by the Rev. Robert C. Laird
The rapid-fire, “rat-a-tat-tat” of the parables in today’s Gospel is truly impressive; Jesus comes up with five different parables in rapid succession.
We’re getting our money’s worth today with these parables, which, taken together, paint an extraordinary picture of the Kingdom of God the ideal that Jesus is always preaching, both as the promise which is to come, the product of a life of faith, but also the goal, the thing that we, the Church, the listeners gathered on the shore and the listeners here our comfortable parish are all straining to hear him describe from that boat, and work diligently to make real, here, now.
There are so many people following Jesus around, so many broken, lost, hopeful, joyful people straining to hear his Good News and feel his healing touch that he’s been driven into a boat, to teach from out in the water, because there’s no room on the shore with us.
And we jump into those waters with him: The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, which grows into the biggest of shrubs.
The Kingdom of God is like leaven, which a woman mixed in with three measures of flour, until the whole lot of flour was leavened.
The Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found, and then hid again, so he could sell everything he had to buy that field.
The Kingdom of God is a merchant in search of fine pearls, who finds one of great value, and sells everything he has to buy it.
These four parables are all related to each other, in that they lay out the values of the Reign of God, both for the infant church, gathered there on the shores of the lake, and for the Church today, gathered around the world, including us, here and now;
Jesus is describing for all of us how the values of the Reign of God
are radically different from the Reign of Humanity.
All of these parables, each in their own way, describe the Kingdom of God in a way that surprises the church gathered there with Jesus, probably in ways that disappoint them.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed: the smallest of seeds,
a tiny speck, only a millimeter across, which can nonetheless grow into the mightiest bush, in which even the birds of the air can nest.
And immediately following, the Kingdom is like yeast, mixed in with three measures of flour, which makes all the flour leavened.
This needs a little explanation: “yeast” in this parable really means leaven, which is like a sourdough starter; and “three measures of flour” is actually a standard unit, which comes out to about 40 liters of flour.
A theologian with baking experience estimated that it would take about 4 lbs. of leaven to make 40 liters of flour rise, and would produce enough bread to feed 150 people, or about 110 lbs. of bread.
This is not baking for a family, for the day; this is serious bread, for a serious meal.
The Kingdom of God starts very small, and grows, and grows, and grows, until that Kingdom has found its way into every nook and cranny, and has transformed the world from the inside out.
Likewise, Jesus continues to say, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure, found in a field, which is so valuable that someone would sell everything he has to buy the field, just so he has that treasure.
And again, the Kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls who, finding a pearl of great value, sells everything in order to buy it.
The Kingdom of God is a treasure so good, so valuable, so beautiful, so magnificent, so worthwhile that a person would give up everything, renounce all their possessions, to have only that one thing, that Kingdom of God, and it would be worth it.
Doesn’t that sound great? Makes you want to have a dinner of mustard greens and sourdough, and enjoy this treasure we’ve found, the Kingdom of God!
But it’s not that simple, unfortunately.
When you look a little closer, there’s an undercurrent to the whole story that needs examining.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed: tiny, small, yet grows up big; but there’s also subtext, because the mustard bush was a trash plant.
It grew wild, and when the seed falls, it germinates immediately.
The mustard plant is a malignant weed; you want to get rid of it, more than you want to encourage it to grow; just like the Kingdom of God, right?
In the next parable, the parable of the leaven, the English translation we heard today spoke of a “woman took and mixed [the leaven] in with three measures of flour;” interestingly, the original Greek would be more accurately translated “hid; the kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was completely leavened.”
Why would anyone ever hide leaven in flour? It must have been a surprise to those who heard Jesus say it that day; yeast is kind of a weird image for Jesus to use; more often, women in Jesus’ time were fighting against yeast, cleaning it our of their homes for Passover, rather than hiding it in the flour.
But once that leaven gets in the flour, a little bit (four lbs.) can leaven a whole lot of flour (110 lbs.), and make a whole lot of bread (150 loaves); and once it’s in there, there’s no getting it out; that yeast is only going to grow, like a weed, really.
In the first two parables, then, we see how the Kingdom of God grows like a trash weed, and spreads like yeast in good flour; and it doesn’t get less weird now.
Then, we have a man who sells everything he owns to have a field with a hidden treasure in it; he goes in his joy to sell what he has, and the man buys the field, to have that one treasure.
Likewise, the Kingdom of God is like a merchant who, upon seeing one pearl of great value, liquidates his entire stock and buys that one pearl.
And there’s plenty more goofiness to go around in this sermon: now we have two gentlemen, both of whom traded everything they had on one thing, one amazing, beautiful thing.
The man who bought the field with the treasure, he ends up with a field, and a treasure, and that’s it.
The merchant ends up with even less, in a way: he’s a merchant, and presumably needs to keep selling in order to keep himself liquid; but he sees this pearl of great price, and sells everything he has, and presumably gives up the pearl business, because he’s put everything he has into this one pearl.
The Kingdom of Heaven not only spreads fast and far, like yeast, or the mustard bush, but it’s worth having, worth more than anything else you have, worth more than you could ever have, in a lifetime of lifetimes.
And then, Jesus gives us his last parable of the day: the parable of dragnet.
