July 27, 2014 (Ordinary 17)
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
13:31 “He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, NRSV)
Let us pray: Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us. Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us, melt us mold, shapes us use us. Amen.
I heard a story this week about a colleague in ministry who is serving a church in Southern Middle Tennessee. He was telling about his call to ministry. He had a sense of being called into the ministry while he was in college. When a professor he had said to him that he should consider a call to ministry. My colleague said it really meant a lot for him to hear that affirmation from a professor, someone he looked up to and he respected but it wasn’t the moment that he felt called. His story continues a year later while he was on a short-term mission trip to New York City. He and other college student were working with the homeless and the hungry and the least, the last and the lost.
One evening he was riding on a subway going to meet a friend for dinner and he was very sad and hopeless. He was overwhelmed by the massive needs of the people he was working with. Overwhelmed by the fact that he felt so helpless and useless by all of the suffering around him. He looked across the aisle of the subway car and his eye caught the eye of a homeless man, who was staring at him. When the homeless man said to him, “What’s happening?”
My colleague responded, “Nothing, nothing is happening.” That was what he felt in light of the overwhelming needs all around him. The homeless will continue to be homeless, the hungry will still be hungry, and so he felt that nothing was going on. The homeless man replied, “Well make it happen!” Then the subway car stopped and the homeless man got off and the door closed. My colleague said that was the moment he was called to ministry.
Jesus was a good story teller. This particular story or parable is a shocking one – the parable of the mustard seed would have caused his listeners to drop their jaws. It would have been one of those stories that those who heard it would have been desperate to tell others, it would have been one of those stories that they would begin by saying…“did you hear what that man said?”
It is just a story about a mustard seed, a harmless little seed. Well, it is a parable, a metaphor that was a direct contradiction of part of sacred Jewish law. In the book of Leviticus there are some farming rules and one of them is that, on pain of death, you must not sow more than one type of seed in a field.
The purpose of the law was to protect crops but it was also an acknowledgment that in those days grain was absolutely precious – and back then, what you grew was your very means of survival. So to give the grain the absolutely best chance of survival, weeds or competing crops were not allowed. The mustard seed was actually the seed of a shrub that was considered a weed and next to useless. So, the thought that the farmer would have allowed it first to grow and then to actually continue to grow until it reached the size of a tree would have been unheard of – and in fact could have got the farmer into a huge amount of trouble.
But there was something else. Since the time of Leviticus something else had happened. The Romans had invaded – and conquered their land. The Romans were ruthless. They taxed everything – including crops and at least fifty percent of everything that a farmer grew was taken for the benefit of the Rome. So, for a farmer to deliberately allow something to grow instead – especially a useless weed like the mustard seed was an act of sedition – it was stealing from Rome. So, it would have been shocking to the hearers of the day to hear this story.
Jesus has been upping the ante in each of his descriptions of the kingdom. For three weeks now we have heard Jesus describe the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Matthew, the thirteenth chapter. We have heard about the gardener (the sower) who extravagantly throws seeds out on all types of ground. Last week Anne preached about the wheat and the weeds and how there is good and evil in all people and it is not our job to judge. And then we have today’s passage. Jesus is no longer telling interesting stories, it is almost as if he gets into a hurry as he in rapid succession tries to explain what the Kingdom of heaven is like:
- A mustard seed
- Like yeast
- Like a buried treasure
- Like a fine pearl
- Like a net cast into the sea
Bam, bam, bam. One after the other without time to think in between. What is Jesus trying to tell us? The parable begins small, “the smallest of seeds,” and ends up growing bigger.
So, Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed? Yes, mustard plant is an invasive species, dreaded by farmers in the same way today’s gardeners dread kudzu, or crabgrass and other weeds. The mustard plant is a weed that was against the law to sow it in a garden, but that it is foolish to do so. Because it would germinate very quickly and then grow out of control. And before long it has taken over your yard, your garden, your field. The mustard plant is an annual, which grows wild and can reach four feet in height. Once it has been sown it is nearly impossible to get rid of it.
Yeast was much the same, when added to flour it would take over.
And Jesus is comparing the kingdom of Heaven God to a malignant weed and pollutant? Because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined, infiltrating a system and taking it over.
It is an odd parable, the seed starts small, it ends not in glory, but with a suspicious, often rejected weed, despised by the farmer. The farmer does everything to try and kill it but can’t. Might God’s kingdom be like that – far more potent than we’d imagined and ready to spread to every aspect of our lives?
God is at work in people, events, situations we regard as insignificant and God’s actions have results wildly beyond our expectations. God is at work in people, events, situations widely regarded as subversive of the status quo and counter to standards of worldly success. Like my colleague on the subway, he was so caught up in his own sadness and hopelessness that he could not “see” that God was at work in him, around him and with the homeless man. Silently, ever so slowly, growing, changing, working, and transforming the world. That is what the Kingdom of God is like.
So look closely— at the tiny mustard seeds in your life— they may be God planting something in your heart that is going to grow into something beyond your imagination. Listen for the small things…
Look at the insignificant events….
For God the creator of all that is is at work in you and in me and in all the world brining about his kingdom.
Let us pray: Seed-planting, fish-netting, bread-baking, pearl-hunting God, you shape us into living parables. We pray that your spirit would fill us so that we may understand our experiences as healing metaphors, and become creative and abundant stewards of the environment you entrusted to our love. Amen.