“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”
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.”
Today the Lectionary offers to us a collection of Jesus’ parables:
• The mustard seed
• The leavened bread
• The treasure in the field
• The pearl of great value
• The sorting of the fish
• The scribe
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” (Verse 51)
Well, lucky them! Have we, two thousand years later, understood all this? In a way it would be surprising if we have. We have a double problem. We not only need to understand the context in which Matthew was reporting what he understood Jesus to have said, but we have inherited the legacy of centuries of preaching that have “explained” these, and other, parables, with varying degrees of success. All of this means that we can’t just take the parables, or any scripture for that matter, at face value. We need to work at it. We need to put “the little grey cells” to work. These are not the simple moral tales they seem to be. The more we “unpack” them, the more problematic, and challenging they become.
Some of these parables seem easier than others. The meaning of the mustard seed seems pretty obvious – little things can produce big results. We have a similar saying: from tiny acorns great oak trees grow. The leavening of the bread seems pretty straight-forward too – a little bit of yeast makes the loaf grow. Seems obvious enough. But wait a minute; Jews are not keen on yeast, and this parable was told to an audience of Jews. At Passover Orthodox Jews go to a great deal of trouble to rid their houses of yeast. And what sort of bread is used at the Passover meal; why, unleavened bread, of course. So, the parable makes a good point about the influence of small things, but it also seems to make a more obscure point about the result not always being good and pure. It’s a mixed message. Yes, yeast makes the bread rise, but it is a substance disapproved of. Therefore, the yeast is also a metaphor for the growth of evil in the soul. Take the meaning of the parable in its “normal” sense if you like, but know that there as another darker side to the story.
Then there is the treasure in the field. Who is this “someone”, who finds the treasure? Our quick answer is that it is you, or me. We have found the Kingdom, and we should invest in it, and make it our own. But surely this “someone” is being a bit sneaky and devious and grasping. In our society, we would be encouraged to take the treasure to the police who would try to find the owner, and only if an owner does not show up should we be allowed to take possession – and should the owner turn up, we might get a reward. Would we not prefer to see that as the model for The Kingdom – a place where honest and open dealing is the order of the day, rather than secretive opportunism?
So, what about the pearl of great value? The parable paints a picture for us of a dealer in pearls, who finds a particularly good one, and risks all to get it. A wise man, surely. A risk taker. Maybe what we might call a venture capitalist. Today, he might get together with some others and buy Virgin Airlines. We can reasonably be expected to wonder what the pearl-dealer will do with the pearl. Will he hide it away? Will he boast about it? Will he hang on to it waiting for the market in pearls to rise? Which of these behaviours would truly reflect what we might expect of those who take up residence in “The Kingdom”?
I have recently been reading a book on the economics of First Century Palestine. The author points out that Jesus was, essentially, a boy from the bush. Rarely did he enter a city, and when he did, he either expected trouble or made trouble. The author goes on to argue that, paradoxically, the places that early Christianity took root, was in the cities. The Epistles and the Gospels were written by people with an urban mind-set, it seems. Perhaps that explains this interest in entrepreneurs and risk-takers. These were not behaviours available to the rural classes, nor were they behaviours to which they might aspire.
Then we move on to the parable of the sorting of the fish. This, surely, is an agricultural theme! But, argues my commentator, it is a particularly urban view of what fishing is like. It probably doesn’t matter too much. The point is that the parable metaphorically tells of what will happen to bad folk. It’s what we want to hear, particularly in urban settings which we understand as hotbeds of wrong doing. Will there be weeping and gnashing of teeth? Who amongst us does not from time to time hope so? But our urban setting has been the location of much weeping and gnashing of teeth of late, and it is not because of evil.
Furthermore, there is a serious question to be asked concerning the net-full of fish. We assume too easily that the net represents The Church, which scoops up the shoal of fish which, in turn, stands for the company of the redeemed. But hang on. The fish die, and are all destined for the table – except the bad fish, which are rejected. And hang on again, the fish were content before they were caught, doing their fishy thing. And without the net there were no bad fish. Just fish! Do we enter The Kingdom of our own accord, or must we be caught, and then sorted? And whose plate will we end up on, anyway?
And finally, there is this business of the scribe. Surely the scribe is a servant. He is trained. He is educated. In many households in the first century he is a slave. But Jesus portrays the scribe as a master. I get that. In my time as manager in a large bureaucracy, I developed the opinion that whoever managed the website had power way above their salary level. The webmaster controlled the information and the image, and did so by being in possession of a body of esoteric knowledge available to just a few. The scribe/webmaster controls the message.
I suppose that we who preach stand in a situation rather like the scribe. We have a position of privilege. We analyse. We unpack. We explain. We proclaim. When we are at our best, we announce the Good News. There’s no great mystery about what that Good News is: it is that Jesus Saves!
That’s it! The rest is cream on the cake. So, when we read the scriptures, including the parables, we need to approach them with this good news in mind. Where is the saving Grace of Jesus in the image of the mustard seed? What good news should the investor or the entrepreneur or the labourers in the field be hearing about the saving Grace of Jesus. Of what relevance to our complex society is the notion of sorting the good from the bad. Can the Church rid itself of the notion that it is God’s sorting machine? Can we be part of the solution to the ills of the world rather than judgmental gatekeepers?
This little bunch of parables is not a collection of cute moral tales. We ought not to come to the end of them feeling that we now know what life in The Kingdom is all about. Rather we should read them as excerpts from real life. They portray the good and the bad. They show us at our worst and at our best. They offer us a critique of our actions. They challenge us, again and again.