The Joke Is On Us


Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
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: Seed-planting, fish-netting, bread-baking, pearl-hunting, sovereign God, you shape us into living parables.  We pray that with your Spirit in us that can better understand our experiences in life and become creative and abundant stewards of your love that you have so abundantly shared with us. Amen.


Last week George began his sermon with a magic trick, I confess that I have no magic powers so I won’t even try to match his magical abilities instead I offer a joke.


A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar… The bartender says what is this a joke. ha-ha-ha.


Jokes.  A joke is humor where words and gestures are used to make people laugh and are not meant to be taken seriously.  Many jokes are in the form of a story, most often with dialogue, and it builds to a punch line.  It is the punch line where we often learn that the joke has turned something common upside down and make it funny.


There have been serious scientific studies of jokes and humor.  In 2002 a British psychologist and author Richard Wiseman set up a website named Laugh Lab[1]  –to find the world’s funniest joke.  The website received over 40,000 jokes that were rated by over 1.5 million people.  He and his colleagues culled through them found the most popular joke submitted was: “What’s brown and sticky?  A stick.”  Some were very clever, “Two fish are swimming in a tank when one turns to the other and asks: ‘Do you know how to drive this?’”[2]


The experiment also generated a couple of interesting insights into the types of jokes people find funny:

  1. According to the data, jokes containing about 103 words are the funniest.
  2. Many of the jokes submitted included animals, and those that mention ducks were rated the funniest.

So, to make people laugh make sure to keep your joke relatively short, and make sure it involves a duck.


Of the thousands of jokes analyzed in the study, the ones that received the highest rating included some shock value or element of surprise, but not so much that they became the centerpiece of the joke.  More important was a sense of false expectations being overturned.  Now, I am not a big jokester but I can’t help but notice the connection between the formula for a good joke and the sneaky nature of Jesus parables.


Mustard seeds, yeast, treasure, pearls, fishnets and scriptures not exactly the foundation for great humor and we don’t think of Jesus as a joke teller but he just might be in this parable for today.  He overturns our expectations.


The familiar interpretation of this parable is that the kingdom of God starts out small and insignificant, but eventually grows in importance.  However, some commentators argue that this parable is much more radical, even subversive, kind of like a joke.[3]   In these sneaky parables there is an element of surprise and stealth.  They are used to challenge the religious status quo and our understanding of God.   They tell us that God is not like we thought he would be or act how we expected.  Parables don’t describe the kingdom of heaven as much as they move us and affect us with God’s love.  So, you thought the Kingdom of heaven was gold paved streets and softly playing harps.  Jesus says, nope, it is more like dirt roads and banjos.


These parables remind us that the faith we practice isn’t an intellectual idea but an experience, an experience of the creative and redemptive power of God that changes lives and perspectives.  And sometimes the only way to get beyond our heads and into our hearts is to live them…


Jesus talks of the kingdom of heaven as a tiny mustard seed.   A tiny speck of a seed that when it grows it flourishes into a large bush like plant.   The only problem is that a mustard plant was an invasive weed, dreaded by farmers the way today’s gardeners dread kudzu, crabgrass, or honeysuckle.  It is a plant that will overtake your yard, your garden, your life.  So, the Kingdom of heaven isn’t some beautiful English country garden or bed of roses instead it is like a dreaded weed, that once it starts growing you can’t control it.


Then Jesus says that the Kingdom of heaven is like a woman, yeast, and flour.  This parable would have been especially disturbing to his first century audience because all three of the elements of the parable – the yeast, the woman, and the amount of flour – would have challenged the social norms of the day.[4]


You see the woman hides a teaspoon of yeast that overtakes 3 measures of flour, which is a lot of flour, 1.125 bushels to be exact.  A common recipe for basic white bread uses 5 ½ cups of flour, 144 cups is enough to make 52 loaves, each weighing about a pound and a half.


This woman is being extravagant!  The Kingdom of Heaven once it gets into something it pollutes it (in a safe way), it overtakes it, and transforms it.  The Kingdom of Heaven is more than enough for you and your family, more than enough for you and me and all of us, the kingdom of heaven is for everyone.


Then Jesus asked, have you understood all of this?  The people answered, “Yes”.   Today, some 2,000 years later, we are still answering yes with a straight face and God must be laughing or crying.   How could we possibly understand “all this”?   We can’t.   Instead we are invited to live into them.  I had a professor in Seminary who used to say whenever you hear someone say that they have it all figured out watch out because that is when they are wrong.  So, when we answer that we understand these parables watch out…because that is when we will realize that the joke is really on us.


Can we really understand the kingdom of Heaven?  No, can we really define the undefinable? No.  If we think that life today, right here right now, is as good as it gets, we are more than likely wrong because it isn’t over yet.  If we think this is the way it will always be we are mistaken because the creative God isn’t done yet.


So how does it affect you and me?  I believe we keep on keeping on.  We live the quiet, faithful, humble, service-oriented lives and as George said in his sermon last week forget about the other stuff.  Friends this is good news that is beyond our understanding, this is the great mystery of the faith…and it is no joke.


Let us pray:




[3] For a more complete analysis of the parables as radical stories, see Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, William R. Herzog II (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY  1994).

[4] Ibid. Although other commentators have written similar analyses, my first encounter with such an interpretation of the parable of the yeast was in “Preaching the Parables of Jesus” (Church, Winter 1992; pp. 19-24) by Dr. Richard Stern.