jesus’ time. Even today, during Passover pious Jewish households are forbidden to have in their homes any foods that contain yeast; called “chametz”. This signifies that the home is free from decay or corruption during this major holiday. With this parable, Jesus continues to show that the Kingdom of God is spreading, and that once started it can’t be stopped. The “yeast” of the kingdom will be the cause of the decay of the current world, as the new one comes into being. This is not the passive Jesus speaking, but the One who has come to turn everything upside down.
There are similar explanations for the other parable Jesus speaks through on this day; the treasure hidden in the field and the priceless pearl. All of them culminate in the parable of the fishing net filled with “good” and “bad” fish. The kingdom is coming and everyone will be hauled aboard the boat; whether one is counted among the “good” or “bad” will be determined by their response to the coming change in the world.
By using the examples he chose, Jesus is taking us quite a bit outside our comfort zone. The invasive mustard weed and the potent yeast, once unleashed can get out of hand rather quickly. Yet, this profusion, even if uncomfortable initially, is indicative of the coming transformation the world is soon to be undergoing. Jesus is setting the stage for the discomfort, anxiety, and anguish that accompany the coming of the new way of living; of living into the Way of Christs in God’s coming kingdom. The revolution has begun and like the yeast and mustard seed it will keep expanding until all the world is transformed, overcome.
Enter the Lutheran concept of the Kingdom of heaven; “already” and “not yet”. The kingdom has “not yet” been fully realized; there is much to be done before God’s will for the world is fulfilled. Yet, the striving of God’s people to conduct themselves in the manner that God intends; and Christ commands is “already” happening. The promised paradise is yet to come, but the mission laid out for God’s children is now underway. This is the “already” part; Jesus, by his sacrifice on the cross has “already” begun the Father’s mission. We are called to act according to the will of God as the world waits on the “not yet” part that is to came. The transformation has begun, and like the invasive mustard plant and persistent yeast, nothing can be done to stop it. We can choose to just go along for the ride, or we can determine to live transformed lives that mirror God’s will for the kingdom that is “already” here.
We can choose to adapt our actions to be like the mustard seed, with the hope that our striving to live into the kingdom life will be a witness for others; and that they will also come to know the grace that God promises to all. We can behave like yeast, and acknowledge that every action we take has the potential for momentous consequences; it’s up to us to decide whether these ramifications result in the emergence of “good” or “bad” fish. We are all disciples, we’re all apostles. The lives we live, the actions we take, serve as concrete examples for others as they observe us put our Christianity on display for the world. We followers of this Jesus, the first-century Jewish revolutionary, must adopt his willingness to turn things upside-down. To proudly proclaim our faith in the One who started the unstoppable upheaval in the way the world works. We need to act boldly as we show the world that the kingdom of God is “already” here; and that we choose to be an active part in its expansion. The world is hurting and calling out to experience the grace of God. And if we act Christlike in our behavior towards the world we can be the insistent weed or the stubborn yeast that can’t, that won’t be ignored. “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another”, Jesus tells us. Do a small gracious thing every day, and somewhere, sometime, somehow it will grow into a thing so large the world won’t be able to ignore it. Show the world that the Kingdom of heaven is “already” here.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, Jesus, your Son shows us that often we must act small but think big. Give us the will to act as worthy messengers of your grace, to engage the world in participating in the fulfillment of your kingdom. The one that is “not yet”; and especially the one that is “already” here. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, who shows us and the world the way to your kingdom. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.