The Kingdom of God is like a dragnet, thrown down into the sea to catch fish; Now, a dragnet in biblical times was about two yards tall, and anywhere from 250 to 450 yards long; on one of the long edges of the net, weights would be attached, to keep that edge in the water, and along the other long edge was cork, or wood, to keep that edge floating; that way, the dragnet closes in around everything inside its perimeter, and voila, you’ve got a catch.
These enormous dragnets could catch all kinds of interesting things, some of which would be delicious to eat, and some of which wasn’t a great idea to cook up.
So, you’d have to sort it out when you got the net to the shore: saving the good fish to eat, the stuff that’s kosher, and getting rid of the fish and other stuff you pulled out that wasn’t edible.
So too, Jesus says, will it be at the end of this age; the angels will separate the righteous from the wicked, and throw them back into the fire, with the weeping, and the gnashing of teeth.
Yikes. That’s how Jesus brings this whole thing home: The Kingdom of God is like all these parables, it spreads like wildfire, it’ll leaven everything, whether you want it to or not, it’s worth more than you can imagine, you’d be foolish not to give everything up to get it, and by the way, if you don’t get there, you’ll get thrown in the fire, with the weeping, and the gnashing, et cetera?
One of these parables is not like the others…
And the key to unlock this mystery is what the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, actually is: it’s not the place we go after we die, the reward we get for living a good life now, and forgoing all the pleasures of this life to save up enough quarters
to pay the toll to get into heaven when we finally kick the bucket: the Kingdom of God is near to us, so near to us that it’s in the next mustard seed, or the next loaf of bread.
And it grows at alarming speeds: it’s grows so fast it’s almost a weed; and it leavens everything, whether you want it to or not; just add a little of this leaven, and it’ll leaven three measures of flour, getting into all of it; if you hide it in the flour, it’ll do all the rest of the work, and there’s enough to feed multitudes.
It doesn’t take much; the Kingdom of God can become a reality, growing in the hearts of each of us, and just a few, a small church, can help spread the Good News far and wide.
A few faithful believers is all God needs for God’s Reign to spread everywhere; for the Good News of our redemption to be known by everyone; for the sick to be healed, for the lame to walk, for the dead to live again, in Christ.
But we all have to choose. We each have to decide for ourselves,
whether we’re going to live in the Reign of God, or the Reign of Humanity; each and ever day, we have to choose—this isn’t a once-for-all kind of choice, no matter what some preachers on TV would tell you. The Reign of God is as close as tomorrow,
as close as right now: will you love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself?
The reason it isn’t a once-for-all choice is because we will all fail to live the choices we make, we will all screw up once in a while; we’re human, and that’s our deal. Has been since the beginning of time, and will be until the end of it.
But that’s also the crucial difference between the contents of the dragnet in Jesus’ parable and us: we get to choose, every day.
Every day, we wake up and get to decide to be the good fish, we get to decide to spread the leaven, we get to decide to live in the Reign of God, and bring that Reign that much closer to everyone else.
It’s not hard to do, but we have to be intentional, because the Reign of Humanity is seductive, always tempting us back, and always finding new ways to do tempt us. The Internet, Cable TV, smartphones, Facebook & Twitter: all are capable of seducing us into the Reign of Humanity and all are also capable of being used for the Reign of God. The choice is ours.
The question lingers in the air, hovering over your heads: Okay, so how?
The disciplines of the Christian Life are how the Church teaches us to chose the Reign of God; they’re not hard to do, but they require a conscious choice, every day.
Worship is one of them: come to the Table to be fed by Christ’s Body and Blood. Everyone here today has that one down-
thank you for choosing the Reign of God today!
Personal Prayer is another; choosing to pray every day. In the Anglican tradition, that takes the form of the Daily Office, with prayers that are centuries old, and reading the whole Bible through almost every year, if you stay with it.
Tithing is another: giving sacrificially for the Reign of God.
The Bible (and tradition) set the amount at 10%, but that’s really just a guideline; the point is to give enough that it shapes how you use the rest of your money; giving away enough that you are freed, instead of enslaved, by the wealth you have been given by God.
Often, the Church is where that giving is directed, (and please don’t think that it wouldn’t be gratefully received here at St. Luke’s!), but the true point, the spiritual discipline in it, is giving enough to free us from our own fear, to trust that God, who has provided thus far, will continue to provide, and that in giving, we receive even more; give it wherever you want, but give; that’s the point of the tithe. Fasting is another discipline of the church, one that the Episcopal Church in particular is not good at encouraging.
Choosing to eat less, to use less, for a period of time, is a discipline that goes back to the earliest days of the Church.
Study is another discipline of the Christian life: we study the primary texts of our faith, the Holy Bible, and we study the history of the Church, and theology, and ethics, so we can understand how our faith impacts the rest of our lives.
We also serve, like our Meals Ministry, and our gardeners, and our jail ministers, giving our selves to others, that they might experience the Reign of God through the work we do.
The list goes on, and could continue until the early evening; but by living the disciplines of the Christian faith as our church has received them, we choose the Kingdom of God, every day, and help make it closer, not only for ourselves, but for everyone.
Jesus tells us today how deep, how broad, how high the Kingdom of God can grow, how close it is, and how we can be a part of spreading it.
Today, and tomorrow, and every day, remember the mustard seed, leaven the world, buy the pearl, whose worth is so great,
and choose the Reign of God. In Jesus’ Name.