Parables of the Kingdom

Proper 17     July 30, 2017

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

What a flurry of parables Jesus is sending our way in this  thirteenth chapter of Matthew!  The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  It’s like yeast in a heap of dough.  It’s like a treasure in a field, a pearl of stunning perfection, a fish net.  It’s like seed broadcast onto the ground, like a field clogged with weeds.  The kingdom of heaven is like this!  No, it’s like that!  
We want to slow Jesus down, we want to stick with one parable at a time, to figure it out, to understand what he is trying to say – but Jesus is already racing on to the next image, and the next, with an urgency, a restless energy, an impatience, that leaves us dizzy. We want to know what each parable means, that’s the question we ask – but it doesn’t seem to be the question that Jesus cares about, at least not the way we ask it.

One thing most scholars agree on: these parables go to the heart of Jesus’s teaching.  First of all because they are parables: parables are the most characteristic form of Jesus’s teaching.   Other teachers might use an image or a parable once in a while, but not so many.  To use parables so consistently and so often, that is something that sets Jesus apart from any other rabbi or philosopher we know of.  It has been suggested that we would have to look to the Zen masters of the Far East to find something even remotely similar. Jesus is being most characteristically and uniquely Jesus when he is speaking in parables.

Jesus’s parables are almost all explicitly about the same thing: the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God. It’s the same thing: Matthew uses the expression the kingdom of heaven, because he is following the Jewish custom of avoiding saying not only the name of God, but the very word God; the other gospels call it the kingdom of God. 

Whatever we call it, it is the core of Jesus’s message.  When he begins his public ministry, the gospels sum up his message in a simple phrase: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.”  That, in the neatest of nutshells, is what Jesus came to teach.

The kingdom of God is not a place.  The word is perhaps a bit misleading: in the old fairy tales, the word kingdom conjures up the image of a territory, a green valley with a castle in the middle of it. When Matthew calls it the Kingdom of heaven, it misleads us further, since we often think of heaven as a place.  Scholars have suggested we may need a different translation of what Jesus is talking about: the kingship of God, perhaps, the reign of God, the rule of heaven.  The point is, Jesus is not talking about a place: he means the way in which God’s power is at work in the world.

“The kingdom of God has come near”; “the kingdom of God is among you.”  That is the core of Jesus’s message: that God is at work in the world.  That God can be found not locked up in religious institutions, in the temple, in the church, in the Bible, controlled by the priests and the Pharisees, but as a living force in the world. In Jesus’s message God has broken out of his prison in the Temple, and is on the loose in the world.  

And God’s power is not to be found where we generally look for human power, with the powerful and rich and famous.  In Jesus’s world, power has a very visible and obvious presence: the Roman army, exercising power on behalf of the far-off emperor. In the face of this far-too-obvious kind of power, Jesus is proclaiming that the real king is God, that God’s power is at work in the lives of ordinary people, and that that is the power that really matters.

That is the core of Jesus’s teaching.  It was radical and subversive in his day – it is still radical and subversive today.  The symbols of human power may have a different flavour than in Jesus’s day: wealth, prosperity, economic clout, political influence, popularity, celebrity – but they are still dominant when we think of power.  And they still tend to drown out the signs of God at work in the world.  The kingdom of God has come near: well you wouldn’t know it from reading the news.  The powers of this world seem very well entrenched: the power of God is invisible, unless we look very closely.

That, I think, is the point of the parables.  Jesus is talking about something we don’t usually see.  He is trying to get us to look at the world differently. He is trying to break through our habits of thought that can leave us so hopeless and alone, and to teach us to see God at work in unexpected places and unexpected ways.  He can only communicate that in parables: in using unexpected pictures to talk about God in a very different way, in a way that is both shockingly everyday and yet surprising.

God’s kingdom, God’s active presence in our world, is like a mustard seed.  The smallest of the seeds, a seed we can easily overlook, and yet given a chance, it can grow into a shrub that offers shelter in the scorching sun. That’s how God is in this world, as tiny, often invisible seeds, that can grow in unexpected places. But mustard was not a desirable crop: it was, quite simply a weed for the middle Eastern farmer.  That’s how God is present in the world: despised, apparently useless, sometimes sabotaging our best efforts at order and efficiency.  The kingdom of God is like pigweed.

The kingdom of God is like leaven in a great heap of flour: again, a little bit, working invisibly, quietly transforming the whole.  But the people of Israel had a different relationship to yeast than we do: they viewed it with suspicion.  In that climate, a bit of wild yeast could quickly spoil a loaf, turning it unpalatable, even poisonous.  The unpredictable ferment and fertility of yeast made it unclean; pure bread for religious purposes had to be unleavened – that’s why to this day we use the flat wafers for communion.  Unleavened bread was sterile and predictable: the religious authorities could control it. According to Jesus, though, the kingdom of God is much wilder and unclean than that.

The kingdom of God, God’s presence in the world, is like a man finding a treasure in a field.  He is presumably working the field, a poor hired man, like many of Jesus’s audience, stumbling across this hidden treasure in the field of a rich landowner.  A jar of coins, perhaps, buried centuries before in a time of war, which the owner never had the chance to retrieve. Who does it belong to now?  Why should it belong to the landowner anymore than to the man who found it?  He doesn’t try to steal it; rather, he covers it up, sells all he has to buy the field, and his fortune is made.  That’s what God’s presence in the world is like: hidden treasure, and when you stumble across it, nothing else matters.

Or it’s like a pearl merchant: a rich man, dealing in luxury goods, a jeweller who knows his business well, buying and selling.  Except when he stumbles across that one pearl, that one uniquely perfect and beautiful pearl, unlike any he has seen before.  Suddenly his business sense, his buying and selling, counts for nothing: it is the beauty of the pearl that is everything.  He makes the worst business decision of his life, selling his entire stock for that one pearl.  But that’s what God is like: when we find God in the midst of our daily business, everything is turned on its head.

And so Jesus goes on, from parable to parable, casting out this pictures and stories, moving from one to the next: God’s presence is like this; no, that’s not quite it either, it’s like this.  No one parable can nail God down, because God’s elusive presence cannot be nailed down. No parable has a single meaning; they are suggestive, stirring up our imagination, hinting at different aspects of the whole.  They are trying to name something that can’t quite be named, because it is not quite of this world, it runs counter to our habits of thinking and understanding.   And yet God’s presence is very much of this world, rooted in our everyday lives, sharing something of the patterns of growth and hope and joy that are built into creation.

And they have an urgency, these parables.  Jesus sees God in the world, all around him, he sees the kingdom of God as something that has come near.  In the midst of a religious tradition that tended sometimes to keep God in a safe holy box, Jesus sees God’s presence among the people, in their daily lives, in their hopes and longings and dreams.  He sees God so clearly, and he wants to make us see as well, to see that we are not alone, that our lives are tangled up in the gracious and life-giving power of God, pulsing through the veins of our created existence, hiding in plain sight in our lives.

Let us never stop going back to Jesus’s words.  Let them puzzle us, disturb us, stir us up.  Let them open our eyes, help us to see what Jesus so insistently is trying to get us to see: God is all around us.  God is woven into our daily lives, as seeds that can grow and transform us, as hidden treasures – if we can only see them, we will never be the same. Our lives are caught up in God’s active, powerful presence in this world, in God’s kingdom.  If we can only see it and put our trust in it, everything will be okay.