Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
31He 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.”
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; 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.” (NRSV)
Jesus teaches in parables because there are signs pointing to the kingdom of heaven all around us, in the most ordinary realities. The made-for-Sunday-school image of the kingdom as a mustard seed brings to mind children walking out of church with bright smiles and paper cups filled with an over-watered slurry of dark earth. Somewhere inside that mud lies a tiny seed, drowning, dying, just like Jesus said in a different parable.
The only problem with most such scenarios is that the perfectly well-intentioned Sunday school teachers usually bring seeds for things like zinnias, pansies, tomatoes, or something else both normal and welcome in backyard gardens. To first-century farmers, though, mustard plants were invasive shrubs. To make Jesus’ point, the Sunday school teachers should send the kids home with kudzu or crabgrass to plant outside their windows.
Matthew does something interesting here. The story immediately preceding today’s string of pithy kingdom parables is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. By juxtaposing the wheat-and-weeds and the mustard seed parables, Matthew asks us to think very carefully about what we write off as weeds. That mustard plant, so vexing for farmers, creates a home for birds which not only aid in the propogation of crops, but whose plumage and song render in us nourishing awareness, joy, and gratitude, attributes which become a kind of yeast that leavens us for fuller living. Thanks be to God for the weeds.
Yeast is another odd image for the kingdom of heaven. Yeast is a fungus, a biochemical change agent. When added to flour and water, that fungus becomes part of the dough just as the bread becomes part of the body that eats it. And while too little yeast has no effect, too much yeast can cause food poisoning.
As yeast, the kingdom of heaven is God’s subtle and mysterious presence working within us and through us. It seems to me that when those who follow any given religious tradition over-identify that tradition with temporalities like nations, partisan dogmas, or material wealth, we inevitably try to force upon others that which can only be offered. At that point, we no longer serve God, because we’re trying to be God. And that makes us a toxic presence rather a witness to grace.
In the next two parables, Jesus compares God’s realm to material wealth. The one who finds “treasure hidden in a field” sells everything he has for the sake of a treasure that is not his, but that he works the system to acquire. While the man searching for fine pearls doesn’t do anything deceptive, the image is still one of grasping after material gain.
Can we really compare the kingdom of heaven to something that engenders deception and reckless greed? Later in Matthew, when a rich young man says he wants eternal life, Jesus doesn’t tell him to sell everything he has to buy a greater fortune. He says, “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) And only then, says Jesus, will you have “treasure in heaven.”
That begs the question of how becoming poor, becoming one whom most societies regard as nothing more than a human weed or a thin slice of unleavened bread makes us rich in things that matter? Holy treasure, says Jesus, is discovered in letting go of all that we claim to have earned and deserve for the sake of that which can only be received as a gift. And isn’t that the nature of grace?
“The kingdom of heaven is like a net,” says Jesus. Something submerged into the depths and hauled in to see what gifts lie beneath the surface. In this parable (which is simply a recasting of the parable of the wheat and the weeds!), the good fish are kept—which means that they will be gutted, skewered on a spit, cooked over an open fire, and eaten. And the bad will be thrown back into the water. That kind of tempts a person to question the benefits of righteousness, doesn’t it?
Hold onto the image of the net. We’ll get back to it.
All these parables invite us to see our lives as parables, as expressions of a life much bigger than our individual lives. And to live consciously as parables inevitably puts us at odds with proud individualism, at odds with the cultures and ideologies of the nations we love, and at odds with groups that give us identity, that can include the Church.
In reflecting on today’s passage, one commentator asks: “What if a society resembles the empire of Rome much more closely than it does the empire of heaven, expressing in its policies and budget the values of social inequality and redemptive violence? Helping persons to adjust…[to] a sick society is not the work of the gospel.”1
Working with the image of the yeast, another commentator says that “‘if a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting [as yeast does] is the only path to wholeness.’”2 The point is that the church’s calling is to cultivate disciples who have more in common with weeds and yeast than celebrities and elected officials.
Many of us feel deep concern over the church’s decline in contemporary culture. One can cast nets of blame into the waters and haul in all sorts of culprits, and the culprit most accountable is we, the Church, which is often more concerned with creating eye-catching gardens than places of welcome and belonging, baking bread that has more aroma than nourishment, accumulating wealth rather than sharing it, cozying up to power rather than advocating for the marginalized and oppressed, and especially with trying to decide for God who is “in” and who is “out” of God’s grace.
On the positive side of the Church’s struggles, if we confess and conquer our addictions to entitlement and privilege, we can become the subversive weed Jesus plants in the creation, the pungent yeast the Spirit breathes with carefully-measured breaths into the nations. We can become the wide net God casts into the world not to make judgments, but simply to gather on behalf of God’s steadfast love.
God’s realm is the new reality breaking through the earth itself, and through the actions and words of human parables living lives of compassion and non-violent justice for all. Like householders reaching into our storehouse of long-standing sacramental holiness, of ancient scriptural wisdom, and of ongoing spiritual experience, we continue to reveal God’s newness even in that which seems old, tired, and irrelevant.
For nine years now, our Sunday school class has worked with lectionary passages. We study them in the simplest way: We read the passages three times using three translations, and each time we ask a different question. What word or phrase captures our attention or imagination? What is the Spirit calling us to be or to do individually? What is the Spirit calling our congregation to be or to do? Every single time, even when working with very familiar passages, we find something new and renewing in those ancient texts.
Now that we’re meeting by Zoom on Wednesday nights and have an hour instead of thirty minutes, we find all the more of God’s blessed realm in the rich weediness of our lives, more yeast in the dough of our prayer, and more treasure in the fields of our communities as we get caught up in the nets of God’s unbounded grace, and sent out to live as parables, as signs of the presence of God’s holy realm.
In his book Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, Frederick Buechner offers this memorable guidance for parable living: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”3
1Gary Peluso-Verdend, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p. 286&288.
3From Frederick Buecher’s book, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. 1983, Harper/Collins. Quotation found at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/158523-listen-to-your-life-see-it-for-the-fathomless-mystery