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Parable of the mustard seed, yeast, treasure and pearl

Sermon on the parables of the mustard seed, yeast, treasure and pearl

Ordinary 17 Sermon - Reverend Canon Charles Royden

Parables of Jesus Gospel Reading Matthew Chapter 13: 31-33, 44-52

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches." He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."

44-52 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. "Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. "Have you understood all these things?" Jesus asked. "Yes," they replied. He said to them, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old." 


We have several parables from Jesus today and they could be four separate sermons. What perhaps draws them together is the fact that they have a certain ambiguity about them. They are not quite as clear cut as we first assume.

The Mustard Seed
Take the parable of the mustard seed. Is it really appropriate for Jesus to liken the kingdom to a mustard seed? It might not be the smallest seed, apparently the orchid seed is smaller and that is a very pretty plant, or the cypress seed is smaller and that is a spectacular tree. The mustard seed was spoken about proverbially at the time as the smallest seed, but it doesn’t grow into a big tree, rather it grows into something more like an invasive weed. The Pharisees forbade it being planted in a garden (m. Kil. 3:2) because it was considered to be uncontrollable.

I am sure that the disciples would have preferred the kingdom to have been likened to a cypress tree. In the Book of Daniel Nebuchanezzar was compared to a mighty tree
‘Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.’
That is the kind of kingdom that the disciples might have wanted, something like mighty Babylon. Instead they get a mustard seed and a very large weed. I know that we often think about this parable in terms of how big things come from little beginnings and the mustard bush sprouted up after a very short time, but did Jesus really have to choose a weed?

Then there is a the parable of the yeast, one line and you miss it.
Yeast or leaven as many of us remember it from the old Bible symbolised the corrupting influence of evil in the OT. Matthew records Jesus uses leaven to represent the evil teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Leaven was almost universally seen in early Judaism and in early Christianity as something unclean or evil. In Corinthians the church is encouraged not to have
‘the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness
but the new unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’

Following the escape from Egypt there were strict rules about yeast and it is still purged from Jewish households. At Passover no yeast was to be found in the homes of the Israelites.
You can imagine those who heard this very short parable thinking, why has he chosen yeast !

Then the parable of the treasure hidden in a field.
A man knows that there is treasure in a field and he buys the whole field in order to acquire it
This reminded me of our church car boot sales where buyers wanted to get in early and go through the car boots of the people who were selling from their cars and we had to stop people coming in until an official opening time. Now the reason whey these folks wanted to get in was because they were usually dealers and they knew what to look for. They could spot whether little grannies tea pot was worth hundreds of pounds or nothing at all, they knew whether something was made of worthless metal or whether it was gold.
It is all a bit aggressive really, they don’t want you to know how much something is really worth, but if it is valuable they want to take it off you, to deprive you of your heirloom!

Well I think that the parable of the hidden treasure this morning which Jesus taught has a bit of an edge as well. The owner of the field doesn’t know that he is letting go of something which is worth much more than he is getting for it. You could say that the man who bought the field was shrewd, but actually isn’t it also just a little bit mean? This is get rich quick stuff and it isn’t something which we would expect Jesus to disapprove of?

Then there is a the parable of the pearl
I was trying to imagine what I would say if one of my children came home and told me that they had sold all that they had and having liquidated their personal wealth bought a pearl or some other luxury item. Imagine if you knew somebody who sold everything that they had, left themselves destitute to buy some jewellery. Would you think that to be sensible? Why did Jesus uses this as an example ?

These are provocative parables. They are challenging and threatening and they make us think - they are not used by Jesus to just make it easy for us to understand. The parables suggest that the Kingdom is challenging more than it is comforting.

So what do we take away this morning? Well Jesus is challenging accepted norms and he questions whether we are able to think in fresh ways. The kingdom is ambiguous - a bit like Jesus, and we have to be prepared to look afresh at our own way of thinking from time to time.
For example the kingdom might not look like the kingdom. Some folks might want the kingdom to be big and flashy but we need to see the kingdom in unexpected places and looking more like a weed than a big tree. Just as Jesus was the Messiah but not what everybody expected
The kingdom is hidden and some will have the perception to recognise it, whilst to others it is hidden, they might walk over it everyday, but it is like buried treasure and they don’t even know it is there. We need to recognise the kingdom in some very unexpected places and sometimes we will not see it because like yeast it works imperceptibly. God is at work and we need to have the spiritual vision to recognise that.

Our spiritual lives have a compass which directs us towards God. That compass should point us in the right direction, but sometimes we lose our way. It is like the compass has a magnet pulling the needle away from the true course. The magnet might be our love of career, money, ambitions for other things. Jesus in the parables is encouraging us to see that keeping that needle pointing in the right direction is all that matters. Everything else which pulls us off course is of no consequence even if we think that these things are important they are not, all that matters is realising the end destination with God. To those with the eyes to see, God is worth everything and nothing is of more value and everything can be sacrificed.

Yet of course, just like the man who bought the field, or the man who bought the pearl, it is not really a sacrifice at all, it is not a duty but a joy. The Gospel demands no half measures but rather a single mindedness and commitment, which we might feel uncomfortable about, just like the parables! The man who buys the field and the man who buys the pearl do not feel that they are giving anything up. They are moved by joy not duty! In neither case is there any hint of sacrifice -- of giving up something precious -- of having to make a difficult decision.  Neither is sad to sell everything, because they are both overwhelmed with the joy of discovery and the prospect of possessing such treasure. 

I close with just one thought about the treasure and the pearl and the joy of those men. o many people outside the Christian church looking in, there is no appearance of a people who have discovered a treasure. They might therefore and perhaps will be forgiven by God for thinking that there was none worth looking for. Our Christian community throughout the ages has most frequently not given the message that we have discovered something to be joyful about. Frequently the church has done little to challenge cultural and political power and appeared more concerned with worldly kingdoms than God’s. we ask ourselves today what we do to show that God’s kingdom really is worth us sacrificing everything for and how do our lives express the joy of knowing Jesus.