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Parables of the Kingdom

Sermon preached by
The Revd Charles Royden
28th July 2002

Matthew Chapter 13:31-33, 44-52

Introduction

There are three sections to the Bible Reading from Matthew today and so it makes sense to divide the sermon into these three parts. Each section is a teaching about the 'Kingdom of God,' or 'Kingdom of heaven' as Matthew chooses to say out of respect for God's name.

Part 1 The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

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."

So let's begin with the Mustard seed, which Matthew records Jesus as saying was 'the smallest of all your seeds.' The mustard seed is not the smallest of course, neither does it grow into tree, more correctly we would say a big bush.

Jesus often speaks as a preacher emphasising points, using hyperbole, it is not that he was ignorant of agriculture. The point he is making as a preacher is not about the literal size of the seed, rather that it was a very small seed. This is a warning to us, when we start to take words recorded in the Bible literally then we are inevitably going to be led into confusion. We will be chopping off our hands and throwing them into fires because they cause us to sin, or even gouging out our eyes. Jesus may have chosen a mustard seed because he had one in his pocket and there was a mustard plant nearby to use as a contrast.

Now I am pleased about this because it gives me licence to exaggerate when I preach, if Jesus did it then it is OK for me too. But it is also very important to remember that Jesus was a man of his time, he spoke to people with very set ideas and tried to help them to see things differently.

So we have a tiny seed which grows into a big bush, and yeast which acts in the whole loaf. Perhaps this parable of the yeast in the loaf is going to be more relevant, I am told that more and more people are baking their own bread?

If Jesus was alive today in Bedford he might use the illustration of an acorn and say look how a tiny acorn, the smallest of seeds grows into our biggest tree. He might say, think of when you use your Panasonic bread maker, how little yeast you need to have a major effect on the loaf.

The message

The kingdom may be small but nevertheless have great effects. The Parables of the Mustard Seed and of the yeast are simply parables of growth. There may be small beginnings, but those small beginnings need to be contrasted with their great effects. God's action may be going on undetected, beneath the surface, emphasizing the power of God's action. They are addressed to the crowds.

Contrast a tiny baby in a manger with the might of the Roman Empire. Think of the poor disciples with the enormity of the task to spread the Gospel. The message is that we can never tell what God will make of our efforts

This parable offers hope, promising great outcomes from small beginnings. Jesus intended to encourage the first disciples, who faced daunting odds, and this parable continues to encourage disciples today. 

Most of the church's work gets done in inauspicious circumstances. Our mission seems overwhelming, and our resources seem too few. But Jesus promises that God's power makes everything possible. Indeed, the beginnings were small. By Matthew's time, the disciples had encountered serious opposition. It did not appear that the small movement of Christ's followers stood a chance against the forces arrayed against it -- but look out! God uses that which seems foolish to shame that which seems wise. God uses that which seems weak to shame that which seems strong (1 Cor. 1:27). 

Perhaps the lesson of the mustard shrub is that Christians know that God brings great things out of small beginnings, but that we should not expect the kingdom to be great as the world counts greatness. "A king who operates in meekness (11:25-30) and rides a donkey instead of a war horse (21:1-9) can be represented by a kingdom symbolized by a garden herb instead of a giant tree" This parable "rebukes our cult of bigness"

Part 2 The Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl

"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.

The Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl have to do with objects of great value which spark great commitment.

The kingdom is found in unlikely places.

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl are both parables of discovery, joy, and action. The merchant is actively looking for pearls, while the other man just stumbles onto treasure in a field. Both, however, recognize the overwhelming value of their discovery, and sell everything so that they might buy it. 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. They are like the disciples, who left everything to follow Jesus (4:18-22; 19:27-30) -- and Paul, who regarded all else as loss "because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3:8). They are unlike the rich young ruler who "went away grieving," because he could not bear to part with his many possessions (19:16-26).

There is an important lesson here that joy, not duty, drives these men to act. They do not sell everything and buy the treasure because they ought to do so, but because their hearts demand it. In presenting the Gospel, we do well to proclaim Good News instead of bad. Condemnation convinces few people. Calls to duty convince only the person who has grasped the vision of the treasure to be gained.

