July 30, 2017
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by Nichole Torbitzky
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
In our readings for this Sunday, Jesus offers a series of parables on the nature of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not talking about what happens to us after death but is talking about what God’s rule on earth entails. Taken altogether, these parables give a broad picture of the kingdom of heaven. The first two describe it in terms of small beginnings that make enormous change. The second two describe it as something so valuable that people are willing to give up everything for it. The parable of the net describes the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven. And the last describes it as a true teaching, in keeping with the true teachings of the past.
In some ways, it is a real shame that verses 31-33 were left out of last week’s reading. The parable of the mustard seeds and the parable of the yeast sit in between the parable of the weeds and Jesus’ explanation of the weeds parable. The mustard seed and yeast parables help interpret what Jesus was saying about patience with the weeds parable. Even though the weeds and the wheat are allowed to grow up together, to benefit from God’s grace of rain and sunshine and good soil as one, the angels will know the weeds from the wheat by their fruits. The job of the wheat is to put out good fruit and rely on God to separate the good from the bad at the harvest. It is the parable of the mustard seed and the yeast that help us figure out what it means to be fruitful wheat: grow, spread, become strong, help things rise, and nourish others. The difference between mustard seeds which can grow like weeds and the tares of the weed parable is that mustard trees contribute to the health of the field in which they grow by providing shade and food for humans and animals. Those who are serious gardeners may know that mustard seeds grow rapidly and need very little attention. When mustard is mature it can be chopped up and tilled back into the soil to provide some effective protection against disease and bugs. It should be noted that Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is perhaps not his most elegant parable. Mustard plants can, in rare cases, grow to what we would consider tree size, but by and large, they generally remain the size of what we would call a bush. The point though is more important than the metaphor. Something so small grows to a great size rapidly.
The other parables for today go on to give more examples of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus needs multiple metaphors to explain the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is just not simple enough to be captured in one parable. From the mustard seed parable, we get the idea of the Kingdom as rapidly growing from small beginnings. Let me linger for a moment over the yeast parable. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman doing work typical of a woman in Jesus’ day. Just the fact that Jesus is comfortable describing the kingdom of heaven in terms of a woman speaks volumes. The mood of many of our congregations today shows a distinct disinterest in hearing readings of Scripture that uphold the dignity of women and how God, Jesus, the kingdom of heaven and us are like women. If your congregation is open to that kind of reading, by all means, here is the place to stress the importance of seeing the kingdom of heaven like things deemed “feminine.” If your congregation, like mine, is made uncomfortable by overt discussions of the dreaded f-word (feminism, I mean, not the four-letter word; my congregation would probably rather hear me curse from the pulpit than talk about feminism), then we must find ways to talk about the dignity of everyone in the kingdom of heaven in ways and words the people can hear and are still consistent with the truths and demands of the kingdom of heaven. It might be enough to point out that the kingdom of heaven needs, and therefore provides dignity and necessity to, many things which popular societal norms often disdain as unworthy: the importance of nature (mustard seed), women (yeast), workingmen (hidden treasure, pearl of great value, nets), and teachers (new and old treasure). By including women, Jesus is not scorning or devaluing men. To set women in a class with men simply means that the kingdom of heaven needs all of us, with our varied gifts, working together to make Jesus’ vision of our world a reality.
Taken together, these first two parables for this Sunday describe the kingdom as something very different from what humanity tends to value. We have a misguided tendency to value wealth, power, the showy, and the extraordinary. In contrast, the kingdom of heaven values the working class, those with little power, and things we tend to take for granted as ‘regular’ or ‘normal.’ Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as made up of those of us who usually do not get a lot of attention and who we do not usually think of as ones who matter or make a difference. Jesus reveals a picture to the contrary. In so doing, he insists that those who are often ignored or taken for granted as small or unimportant, are actually the most important to God, neither overlooked nor underappreciated.
