1 Kings 3:5-12 | Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Ben Myers, author of the deservedly popular blog “Faith and Theology” wrote recently that preaching on parables is like trying to explain a joke: no matter how well you do it, it’s not the same as getting it. He went on to give ten rules for preachers tackling the parables. A few of them seemed particularly relevant as we continue to explore the parables in Matthew’s gospel today:
If you feel perfectly confident and untroubled while expounding the parable, you’re probably doing it wrong.
If Jesus seems more like a headmaster giving orders than like a comedian cracking jokes, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Finally, if you’ve preached a lousy sermon, just remember: as long as the parable was read aloud before you started, it won’t be a total loss.
So with those rules in mind, we come to a whole set of mini bite-sized parables; sort of parablettes, really; clustered together, speaking of the kingdom of God.
But before we look at them, we jump back a thousand years, to the story of King Solomon. Solomon, of course, was famous for his great wisdom; less famous for the fact that he is reported as having seven hundred wives, which, honestly, doesn’t sound all that wise to me.
But then again, Solomon only asked God for wisdom “to govern God’s people” – perhaps he didn’t get the sort of wisdom that tells you that if one wife is good, seven hundred wives is not seven hundred times better.
But I digress…
Solomon asked for wisdom to rule well. Now he was a man already well versed in the law of Moses; he knew the rules – wasn’t, perhaps, always good at keeping them, but he knew them. His request therefore reveals his recognition, his understanding, that just knowing the rules wasn’t enough: that there was more to living well, ruling well, than a list of instructions, a set of propositions.
And so in Hebrew culture, the wisdom tradition emerges. And it is – as Ben Myers hinted at – a tradition heavily couched in humour. From the cutting sarcasm of the book of proverbs, to the modern day – Jewish wisdom has been wrapped in humour, to the extent that an estimated 80% of professional comedians in the united states are Jewish.
And the nature of wisdom literature, like the nature of truth wrapped in humour, is not to tell you the answer, not to tell you what to think, but to poke you, disturb you, put you off balance, so that the truth, as the poet Alice Osborn puts it, sneaks up on you sideways.
Rules give you the answer, tell you what to do. Which is great, when that’s what you need. But rules are not wisdom. At best, they are wisdom distilled for a particular situation.
Wisdom is heuristic, poetic, humourous, fuzzy.
Which is why, when we read the parables told by the rabbi Jesus we would do well not to get hung up on working them out and nailing them down.
It’s the vibe of the thing….
So I’m not going to try to tell you what the parables mean. That would pretty fundamentally miss the point. All I can do is try to add some thoughts to the mix, throw in the odd reflection, and trust that you were listening when the words were read to us.
First, then, two parables about the growth, spread, impact, if you will, of the Kingdom. Both the mustard seed and the yeast speak of something which starts small – as, clearly, the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed did – but which, in the case of the yeast, spreads out to have an effect on the flour far beyond it’s original size. And of course yeast works its magic by growing, multiplying – making more yeast – but at the same time, the flour remains flour. Yeast in flour doesn’t turn the flour into yeast – it turns unleavened flour into leavened flour. It changes the environment around it not by changing everything to be like itself, but by a much more subtle influence that takes the plain flour and enhances it, makes it into something better.
And the mustard seed – well, this is a bit strange,. Why a mustard seed? It isn’t the smallest of seeds – though it is small – and it doesn’t grow into the biggest tree. And worse than that – in first century Palestine, no-one in their right mind would plant a mustard seed in their field. The mustard shrub was a weed, something a farmer would rip up given the chance, but which spread into a chaotic mess and resisted efforts to remove it. It’s not something you planted; but it was something that grew, unruly, unpredictably, and stayed around however hard you tried to get rid of it.
And yes, it provided shelter for all the birds of the air: perhaps even those pesky birds that stole away the seed in the parable of the sower.
But see the image, and wonder about it: not for Jesus’ kingdom, the image of the tall, straight oak tree. Instead, the invasive, messy, scraggly weed…
And then, two parables about value. Actually, it’s very nearly the same parable twice: the treasure so valuable that one would give everything – all their riches – just to possess it. The only difference between the stories is that in one case someone just stumbles across the treasure unexpectedly; and in the other the merchant searches all his life to find this one thing.
I wonder which of those – if either – is your experience of the kingdom? Found by accident? Searched out? Or perhaps neither.
And I wonder too, as I read the story of the great pearl, what happens next? What does the merchant do when he has sold everything to possess this one pearl? What does he eat? Where does he live? The story is ludicrous; deliberately ludicrous. Surely there was a smile on Jesus’ face, as he described the ridiculous extravagance of those who discovered the kingdom.
And yet at the same time, how much was this kingdom worth, that almost all of the original twelve disciples – and many others – would die because of their passionate commitment to sharing it, spreading this yeasty, weedy, treasure?
And then, the last parable, the fish in the net, which, like the wheat and the weeds from last week, comes with a sting in its tail. The kingdom catches both the good fish and the bad, the wanted and the rejected; and in the end, there is a judgement.
It’s a theme most strongly found in Matthew’s gospel, the idea that there is a time of reckoning. And it’s a theme we prefer to avoid, leaving talk of judgement to those of more fundamentalist expressions of the faith.
But, as I’ve said from this place before, as we look around our world, at the conflict and mindless acts of terror; or at the abuses of power and position emerging each week in the royal commission on child abuse; or at the systematic injustices which leave so many in our world in abject poverty; or at the simple acts of mindless harm we see in the news – or in our lives; when we truly look at the world, we cannot deny the reality of evil. And indeed, even when we look honestly at ourselves, we are forced to the same conclusion.
And so we should not be afraid to speak of God as judge: not, perhaps, in the sense of the one who will punish, but in the sense of the one who will, finally, judge rightly, declare what is good and pure and worthy, and cast out what is not.
And Jesus asked “Have you understood all this?”. And they answered “yes”.
Perhaps they were comedians too.