Riddled With Parables
| Psalms 78:1-4
|Sun, July 28, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Remember Jesus’ message of good news. It is a sermon that goes like this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17). At the heart of the spiritual life of the Christian community lies the invitation to change the way we live because we now inhabit a changed world. As a Christian community we resemble an immigrant learning how to live in a strange new culture - we are being taught the ways of God’s kingdom come. And today we have come upon a rare and wonderful discovery. In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus sits down by the lake and is surrounded by such great crowds that he gets into a boat and teaches them from just offshore.
His teaching is all about the kingdom of God - the kingdom of heaven whose will is to be done on earth. In the few verses that we read today Jesus says the “kingdom of heaven is like” five times. Better yet, this instruction is short and sweet. This is no long list of commandments. Nor is it a dense and difficult theological treatise. Jesus simply tells parables. This is not high flown rhetoric for the educated or the rabbis. This is preaching for the masses, for the common folk. Jesus is speaking so that even the children can hear and understand. Matthew says that “without a parable he told them nothing. This was what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world’.” This is a familiar text. It has been hanging on our walls since Pentecost, in bold print on the Christian Seasons Calendar in these words from Psalm 78:1-4, that continue “We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the coming generation.” That is what parables are for. They are for telling things that have been kept secret. They are for revealing things that have been hidden. Parables are for opening eyes and ears. Finally texts that are clear and straight-forward. Or perhaps not. Notice what Psalm 78 calls such pithy sayings. It says: “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old”. Parables are dark sayings from of old. The word for “dark sayings” in Hebrew is the word for “riddles”. Parables can sound like simple metaphors: “The kingdom of heaven is like ...”. But these parables of Jesus are not so simple as we had imagined. The thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel is riddled with parables that are themselves riddles. Jesus speaks to the crowds in metaphors that intend to perplex rather than to satisfy. These are not the kind of stories that a preacher or Sunday School teacher can explain - though many sermons and lessons regularly attempt to do just that. Instead, these parables of the kingdom only make sense to a people who are themselves living in the kingdom of heaven. These parables are teasing invitations to enter the kingdom of heaven where these metaphors are no longer strange puzzles but have become everyday wisdom.
Take, for example: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it 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.” This sounds straightforward enough. God’s realm is like a tiny seed that holds within it the power to become a tree. In other words, the places where God’s will is done seem tiny, almost invisible ... yet those places and relationships will inevitably grow into a large and powerful reality: “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever and ever”. Except for one confusing detail. Mustard seeds do not become trees. Everyone standing on the lakeshore listening to Jesus knows this. The crowds of farmers know that mustard seeds produce bushes, none of which are big enough for birds to ever nest in. But the crowds also know their Bibles and they surely remember Daniel’s depiction of Babylon - the most powerful kingdom on earth: “The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth ... the birds of the air nested in its branches” (Daniel 4:10-12). This is a riddle. Babylon, the greatest of human kingdoms is - with its technology and economy and army - like a huge tree that reaches to heaven. The kingdom of heaven, on the other hand, is like a ... like a mustard bush. Some kingdom, some power, some glory. We expect God’s power to overwhelm. We sing hymns like: “A mighty fortress is our God”. Jesus seems to be arguing for a revised version, one that would begin: “A mighty mustard bush is our God”.
Then there is 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.” Actually, the text doesn’t say that the woman “mixed” the yeast in the flour. It says that she “hid” it in the flour. These parables all suggest that the kingdom of heaven is hidden. This is not something that is out in the open. And three measures of flour. She is making a lot of bread. By the time she mixes in the water this dough weighs a hundred pounds. Again, this appears a rather straightforward parable. The kingdom is like the leavening agent that transforms a massive quantity of flour. Without this small, hidden ingredient the rest of life - of the world itself - cannot rise, remains flat, does not come to life. But that is not enough to get Jesus into trouble. And these parables do cause people who know him to take offence at what he is saying (Matt. 13:57). So what is it about yeast that might spark hostility to Jesus? The crowds know. When they speak of leaven it is a derogatory term. They don’t have baker’s yeast in their fridge because they don’t have a fridge. They have rotting dough, sitting on the counter, to use as leaven in loaves of bread. They think of that mouldy yeast they way we think of rotten apples. All it takes is a single yeasty character, one bad apple, to ruin the whole barrel. Remember, when they bake holy bread - bread fit for the kingdom of heaven - they keep the leaven out and make unleavened bread. When Jesus dares to say: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast” it is akin to saying that the kingdom of heaven is like “rust” or like a “virus”. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of heaven is a hidden force that works secretly to corrupt a corrupted world. This parable says that the kingdom of heaven is a subversive force, hidden in the life of the world and thought of by most with revulsion. Yet this apparent rot is, in fact, the very thing that brings healing, health and life. It is a riddle. I am not sure that I can explain it. Perhaps I am meant only to tell it, so that y’all may yet “get it”.
