Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52
I struggled a little with what to preach this week. There are six parables in this section of scripture. Six times Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Six times Jesus gives a peephole view of what the kingdom of heaven will be like and what we are to expect. As I starred at these parables and read them and reread them I was looking for inspiration on what to preach. Each truly could be a sermon in itself and that got me wondering why the people who created the Revised Common Lectionary put these together? In this section of parables in the gospel of Matthew, why add all of these together in one Sunday? Why not just give us one or two?
Instead of wondering why the lectionary people put these passages together I started to wonder why Jesus himself said these things one after another. Or at least why does Matthew’s author splat all of these parables together in one chapter. Is it like he was at a lecture and was taking notes? Jesus is talking to this crowd of people, so many people that they over crowd the beach he is on and he has to get into a boat to talk to them. Two weeks ago we talked about the parable of the sower which starts off the 13th chapter of Matthew. He is telling the people there on the beach, the disciples included, about the kingdom of heaven.
If Jesus walked into our midst right now and opened up the rest of the service for some Q&A what would be some of the questions you would ask him? I guarantee that eventually we would get to questions about the kingdom of heaven. What is it like? We really want to know. Right now I’m reading a book on heaven and hell and the book in line after that is also on heaven. We really want to know what eternity is going to be like because we are anxious about it and we are curious. It is natural with our human tendencies to be like that. I am sure the people on the beach were the same way and so Jesus is taking some time to explain it to them.
Find a partner. It could be your spouse, the person in front of you, but find a neighbor that you two can share a short conversation with. Here is what I want you to discuss for a couple of minutes. Imagine for an instant you are talking to someone who has lived in a secluded tribe in the Amazon rainforest. The only thing he have ever known is the hunting and gathering lifestyle. The only house he has lived in is the grass hut he created and the only tools he knows is the ones he has made himself from the resources of the forest. Now you and your partner(s) are sitting across from this man and your task is to explain what McDonalds is. Remember he has no experience in modern day society but your task is to explain it in terms he can understand and grasp what this fast food chain is. I’ll give you three minutes, go.
So what are some of the answers you have come up with? Why was it hard to do?
It is difficult to talk about things no one else has experienced because their minds cannot grasp those concepts. How can you explain the purpose, usefulness, and laziness of a drive thru when someone hasn’t even seen a car? The concept itself is almost too big to explain because you are always back tracking to explain more and more.
Now Jesus is standing in a boat with a huge crowd looking at him and he is going to tell them about the kingdom of heaven. He is going to give them examples of what God’s kingdom is like because that is what people really want to know. The best way he can come up with is similar to the best way you described your task, using stories, and similes. A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things by employing words “like,” “as,” or “than.” Jesus is compares the kingdom of heaven to our world. He tells us ‘the kingdom of heaven is like..a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure in a field, a rare pearl, good fish, or a person’s treasures.
The kingdom of heaven is too big of a concept to sum up in one story because for our human brains cannot grasp it all. Therefore Jesus gives us peephole views of it through these parables. When you look through a peephole what do you see? When I look out of the one in the front door of the parsonage I can see some of the porch, the front walk and even the houses across the street. Now I couldn’t make out what our neighbors were doing in her front yard but I could tell she was out there. My brother-in-law stopped by for a surprise visit on his way from Greensboro to Charlotte. Our door bell rang and I looked out the peephole and saw no one. I opened the door and then heard, “Hey.” I nearly jumped out of my skin. He was standing just out of sight of my view. The reality was he was out front but I couldn’t see him because my view was limited. You cannot see or grasp everything that is happening from a the view of a peephole but we can see and understand some things.
We cannot understand or know every aspect of the kingdom of heaven but Jesus does give us some clues, some views of what it is like through parables. These six parables stand as a good example of that and give us some perspectives in which to learn more about God’s kingdom.
