The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12a)
27 July 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The parables of Jesus form a kind of core to the Gospel story. Even though in each of the Gospels—they are generally lacking in John—they occur in clusters, and, sometimes, whole chapters of other activities and teaching are dropped into the midst, they seek to tell a single story, and to tell that story in a singular way. As the Gospel core, they inject the note of mystery, of surprise, and wrap that mysterious surprise within the folds of everyday life. Jesus did not invent the genre. They are a part of ancient oriental culture, and the rabbis used them as a way of bringing the sublime within reach of the earthy Hebrew people—as a way of saying God’s highest laws belong here right among us. And Jesus no doubt borrowed some rather well-known parables and revised them to tell his kingdom story. But for Jesus, the parable as a tool, and the whole story of the kingdom he told with parables—as if each were a chapter in a single story—is in many ways inspired by the story that unfolds in the midst of the prophecies of Isaiah. There are two points to make here. First, when Jesus describes the purpose of parables, he harks back to Isaiah 6—In Matthew, Jesus explains to the disciples that the reason he speaks in parables is precisely in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah: so that seeing, the people will not perceive, and hearing, they will not understand . . . for this people’s heart has grown dull . . . and so on . . . lest they turn and be healed. It was a way of engaging the people, of drawing those to him who truly had the ears to hear and the will to change. But it is in this same context that Jesus speaks of the kingdom as a mystery and this is a crucial feature of the kingdom. A divine mystery. Not a simple secret to be whispered, and once heard all is clear. But a mystery, an unfathomable mystery, which always remains a perplexing thing, even though we may gain some understanding of it. The disciples had been granted to know the mystery, Jesus said. But understanding it would take a lifetime of reflection. This feature too comes right out of Isaiah, where God says: “I am about to do a new thing,” and what follows from this statement in that ancient prophecy is the revelation of a mystery in the form of a suffering servant.
Also coming out of Isaiah is a question that defines the Jewish soul. The prophet asks it right after God’s intention to speak to his people in parables is made known: “How long, O Lord?” The story of the Jews in the centuries leading up to the Christian period is a mixed one. Heroic zealots arise to fight against God’s enemies, the Ptolemaic dynasty, the legions of Rome. Other Jews have capitulated, snuggling up to Roman governors, or to King Herod the Roman puppet. There were those wealthy Jewish landowners who hated Rome and at the same time exploited the poor among them. And there were some who watched and waited for God to intervene. As they waited, they looked constantly back—to Abraham, Moses, the Law, David and the great Davidic kingdom; and they gazed ahead, setting their hopes on a glorious future. Tomorrow would be the day when Messiah would come. Tomorrow, tomorrow, next year, maybe next year; and the agonizing “How long, O Lord” occurred over and over again--the refrain of the Psalmist. How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul? So focused on God’s master plan as they insisted it must unfold, that they could not read the signs of their own time. And God was about to do something new in their midst, in their present. A close look at the Old Testament saga would show that it was not the past or the future that was problematic for this people, but always the present.
And Jesus came into their present and spoke of a mystery, a mystery unfolding. Jesus proclaimed the unexpected. And at the core of his message were the parables. He used a whole variety of them, some longer, some shorter. Some were indeed allegorical, and with them, Jesus could say the most outrageous things, though in a veiled, indirect way: he could excoriate the sins of the Jewish leadership, and walk away. Others were short, pithy, more like metaphors or similes. We’ve considered a couple of them in the past weeks: the one that Jesus used to launch this platform, the parable of the Sower; and a similarly constructed parable of the Wheat and the Tares. The parables were homespun, constructed out of everyday materials and the common people loved to hear such stories told.
Our Gospel lesson today is a patchwork of five brief parables and each contains its mysterious ingredient. First, the mustard seed, planted in the field by someone, which grows into a large shrub, providing a dwelling place for birds. Here we have a tiny seed, hidden in the soil of the earth: a hardly notable beginning and a rich, lush, exuberant conclusion that no one can miss. And this amazing contrast is the point of the parable: barely notable beginnings, unmistakable conclusion. Mystery.
If you’ve ever baked your own bread, you’ll appreciate the next parable. I can recall, dimly, standing at the table with my mother as she kneaded lumps of dough. She would take my hands and press them into the dough, and for a while at least, as long as my fascination held, I would help her. I loved the feel of the dough and the yeasty smell of this amazing process. We pass too quickly over this brief parable. The kingdom is like yeast that is hidden by a women in 3 measures of flour, so that it eventually leavens the whole lump. This is not the image of a wife baking bread for her husband. This is a baker at work. God, it should be noticed, is played by a woman. The amounts in mind are equivalent to about a bushel of flour, which when the necessary amount of water is added would yield about 100 pounds of dough. A lot of work, but actually the specific work in mind, that of the leaven, the yeast, is the mystery. The whole lot, the whole world, will be leavened. And this mystery, this parable, is more mysterious than most. If you wanted, you could plant the mustard seed and go again and dig it up. Not so with yeast and dough. What God has begun mysteriously, no one can undo.
But the when of the kingdom is just as mysterious. Like the mustard seed and the leaven and the imagery of the great fishing net, the kingdom of God entails process—a beginning is announced clearly, and the process launched has a specific direction, specific goals, but between the lines is the need to wait, there is the not yet. The question “How long?” still pertains. And this feature of parables has led many to think that the kingdom Jesus describes, the saving power of God now mysteriously manifest in the world—giving up glimpses of God from time to time—will run its course, on its own, ineluctably producing all that God intends. And life in the kingdom is all about waiting, waiting and watching. What God is doing he will do, and we can’t really add anything to it. Eventually the not yet, the waiting, will come to an end; and that will be that: the wheat and the tares will be separated, and the good fish will be gathered in and the bad thrown out.
But the when of the kingdom is not quite so simple. The parables uniformly agree on another point that we should not miss: the kingdom is now, presently at work, and each parable was subtly crafted with this in mind. Through “the familiar” of the parables, people are drawn in, and embraced by the kingdom, and not just to wait, but sometimes to take decisive action because of what they perceive. We see this in the two parables that describe the value of the kingdom, in which people play an actual role, discern its value and make the most dramatic decisions imaginable—decisions involving all their wealth. Perhaps in the context of the two parables about buried treasure and the pearl of great price the decisions seem like safe decisions. But the point of the decisions, which is really quite different, is illustrated in the wider story of Jesus and his disciples by the fishermen who leave their nets and their father and follow Jesus; by the well-to-do tax-gatherer who leaves the tax booth and follows Jesus; by the wealthy Zacchaeus, who confesses his sinful exploitation and offers to compensate those he has wronged. These are decisions to do whatever is necessary in order to be a part of God’s kingdom—it is so valuable that one risks everything for it; stands ready to do a life reversal, giving up routine, redefining normal, reevaluating priorities, embracing new goals—all to be part of what God is bringing to pass.
These are human decisions, free from divine coercion; decisions in response to a gracious invitation. The parables teach that the kingdom of God is the powerful presence of God, reaching into the world to bring change, justice and redemption. God doing something new; something mysterious and beyond our full understanding, and in what we might think are all the wrong places. If you enjoy a good mystery, then involvement in the kingdom process cannot be beat: but not simply as audience, not bystanders, but as participants in God’s mysterious redemptive story. The parables of Jesus call us to watch, to explore the mysterious, to reexamine our values and priorities, and, yes, to wait. But they also call us to take decisive action when mystery opens out into opportunity, inviting us to be participants in the redemptive story unfolding around us. AMEN
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2014 Philip H. Towner