The second set of parables is about what kind of response is necessary to the kingdom of heaven. In the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great value, Jesus teaches that our commitment to the kingdom of heaven cannot be half-hearted. Each of these parables described the kingdom of heaven as the thing we have been seeking. The kingdom of heaven takes some effort and some sacrifice. We often do not like to hear these parables. Often we would rather have the more inspirational parables of the mustard seed or even the yeast. Although these parables are very short, they stress something that we must pay attention to. The kingdom of heaven is something that *we* have to work for, it simply will not happen on its own. When we have found it, our response has to be complete. The farmer and the merchant did not go get a loan, they sold all they had. Be careful to avoid the temptation to shame folks for not being committed enough. Keep in mind that if you are preaching to them, they are probably already committed believers, most of whom already invest considerable time, talent, and treasure into the kingdom. This is a wonderful opportunity to remind them why they have invested so much into the kingdom and inspire them to continue to persevere in the way. It could be an opportunity to highlight the ministries of your church and invited folks to lend a hand. It could also turn into a very good stewardship sermon by encouraging people that when we work together our individual contributions to the kingdom combine take off like yeast or mustard seeds.
The parable of the net reintroduces the theme of judgment at the end of the age. The parable explains that when the time comes, the angels will come to separate the wicked from the righteous. Matthew’s discussion of the end of the age consistently warns that judgment is reserved for God, and the angels will do the sorting out. It is not our job to judge or sort out. Our job is described in the other parables for today: grow, expand, seek, commit, spread the word. This particular parable can make pastors and congregations uncomfortable. We do not like to talk about judgment (unless we want to condemn others). Yet, the fiery furnace and weeping and gnashing of teeth cannot be avoided. In process theological terms, God does judge. God judges regularly, and that judgment is grace. With each subjective aim/ grace that provides purpose as each of our moments come into being, the aim provided is based on the best possible for our particular situation. Sometimes, as Marjorie Suchocki has pointed out, the best possible for a given situation might be bad, but it is better than the alternatives. Based on our actions, for better or worse, God will provide a new aim for our next moment in hopes that we will choose the best. The aim, the grace, is always tailored to our situation, held up against what could have been. God sees where we have gone wrong. God knows how we missed the mark. Yet, God responds to us over, and over, and over again with aims that invite us to make good choices for the best possible. This is judgment. God’s judgment is grace.
But, you may be asking, good preacher, what about the fiery furnace and gnashing teeth? What about the end times, when the great sorting comes? Good question. One that we do a disservice to our people if we ignore it because it is uncomfortable to discuss. Your people already have notions about God’s judgment, and they need to hear the guidance from you to ensure that their beliefs about judgment are actually consistent with Jesus’ preaching about it. God’s judgment comes in the form of contrasting the actual events of our lives with what could have been or better still, what should have been. Each of us will stand culpable for our wrongs and failures, for the pains we have inflicted. We are already culpable for them as each moment comes to an end and God provides new grace for the next moment based on the choices we have made. Our evil limits what God can offer us in the next moment as possibilities. Good widens those possibilities. God’s judgment on us is immediate. It is also eschatological (having to do with the end times) in the sense that as our moments are taken up into God to be reconciled there in divine harmony, evil will be relegated to into the triviality of the fire. The truth of our evil is that God knows it for what it is: worthless, and relegates it to such a place in the eternal life. Matthews description of God’s judgment is pretty apt; evil and sin desire relevance, importance, and power. God’s judgment on evil is to relegate it to fire, where it is lost. As Whitehead says, “the chaff is burnt” (PR, 244). An individual will experience this judgment as pain. Even though God will never lose what can be saved, God’s judgment is real with eternal consequences in the everlastingness of God. The practical implications for us are as simple as the grace is overwhelming: are you a good fish or a bad fish, are you wheat or weeds? If you are a good fish, then you’ll be known by your deeds.
The good news is that the kingdom of heaven is humble but unstoppable. It is built upon those who are typically overlooked as unimportant. It is demanding, but the rewards are great. It prompts us to live lives of goodness. A life of goodness is a life following Christ whose yoke is light and whose burden is easy. The kingdom of heaven is both a time to come, but most importantly it is now. It is something God does, but most importantly it is something we do as a response to God.