The Parables: An interrupting, corrupting and transformative vision
Homily, July 30, 2017
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
Today’s gospel begins with the last two parables that Jesus shares with the crowds gathered on the shore at the Sea of Galilee; the gathering we have been hearing about for the last couple weeks. In today’s reading, Jesus says to this crowd that the Reign of Heaven is like a small mustard seed that grows into the greatest of shrubs providing shelter for the birds of the air. It is likely, there are people in the crowd that chuckle and shake their heads. Many are farmers and they know that mustard is a noxious weed that spreads like wildfire. And then Jesus goes on to say that the Reign of Heaven is like leaven, like old fermented dough hidden by an old woman in over 50 pounds of flour enough to make a 100 loaves of bread. And again, there are likely people in the crowd who shake their heads and laugh. The word leaven is mentioned 22 times in Hebrew scriptures and 17 times in Christian scriptures almost always in relation to sin or evil. In this culture, unleavened bread is holy and leavening suggests corruption. With even a small amount of leaven the woman in Jesus’ parable has defiled the whole lot of flour. And then that’s it. Jesus’ sermon beside the sea is finished and the crowds disperse. But the disciples remain and the gospel continues.
With the disciples, Jesus goes on to explain the parable of the sower (which we heard about a couple of weeks ago) in a deeper way, using more parables. Parables used to explain a parable; a conundrum in and of itself. And by way of this parabolic explanation Jesus says to the disciples that the Reign of Heaven is like a stolen treasure. Someone stumbles across a treasure in a field. But they don’t tell the owner of the field that they have found this treasure. Instead they do something a little shady. They hide the treasure so it cannot be seen and then purchase the field from the unsuspecting owner. Further the Reign of Heaven is like a merchant of pearls who gives up his whole livelihood for one pearl albeit a pearl of great value. And finally, the Reign of Heaven is like a net thrown into the sea randomly catching all kinds of fish. The useful, edible fish – the good fish – are kept in baskets as one would expect but the fish that are not useful because they are too small, not the right type or generally defective in some way are not released back into the sea but unexpectedly thrown out. In today’s Gospel these parables are thrown at us, one after the other in quick succession in a way that magnifies their confusing, confounding, disturbing and disrupting essence. Yet, in this reading, Jesus finishes his explanation to the disciples with the question, “do you understand?” And the disciples answer “yes” which makes me embarrassed to say that I remain confused, disrupted, interrupted and disturbed.
I have been a little under the weather lately and suffering from some associated brain fog. So perhaps I can blame my hesitancy and my confusion in relation to today’s central question on my ongoing recovery. But it is not just that because really with the internet at my fingertips all I have to do is Google the parables and the answers, the secrets to understanding are right there. I can go to jesuswalk.com or helpmewiththebiblestudy.com or how about Bible Parables Explained – Learn the Truth @ www.parableschurch.com.
The answers these sites provide vary but are largely allegorical in nature. For example, mustard seeds indicate small beginnings that grow into something very large, large enough to support the birds of the air. The birds of the air represent the Gentile nations seeking refuge with Israel. Similarly, the woman in the parable of the yeast represents divine Wisdom working in the world and the three measures of flour represent the three sons of Noah or, alternatively, the Jew, the Greek and the Barbarian. You get the picture.
Matthew himself leads us in the direction of such an allegorical approach to Jesus’ parable teachings. In his explanation of the Parable of the Weeds in Chapter 13, he says and I quote, “the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed are the children of the Kingdom, the weeds are the children of the evil one and so on” (Matthew 13: 37-40). The author of the Gospel of Matthew writes at a time when Jewish Christians or Christian Jews were no longer in communion with traditional Judaism lead by the Pharisees. The community this author writes for follows the teachings of Jesus and claims an exclusive understanding of the parables because of their particular form of commitment to live these teachings, a commitment and a way of life that separates them from their Jewish sisters and brothers. Within Matthew’s framework, the Pharisees and the crowds who do not follow Jesus in this way do not understand. Matthew’s approach does resolve much of the confusion the parables create, then and now. It makes them comprehensible; stories you can get your head around. Actually, it comes down to something pretty simple. Ultimately the good fish are in and the bad fish are out. But these explanations and simplifications that allow for clarity and certainty create their own problems, for the community Matthew was writing for and for contemporary readers like us.
Looking at these parables allegorically, as Matthew did in the late first century, and in relation to how they might speak to our own divided times is tricky. Within an allegorical framework, it is easy to slip into an interpretation of these stories and the Reign of Heaven that lines up with a particular point of view and the views of the people who live day to day in ways that align with that particular way of thinking and being in the world. So that the people in my particular social group, or my particular nonprofit endeavor or my particular political party or my particular church understand in ways that others do not. It becomes easy to claim that our faith gives us an understanding these “others” do not possess. And because my particular people have a faith that lifts up their understanding we are the good fish, and those other people, they are the bad fish. And more than that these bad people, they will be thrown into the fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth – at least metaphorically. And as we work our way through this logic, it all begins to feel a little too familiar
In fact, I suggest that this kind of biblical claim underlies many of the secular, social, political and religious divisions that define our times. Good fish and bad fish? It becomes a matter of perspective and competing claims about some ultimate understanding of goodness that underlies a particular vision for a civil society that seeks to be a shining city on a hill where the needs of all are met.
But really, good fish and the bad fish? Can the Reign of Heaven preached in today’s parables be boiled down to this kind of clarity? In light of today’s gospel can I really claim that I am the good fish while my brother – literally my brother by birth – because of his obvious misunderstandings, is destined to be thrown into the fire. Do I really think that? I am really prepared to make that claim? It is enough to make your head hurt, your heart ache and your spirit weary. This allegorical domestication of the parables might make things a little too certain and a little too easy.
For centuries, the parables have been read as allegories but more recently biblical commentary has focused on the way in which these stories disrupt and interrupt our assumptions and our unnoticed frameworks about good and evil, profit and loss, success and failure, right and wrong, clean and dirty and so on and so on and so on, that get us through the day. This alternative approach suggests that if we stay with the disruptive and interruptive nature of these parables and if we stay with the unsettling images of the Reign of Heaven arriving like a noxious weed, arriving like a woman who hides a corrupting bit of leaven in 50 pounds of flour, arriving like a slightly shady treasure seeker or arriving like a pearl merchant who risks his whole business for one pearl…. If we stay with the confusion and uncertainty, then, maybe, instead of hoping toward and waiting on a Reign of Heaven that arrives as a fulfillment of our expectations, we just might find ourselves leaning into the possibility of a Reign of Heaven that arrives as a surprise, beyond our wildest imaginings. We might just find ourselves leaning into the possibility of a Reign of Heaven that would throw us for a loop and make us attentive if only for a moment to some unexpected transformative possibility.
So here the point of the parable and the point of Jesus’ question, “Do you understand?”, might not be understanding in the way that we typically think of it in terms of a definition or a definitive realization that fits into the neat categories that structure our families, our communities, our politics, our economics or our religious faith. Rather the point of the parables and of the question, “Do you understand?”, might be more about the ways the kind of interruption and surprisingly transformative corruption held up in the parables today resonates with your own experience. And so we close with a thought experiment. We close with the question. “Do you understand?” Do these interruptive parables touch something inside you and are you willing to lean into these interruptive possibilities? Are you willing to pull out your treasures, new and old, and allow them to be transformed in the light of a Reign of Heaven that arrives in the here and now and in the surprise of some unexpected future potentialities so that you might be interrupted, corrupted and transformed?