On the 8th Sunday after Pentecost in Year A the lectionary Gospel is our third chunk of Matthew 13 — Parables of the Kingdom. Actually it’s two chunks again: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. The first little piece is part of what got left out in the middle of last week’s reading.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 — Parables of the Kingdom
Each of the last two weeks, the lectionary gave us two chunks of the chapter so that we would hear a long parable and Jesus’ own long explanation of it. We had the Parable of the Sower. Then we had the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.
This week’s two chunks bring us whole string of tiny little parables. Five of them, actually. Five descriptions of the Kingdom of heaven.
The Bit They Left Out
The lectionary never includes Matthew 13:34-35. It matches up in a funny way with the bit they left out two weeks ago: Matthew 13:10-17. Both sets of verses give us answers to the question of why Jesus taught in parables.
In Matthew 13:10-17, you may remember, Jesus said he taught in parables to fulfill Isaiah 6. God had told the prophet to speak in a way that people wouldn’t understand so they wouldn’t repent.
Here Matthew says Jesus’ parables were to fulfill Psalm 78:2 where the Psalmist says
I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.
Matthew 13:35 NRSV
Matthew’s take on the use of parables seems more positive — and more plausible, considering the contents of Jesus’ parables. Matthew says Jesus used stories to reveal what had been hidden.
That makes Jesus’ explanation sounds kind of snarky. Maybe he was just yanking their chain.
The Parts They Left In
When you look at this string of five parables it is easy to think they are all part of the same speech. The lectionary selection is sort of hiding the context.
He tells the first two parables to the crowd. Then the disciples head into the house for the explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds. And without heading back out to the crowd, Jesus jumps back into three more, similarly short, parables.
Two to the crowd. Three to the disciples. All very similar. Maybe it just happened that way.
The Kingdom of Heaven
All five little parables are his explanations of what the kingdom of heaven is like. In my own imagination I imagine his disciples pestering him with the same question, day after day, trying to get a clear grasp on what this mysterious “kingdom of heaven” is all about.
In any case, the lectionary does us a favor in giving us all five of these short definitions, or comparisons, or defining comparisons, in one bunch — even though I love to take each one and expand it into a detailed story. That’s how I tell them to my kids at bedtime.
I remember I was struck, as an undergrad, by the idea that the essential think defining a kingdom is that a king rules there.
So the question “What is the kingdom of heaven like?” could also be asked “What is it like when God rules?” or “What is it like in the world when God’s rule is spreading and growing?”
Well, it is not an easy question to answer.
Read them together and you get a patchwork definition of the kingdom we are citizens of, trying to build, and waiting to be fulfilled. And frankly it is not the kind of thing you might deduce from looking at the Church, where we most hope to see signs of the kingdom.
The parables tell us the kingdom of heaven is like…
- A mustard seed.
- Treasure hidden in a field.
- A merchant in search of fine pearls.
- A net thrown into the sea.
I love the way that there is not just one answer to the question “What is the kingdom of heaven like?”
It isn’t simple. Nor is it obvious. It isn’t a precise or concise or systematically rigid thing, this kingdom of heaven.
The answer has all the variety and richness of living and working. The kingdom of heaven is like…
- A seed growing, full of life
- Yeast, full of life, turning flour into dough for baking.
- A treasure just waiting to be found.
- A treasure hunter looking for riches.
- A net that scoops up whatever it finds.
I think it is delightful that these images are active, or at least full of energy.
- That mustard seed is tiny but it grows persistently until it is more useful than one would imagine—not only does it make mustard, but it provides a home for the birds.
- The baker “hides” the yeast in something like 60 pounds of flour, leavening enough dough to feed a whole town.
- That treasure is so clearly valuable that a treasure hunter will sell every single possession to own it. And all the while it is just lying there, underground, waiting to be found.
- That merchant knows so much about pearls — he can tell that this one he’s found is worth everything he has. So he cashes it all in to buy the one pearl.
- That net is open to all, and catches all, and draws all in — the sorting will come later.
Among these parables of the kingdom, I find the treasure and the merchant striking.
It is easy to accidentally turn them into the same story.
Jesus makes the kingdom two opposite parts of a process.
First, the kingdom is something to seek: A treasure hidden in a field.
We seem to be the ones who find the treasure-which-is-the-kingdom.
We are, for some reason, digging in a field that belongs to someone else. Our shovel hits something hard. *Thunk* Buried treasure!
The only way to own that treasure is to buy the field.
We are guilty and want forgiveness; or we’re broken and want to be made whole; or we see Jesus, the King, and want to belong to him.
But we have to buy the field.
When we buy the field to get the kingdom, we get the whole of Christianity that bears Christ and salvation to us. We get the Church in its glory and its squalor. We get doctrines we don’t understand yet, and fellow Christians we can hardly stand.
To get the treasure, buy the field.
Second, the kingdom is someone seeking a treasure: a merchant looking for a pearl beyond all price.
Now who are we? The kingdom of heaven is not the pearl, but the one seeking to buy it. It isn’t the kingdom-which-is-the-pearl but the kingdom-which-is-the-merchant.
We are the pearl — despite what we see when we do a sober self-evaluation.
Christ the King is the one who comes seeking, who finds us, values us, and wants us for his own.
Christ is the one who sells all to buy us.
One wonders at his taste. But still, this is the good news: We have been judged to be precious, and the very living God has come, given his very life, and made us his very own.
So What is the Kingdom of Heaven Like in These Parables?
The kingdom of heaven is like a seed. No matter how tiny, it grows in the most surprising ways to become more than anyone ever imagined. Treasure the seed you have been given.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. Mix it in, hide it in flour, it turns out to be a living thing. It turns a huge barrel of flour into a vast quantity of dough. Eventually we’ll be struggling to find enough oven space to bake it. Meanwhile, treasure God’s yeast that is working its way through your life.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure. It is there, waiting to be found. Dig until you find it. Give all you have and all you are to make it your own. Go and get the treasure.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant. He knows pearls. He’s persistent. He knows what he’s looking for. He’ll find a pearl, even one closed up tight in a rough and crusty oyster shell. He’ll do all he must to make that pearl his own. Rejoice, with awe and wonder, that you are that precious pearl.
The kingdom of heaven is like a fishing net. The King tosses it out and drags in everything — salmon, tuna, carp, mackerel. Whatever. He’ll decide what to do with every single fish.
I’ll admit, that one ends on a scary note. But the fisher king is also the merchant of fine pearls. He wouldn’t draw you in if he didn’t have good plans for you.
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