Matthew 13.31-33; 44-52
July 24, 2011 The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Roy W. Howard
In one of the most poignant scenes of the Old Testament, Moses stands on the edge of the Promised Land that he will never enter. After all they have been through together, Moses says to the people of Israel now ready to depart, “The Word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Many generations later, Jesus affirms his ancestor Moses by telling parables that point to the nearness of God in everyday life. But the last thing I want to do this morning is reduce these parables to a simple explanation or even a single explanation.
The parables of Jesus are for pondering more than explaining. Much like poetry they require one to slow down and listen, to let parable shape your imagination. A friend of mine collects kaleidoscopes. Sometimes I think of Jesus’ parables – the ones he doesn’t explain – as similar to kaleidoscopes. Turn it one way and you see a certain pattern. Turn it another way and you see a different pattern. Endless patterns appear.
In Jesus’ parables endless patterns actually converge around the same question. What is the reign of God like? That’s a pretty large question; like about asking about ultimate reality. One can imagine Jesus pausing over the question like a wry farmer. Well … it’s like mustard seed and yeast, hidden treasures and a pearl of great price and a yes like a net full of fish. Wide-eyed and listening, this is when the listeners imagination engages these parables. Pretty ordinary stuff – nothing grandiose – and mostly hidden. That in itself is a clue to the extraordinary vision of God’s realm that is being put forth in these parables.
One might even call these particular parables subversive if you think of something that lies under the surface and yet has the power to change what it permeates.
Take the mustard seed. The smallest of all seeds and not much valued either. If it grows at all it grows as large bush, not a glorious tree. Someone called it a trash tree. A farmer is likely to pull it up if he discovers it among more desirable plants. But here Jesus uses that tiny seed as a parable – a window – that offers a glimpse of God’s presence is this world. Unexpected growth, even abundance from the most unlikely of all seeds? What is one to make of this parable? What pattern do you see being presented in response to the question – what is God’s reign like? A great deal is often made of the extraordinary growth that occurs from this tiny seed providing shelter for the birds. We marvel at such gracious shelter from such an unlikely beginning. That’s true but my attention is draw to the mustard seed itself, a junk seed thrown all over the field – which we can assume is the world. Thrown not in neat orderly rows, but rather scattered everywhere. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
Then again the kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with in three measures of flour until it was all leavened. One could note in passing the image of the woman as God the baker. And as Robert Capon says,
“This is no slip of a girl making two tiny loaves for her husband’s pleasure. This is a baker, folks! Three measures is a bushel of flour! That’s 128 cups! That’s 16 five-pound bags! And when you get done putting in the 42 or so cups of water that you need to make it come together, you’ve got a little over 101 pounds of dough on your hands. […] When Jesus says the whole is leavened, he’s not kidding.”
Yeast mixed into a loaf enough to feed a baseball team? Of all the images to describe the kingdom of God? Go figure! (I won’t dwell on yeast itself which is the culture of Scripture is universally regarded as something evil or unclean. Which is why it is removed during Passover preparations.) What gets me is what happens to the yeast once it is mixed into the dough. It disappears completely! Actually it becomes hidden, undistinguished from the whole world in which it dwells. God’s realm is hidden and yet mysteriously present at all times and never absent.
What do you make of this pattern? There is not now, nor is there ever a moment when the realm of God has not been in this world. Capon says, “So intimate is the yeast to the entire lump – so immediate is the working of the kingdom of God to every scrap of the world – that there is no way on earth of ever getting at it, or even to it, at all.”
How might we respond to such a vision of ultimate reality? It brings to mind that oft repeated line of Mary Oliver: “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” What else is one to do but be patient and cultivate a discerning heart and mind to perceive the presence of God hidden among the ordinariness of this world? Isn’t this the essence of the human vocation in this world – to see the world as permeated by the mysterious presence of the holy and discern the wonder of God hidden everywhere?
No wonder then that mysteriously realm of God hidden in this world is described as a treasure discovered in the field or a pearl of the greatest price. As the Buddhist teacher Tich Nhat Hhan says of Jesus’ parable – it is speaking of what is ultimate reality. One who glimpses this realm has touched the source of all true happiness, the source of contentment and peace. There is nothing more valuable than this treasure. Interestingly the man discovers the treasure by accident – living his ordinary life – and has the presence of mind or the capacity of heart to never let it go. In fact, he buys the whole field in which the treasure is hidden.
On the other than the merchant is actually searching for the finest pearl. So here we have one searching and the other not, and both discover what is most valuable about the human vocation: perceiving the realm of God hidden, mysteriously permeating this ordinary world. There is nothing one can do to change any of this; it is simply present. Once perceiving this, as Tich Nhat Hhan says, there is nothing of any greater value. To lose this is to lose everything.
Which, turning the kalediscope one more time, brings us to the final parable of the net with the dreadful image of judgment the end. Like the conclusion of the parable of the wheat and the weeds, it’s a parable of judgment which none of us particularly likes to hear nor do we know what to do with it. So first we should note that the net is the kingdom of God that takes in everything in its path. No exception. Good fish, bad fish. All of humanity gathered up in the net. It is only in the end – which no one knows the day or the hour – that a separation occurs. And we should especially note that at no time is there any suggestion that anyone other than God will be doing any judging. Which in the end is Good News because after all the God who judges is the God who loves in Jesus Christ who takes away the sins of the world. What of those who refuse such love, who resist the pearl of greatest price, who willfully say No to God’s Yes? The parable suggests the Angelic bouncers will not let the recalcitrant ruin God’s party with their willful refusal to join the celebration. “There is no compelling reason for them to spend eternity gasping on the beach.” (Robert Capon)
Which returns us to the treasure of God’s realm in this ordinary world. This is the pearl of great price that lies hidden among us. How might we spend our precious lives knowing that the wonder of God is so very present in this world?