But before we get there we have to realize one other thing. Jesus has a unique view of the kingdom of heaven. I mean, he is God, so he knows what he is talking about. His message was also unique. After his baptism he went into the wilderness for forty days. The first thing he said after that was “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The kingdom of heaven is not far away, it is not off in the distance too far away to achieve. It is near. It is in our midst. It is something we can see, be a part of here and now. There is more in the life to come but we forget that it is also in the here and now. We are reminded of that as Jesus tells these parables in the 13th chapter of Matthew.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” Mustard bushes were like kudzu in our day. They were trash plants which people hated to get mixed up in their seed. The seeds were so small though that they couldn’t really see them to take them out as they planted their crops. All of a sudden they would see one start to grow up in their fields. But this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. From something so small it can grow into a bush that can be a home for birds. The kingdom of heaven for us may start off small in our hearts but it can grow into something large and substantial. It may even be something that we would normally throw away or dread, like listening to a sermon every week, but eventually something can grow out of it.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.” What is interesting is that the word yeast is used in many of our modern English translations. Yet if you go back to the King James Version they translate it leaven, which is closer to the Greek word used by Matthew. This is probably because we are familiar with yeast. We know it comes in packets or jar from the grocery store and we add it to flour and water to make breads. But in Biblical times they did not have Food Lion or Ingles. If they wanted to make fluffy bread they had to create leaven. To do that they had to let a piece of bread spoil and there was this crucial time it had to spoil. If it didn’t spoil long enough it wouldn’t make the bread rise and if it spoiled too long it could become poison and cause people to get sick. During the Passover you had to rid your house of leaven.
Any other time Jesus talks about leaven he uses it in a negative term. He tells people to ‘beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” But here Jesus takes a negative and makes it a positive. It only takes a little leaven, or yeast, to make the dough rise. It only takes a small spark of the Holy Spirit to push a transformation in our souls. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It only takes a little, a little yeast, a little seed, to make a huge transformation.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field or a merchant looking for fine pearls.” In both of these parables someone finds something of great value and then they joyfully sell everything they have to get it. People often found treasure in a field because it could be left there after war or it was used as a Biblical Banking system. Instead of hiding money under one’s mattress they hid it in their field. It was a common practice that whatever treasure was found in your field was yours and this is why the man sells everything to get the field. Both of these parables sound like horrible business practices. Would you sell everything you had to purchase a piece of property that had treasure on it? To put everything you had worked for into one investment? No, we are told to diversify our portfolios. If you were a merchant, or to use a more modern example, a used car dealer and you finally found the rare 1967 Dodge Coronet R/T convertible with a 426 hemi, the rarest of all muscle cars, would you sell everything you had to get it? The kingdom of heaven is worth a treasure so profound, so great, that we have to be willing to give everything else away to get it.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a net.” Junk fish are always going to be caught. A couple of years ago I went on a fishing trip back up to Lake Erie, a place my parents grew up and fished all the time when they were younger. Our boat broke down and so we had to charter one to go out and fish. We were fishing for perch and our guide that day enabled us to get a good amount of it. But we kept pulling up white perch. We wanted yellow perch but the white perch is an invasive species that we kept catching. Our guide would pull them off the hooks, break their necks and feed them to the sea gulls that floated around the boat. The kingdom of heaven is like that. A net full of good fish and bad fish and in the end the angels will come and make the separation. Similar to the parable of the Wheat and Weeds we heard last week.
“The kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” God wants to share his goodness with everyone. He wants us to experience his glory and awesomeness. He wants to share everything with us if we are ready to open our eyes to it. It is like being invited over for a dinner party and the host brings out the freshest vegetables just plucked from the garden. They are rich in flavor and goodness. Then she dusts off a bottle of wine that she has been holding onto for decades. She has been waiting for just the right night to share this with someone and has chosen you to share it with. God wants to bring out everything for us if we have the eyes to see them.
All of these parables have something in common. They are examples of everyday life. They are everyday ways that we tap into God and ways God can tap into us. Jesus doesn’t explain the Kingdom of God like an episode of Cribs or the Lives of the Rich and Famous. Instead he uses examples of the everyday, the common, the normal, the stuff that is right around us and within our grasp. “The kingdom of God is near.” It is around us. It is active. It is in our midst right now. We spend so much time looking for God in the extraordinary that we forget we can find him at work most in the ordinary. May our eyes be opened in order to see the kingdom of heaven around us in the mustard seeds, treasures, yeast, pearls, and good fish.
And all God’s people said…Amen.