A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on July 27, 2014 (Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
1 Kings 3:5-12
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it 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.”
33He 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.
45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on 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; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and 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.” 52And 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.” – Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
While he was living among us, Jesus taught and preached about the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God, or the Realm of Heaven. In the account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17).
As we said last week, this “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus was talking about isn’t that place we hope to go to when we die – at least not entirely. He was talking about something here, on earth, as well.
So, what exactly is it, then? I’m going to guess that it is something that is difficult to explain, directly. That is why Jesus told parables about it. It’s kind of like trying to explain what love is. It’s hard to define, and most people don’t want to have it explained anyway. We want to see it; we want to experience it. It can only be hinted at with music, and art, and poetry. So it is with the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus was not the first to use parables to teach. But his parables clearly caught the imagination. They were memorable. They were captivating.
What makes the parables of Jesus so powerful is that they don’t just describe something. Instead, they challenge our assumptions about what a kingdom should be like – and what life should be like. They are like little literary timebombs that get into our minds and souls and go off unexpectedly in explosions of wonder and joy. We often don’t realize how strange they are when we first hear them.
In its commentary on these parables of Jesus in the 13th chapter of Matthew, biblical scholar M. Eugene Boring wrote in the New Interpreter’s Bible series, “Parables were not vivid decorations of a moralistic point but were disturbing stories that threatened the hearer’s mythological world – the world of assumptions by which we habitually live.”
Let me take you through some of these parables and try to point out some surprising features that make them so disturbing.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” The text explains that mustard seeds are very small, but they grow into something substantial, even if mustard plants weren’t the biggest trees known in the ancient world. That may itself challenge our assumption that the greatest kingdoms in the world are the biggest, wealthiest, and most powerful.
Jesus was contrasting the kingdom of heaven with the kingdom of Herod and the Roman Empire of his time – the most powerful empire known at that time.
There may be some symbolism at work here that is missed by those who don’t know the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in great detail. Some of the psalms, the book of Daniel, and the book of Ezekiel all use the metaphors of trees to talk about kingdoms of their time. So the tiny mustard seed grows into a new kind of kingdom – God’s Realm – in due time. In God’s time. It is in process right now – sometimes against all appearances. It will happen.
This mustard-bush Realm of God provides shelter for the birds of the air. It is a place of welcome and hospitality, whereas many great kingdoms end up putting up walls of various kinds to keep strangers out. Sadly, even now there are cries from many in our country to strengthen our borders against outsiders coming in.
But another interesting feature of this parable is that mustard is almost like a weed. When it starts to grow, it can take over fields where other plants are growing. So why would someone purposely sow mustard in a field?
The kingdom of heaven is dangerous – once it gets started, it can start to grow and take over other kingdoms. In a good way! It challenges kingdoms that are based on greed, exploitation, and violence (which are most of them).
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour…” Anyone who has ever baked bread knows that yeast is added to flour to make the bread lighter and fluffier than just a dense, chewy lump.
But yeast is also a symbol of corruption. If it gets into other foods, it can quickly cause them to spoil. In Jewish tradition, the festival of Passover begins with removing all old yeast from the house.
Three measures of flour – is enough to feed perhaps 100-150 people. This is a sign of abundance, and hospitality.
And the idea that the Realm of Heaven might be like women’s work – baking bread – that is shocking! Kingdoms are supposed to be strong, ruled by powerful men and defended by masculine soldiers. But God works quietly, and gently, and extravagantly.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…” It’s not always easy to see or find. But it is worth all we have.
Perhaps it was the Realm of Heaven of which poet T. S. Eliot wrote in his 1943 poem “Little Gidding V” from Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
“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.” I must admit that, in the past, when I have read this little parable, I thought it was just like the parable of the treasure in the field. But no! In the parable of the treasure hidden in the field, the realm of heaven is like the treasure. But here, the kingdom is like the merchant looking for fine pearls. So, then, what is the pearl of great value? Perhaps it is YOU! Jesus came to us from God in order to seek us out. And Jesus was willing to give everything in order to find us and reconcile us to God. Perhaps the Realm of Heaven is where YOU are the thing of greatest value – but also are those you don’t know and don’t like – even your enemies. That is certainly unlike any earthly kingdom that has ever existed, where the most important thing is the kingdom – and the king.
That is why “the kingdom of heaven is like a net that is thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind…” It is where we tuna are bound together in mutual love and concern with cod and mackerel and shrimp and asian carp. When the end times come, and the day of judgment, we will be separated – the evil from the righteous. But by then we may discover that we are all a little fishy. We are all good and evil, and not so different as we might have thought.
“Have you understood all this?” That is what Jesus asked his disciples. They said, “Yes.” Me… I’m still trying to understand. But I think these parables have whet my appetite for experiencing this kingdom of heaven, whatever it is and wherever it may be. Perhaps a more modern parable will help. Last week, Maddy and I quoted from the musical “West Side Story”, based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In the story, Tony and Maria are two young lovers who come from different cultures, different worlds, different kingdoms, if you will. Tony is from the Anglo community, and a member of the youth gang called the Jets. Maria is from the Puerto Rican community; her brother is a part of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. The two communities are in conflict, and they warn Maria and Tony not to get involved. But they have found something precious in each other, and they long for a place where they can be together and love one another, and bring peace between their two worlds. The kingdom of heaven is like a place where strangers and enemies can become lovers. It is a small act of defiance – like a mustard seed. But when they hold hands, and one another, the Realm of Heaven has come near.
(Play the video of “Somewhere” from the Film West Side Story)
Youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BQMgCy-n6U
Robert J. von Trebra