It was not uncommon in that time and place for people to bury valuable possessions, because there were no secure institutions to keep valuables safe. Small villages could not prevent looting by brigands, and soldiers were free to take what they needed. Burial provided the best security, but provided no guarantees. A person might die, taking the secret of the treasure to his or her grave. People might leave home and find themselves unable to return. Jewish Rabbinic law provided that "These finds belong to the finder -- if a man finds scattered fruit, scattered money…these belong to the finder" (Barclay, 94).

We should not allow ourselves to be distracted by asking whether this man should have revealed the treasure to the owner of the field. This is a simple story with a simple point, and we do nobody a favour by complicating it.

In the ancient world pearls had a very special place in men's hearts. People desired to possess a lovely pearl, not only for its money value, but for its beauty" . Merchants buy to sell, but we get the sense, in this short parable, that this merchant wants this pearl for the pleasure of possessing it. Circumstances might force him to sell, but we expect that he will pursue even a profitable sale with great reluctance.

Part 3 The Parable of the Net

"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.

The Net. Last week we heard about the "weeds and wheat" in the same field. Today it's a net which collects "fish of every kind." The "bad" are thrown out, eventually; as were last week's weeds that an enemy sowed in the field. We can tell that the church felt it was experiencing influences from good and bad people, we know that this was the case. The message here is not to be judgemental. The slaves wanted to rip up the weeds right away (13: 24-30), the householder orders them to wait. They really don't know what they are doing and will rip up the valuable grain in its early stages. Let things wait until another group who will know better, the "harvesters," do the sorting.

It's the same with the net that gathers both acceptable and unacceptable fish. When the full net is finally pulled in, then sorting will happen by God, not us! We perhaps want to protest that we know now who the trouble makers are, lets get rid of them! Let's streamline the church to be a better operating, more exemplary group of disciples who better reflect God's holiness. But Jesus spells out his plan and his assurance quite clearly, leave it to God.

This parable makes essentially the same points as the Parable of the Weeds. The lessons are that judgment belongs, not to the disciples, but to God.

In this parable, a dragnet scoops up all sorts of fish, both good and bad. God does not make us responsible for keeping out riff-raff, but delegates the separation of the evil from the righteous to the angels at the end of time.

So, as much as we think we know how to get things in shape, how to plant, maintain and gather the harvest better--- how to get our teachings, church life and liturgical practices uniform and with 100% agreement---it is just not in our hands. We'll do our best at discipleship. We'll guide other members as best we can and teach our children to be faithful followers. But we will avoid rash judgment and impatience based on our own distinctions of right and wrong church behaviour and membership. Later, at the end, when God directs the sorting process, we might be surprised at who, after all, were the truly acceptable disciples. Maybe not the "fish" we had in mind.

Conclusion

We all have to rethink our treasures, run an honest eye over the landscape of our own lives. What do we consider special and valuable? Are they really so valuable in the light of buying the field with its treasure? What sacrifice must I make to refocus my life for a better treasure? What is your treasure? Where is your treasure? It would be a good thing to take an actual survey on these questions. We would continue by asking: "Is your treasure an accumulation of money? A beautiful house? An heirloom?" "Is your treasure a loved one, a spouse, a child, a grandchild?" "What is your treasure?" Have I overinvested in work and career

In one way or another, a lot of us have invested in a "field". But is that where the lasting treasure truly lies for me? Will I go to dig up that treasure someday in my field and find it gone? Valueless? Or, no longer worth the time and effort I put into it?

It is well worth putting everything else you thought was valuable aside. pull out all the stops. These parables are not about half measures, compromises and putting off decisions.

These may sound like casual questions, but they are vital according to today's lessons. In a world where bigger is better, where materialism reigns and fear has gripped so many of the comfortable people, these questions matter enormously.

The Christian life is often thought of as a sacrifice, a cross to be carried, and that is right. Yet this message has to be balanced as well by the parables today which remind us that Jesus considers the kingdom of heaven to be a treasure so wonderful that we can joyfully sacrifice everything to possess it and not end up being disappointed.

Bible Readings and Notes  for 28th June 2002

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