Homily delivered at Sunday Assembly of Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, WI – July 26, 2020 (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)
Jesus is on a roll here in Matthew chapter 13. He fires off parables like some kind of comedy club stand-up shooting off one-liners. Hurling out one parable after another was clearly his all-time favorite way to teach. In fact, some scholars argue that it was really his only approach, which suits me just fine. It serves to reinforce my long-held opinion that the fourth gospel, lovely though it may be, and perhaps based loosely on events in Jesus’ life, did not originate from the Jesus’ lips, but rather is reflection and meditation from others long separated by decades from Jesus’ teaching in the lanes and towns of Galilee.
Anyway, today’s Gospel reading is a prime example of Jesus as his best with the parable form. Each of these half dozen parables could in turn be the focus of a single sermon I suppose. And each one is surprisingly capable of all sorts of commentary from the scholars who explore their sociological, psychological, and moral implications. All of which to my mind is crying shame. Analyzing Jesus’ parables to death does them a huge disservice. So do those occasional verses we have seen over the past few weeks where Jesus is said to “explain” the parables mostly to disciples who don’t get it. I for one highly doubt Jesus ever explained his parables…to anyone. Verses with these so-called explanations are clearly later additions from gospel writers and editors reflecting on them decades after Jesus first spoke them. Even the gospels tell us that Jesus taught only in parables. If these parables require interpretation and application, then Jesus clearly left that to his listeners to figure out on their own.
Jesus, you see, was all about pulling back the curtain on the reign or kin-dom of God. Each and every parable he told was designed to give his listeners a glimpse, a peek, a brief insight into what that in-breaking reign looked like. In spite of Matthew’s assertion to the contrary, I also highly doubt that the disciples understood “all” of what Jesus had said. Mark is probably closer to the truth with his assessment that the disciples were pretty much clueless, and not just about parables, I might add.
I agree with Arland Hultgren that it’s “better to simply stay with the story.” And for Jesus that story he went around showing and telling was the reign of God. Over and over again, using ordinary, homey images every first century Palestinian would have understood, Jesus painted word pictures that bring the realization that we belong to God, that we are cherished and cared for, that we have been called to commit ourselves to the noblest values of the human heart. Diane Bergant helps me with her image of the reign of God as “the prize that gives meaning to the present, and its fullest delight draws un into the future.” She goes on to say, “It feeds our hungers, it satisfies our thirsts, it piques our curiosity….The reign of God is the fulfillment of our deepest desires and our fondest hopes.”
All of this in little stories Jesus tells, each one another poetic strophe about what “the kingdom of heaven” is “like.” When Jesus speaks this way, it’s not that the kingdom is so much like the objects themselves (a mustard seed, some buried treasure, or a bit of yeast). It’s more the actual process of what happens in these little stories which reveals the mysterious and powerful things that take place right under our noses, even if our eyes can’t quite seem to see it.
As she does so often for me, Barbara Brown Taylor writes evocatively about the power of Jesus’ parables. In her collection of sermons from Matthew she calls THE SEEDS OF HEAVEN, Taylor says: “How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?”
I concur with Taylor. We do best if we use the most ordinary things, as Jesus did, and “[trust] each other to make the connections….We cannot say what it is, exactly, but we can say what it is like, and most of us get the message.”
These six brief parables today, like the others Jesus told, are all about revealing the “hiddenness” of the reign of God. All of Jesus’ parables teach us about our own seeking for that reign. In the most ordinary, everyday things and experiences we find “clues to the all the holiness hidden in the dullness of our days,” to quote Taylor again.
I’m a big fan of all those British TV mysteries we see on Public Television so I resonate when Taylor suggests that God wants us to do some detective work on our own. God hides the kingdom of heaven, not in extraordinary places that detectives would surely check out, but in the very last places that any of us would ever think to look; namely, in the mundane, ordinariness of our everyday lives.
So simply staying with the story and making the connections even if we can’t say exactly what the kin-dom is but being pretty sure we can say what it is like, let’s just hear the message. I’m fairly confident that most of us get the message.
In rapid fashion here we go…
The kin-dom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that carries the life of a tree.
The kin-dom of heaven is like a tiny portion of yeast that makes the bread rise.
The kin-dom of heaven is like a tiny pearl of great price that we would give all our “stuff” to have.
The kin-dom of heaven is like a fishing boat filled with the catch – good and bad together – with the fisher folk wise enough to recognize the one from the other.
I believe that God calls us to find the kin-dom that is already hidden in our world – in tiny, transforming possibilities; in beauty that calls us to surrender all; in complicated choices that call for wisdom.
God doesn’t post flashing neon signs in the sky. God invites us to heighten our sense of the ordinary in order to find God and to join God in building the kin-dom of love, and hope, and peace. Our call is to seek and find the hints of the kin-dom in our world and to nurture its growth among us.
Jesus employed all these everyday people and activities and things of nature as the tools to convey how he experienced God, and if we have eyes to see and ears to listen, how we might experience God too. As the poet Maren Tirabassi asks, “If Jesus gave us parables, why do we answer back with creeds?”
No less than St. Augustine of Hippo understood this well. He wrote, “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book, the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead God set before your eyes the things that God had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”
And the answer is, of course not. This might also possibly entitle us to respond to Jesus’ question, “Have you understood all this?” with real honesty answering, “We get it? We get what you’re talking about when you say, ‘The kin-dom of heaven is like….’”
After all it comes down to this. If we can find and serve God willingly in the small details of life, we’re much less likely to screw up finding the big ones when they come along. Don’t waste your time struggling to find God; just open yourself to discover how close the treasure has been all along. Because you see, in reality, God is the seeker, and we are the sought.