“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. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” This is a puzzle. The kingdom is like a treasure and a pearl. Some stumble over it, discovering it in a book or a person or community almost by accident one day. Upon finding it they realize that this amazing discovery has changed everything about the course of their life. Others spend years, even decades searching. They seek everywhere for the pearl of great price. That is why they know it when they finally find it. The kingdom of heaven is like a highly prized treasure. It is so near and yet it is so hidden. There is much talk of finding the kingdom and yet far less experience of living in the kingdom. That is the reason that when the kingdom comes ... as it did at dinner on Wednesday when many nations and tribes ate together with us in harmony ... that there is nowhere else on earth that one would want to be. When reconciliation takes place, when forgiveness is offered, when relationships are restored, when the table is set for those who once had no place to eat then the treasured, hidden kingdom has been revealed, discovered, found and it is worth everything to be there.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full ,they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Here Jesus goes beyond the bounds of the parable to make sure the crowds understand. In this case, we would rather he had chosen a little less clarity. We’re not so sure about the “furnace of fire” and the “gnashing of teeth”. Well, that’s not quite accurate. Actually, we’re quite prepared to separate the good from the bad, to accept those who make the grade and reject the bad apples, to make some feel right at home while casting others aside into the loneliness of a fiery rejection. But Jesus says its not like this in the kingdom. We think the kingdom must only have room for those who are prepared to set aside their evil ways. Yet the kingdom is like a net that catches something of everything, of everyone. It makes no distinction. The kingdom of heaven has an open immigration policy. It accepts all who seek to enter. More than that, it catches up even those who don’t intend to enter. Later on, at the end of the age, there will be time for sorting. Evil ideas, evil programs, evil movements, evil acts, evil relationships will be mercifully cremated. They will be no more. Then all that will exist will be righteous ideas, righteous programs, righteous movements, righteous acts, righteous relationships. In the meantime, sorting out good from evil will always be a profound mystery ... even for those who are caught up in the nets of the kingdom of heaven.
Then Jesus says: “‘Have you understood all this?’ They answer ‘Yes’. They “get it”. These riddles make perfect sense to them. They are living as citizens of the God of the mighty mustard bush and of the rotten apple kingdom. They have discovered the hidden and precious mystery of God’s extraordinary activity in the world. They only have to look at one another to see that the nets of the kingdom of heaven hold a motley catch. Yes. They have understood all this. Then Jesus says 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.” Now Jesus tells a parable not about the kingdom but about the scribes of the kingdom. Who are they? Scribe is the biblical word for “Doctor of the Torah”. That’s right. Just two weeks ago y’all received your doctoral diploma as a scribal congregation. These days the church is sorely tempted to transform Jesus into an appealing, attractive commodity. In our eagerness to please we look for way to market Jesus so that the church can be popular, acceptable, relevant to the modern world. We hope that his parables will be like bumper stickers - snappy sayings of everyday wisdom. But scribes who are trained for the kingdom of heaven have learned otherwise. Their vocation is to open up the treasure of the ancient and future ways of the kingdom. As doctors of the kingdom we dare to put into practice the new ways of life that spring from this ancient source. And it is a dare. It is daring to let go of our trust in the market and in the weapons and in the North American “way of life”. It is daring to place our trust in one another and in the ways of the kingdom coming and, ultimately, in the daring God we meet in Jesus. Thank heaven that this same God dares to call us, to name us and to love us into the kingdom. Amen.