July 24, 2011
Sunday Between July 24 and July 30 Inclusive
Proper 12, Ordinary Time 17
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, The Message or Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
Click here, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this note.
The text gives us 5 ways to imagine the Kingdom of Heaven (more specifically: God's will being done on earth as it is in Heaven):
- like a mustard seed;
- like yeast (leaven) in flour;
- like treasure hidden in a field;
- like a priceless pearl;
- like a net that catches all kinds of fish.
That is probably 4 images too many for one sermon.
A key to interpreting Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven is that there is almost always a reversal from our current social practices and customs:
- The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
- Anyone who seeks to save their life must lose it.
are two good examples.
So how is a mustard seed like the Kingdom of Heaven?
Well for one thing it is small instead of mighty; and it is mostly considered a weed instead of a desirable crop.
Being a weed means it grows in places where it is not welcome, nor cultivated. And being a weed means it is characteristically outside of human control; weeds do not require our assistance or participation in their coming into being and growth.
And for another thing the mustard shrub is hardly up to the prevailing plant image for the Kingdom of Heaven - the mighty cedar trees of Lebanon.
So how is leaven hidden in three measures (50 pounds) of flour by a woman like the Kingdom of Heaven?
Well, for one thing, UNleavened bread is what is associated with Passover and the messianic hope. Leaven is associated with corruption and impurity; with ordinary everyday life.
And for another thing (or two), the amount of flour is extravagant, perhaps wasteful, since it would be difficult for a peasant to bake and consume such a large amount of bread before it would go bad (because of the yeast in it).
And the Kingdom is being compared to women's work, to domestic activity.
So how is a treasure hidden in a field like the Kingdom of Heaven?
Well, for one thing, just as the yeast was hidden in the flour, so the treasure is hidden in the field.
Those who found (by accident) treasure hidden in fields were field workers, i.e., peasants, and not the land owners. That a peasant would actually have enough possessions to sell to earn enough to buy the field is a moot point.
The "moral" of the story might be: the Kingdom of Heaven is so fabulous you would give everything you had for it. And it is that fabulous, isn't it?
So how is a pearl of great value like the Kingdom of Heaven?
Well for one thing, it means that even those who are accustomed to finding and trading fine things might still encounter a life-changing experience. Even those involved in the church all their lives might still be transformed in ways beyond their imagining.
So how is a net that catches all kinds of fish like the Kingdom of Heaven?
Well for one thing a net is something that works below the surface; hidden; out of sight.
And for another thing, it is not selective; it catches everything.
The separating of the fish into "good" and "bad" fish is stated in a flat-footed way not typical of Jesus. So one wonders how much this might have been a later elaboration.
For my take on this business of rewarding the good guys and killing the bad guys, see my earlier comments on the parable of the field with both weeds and wheat.
Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, see link below, pages 75-78.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 (NRSV)
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."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 (The Message)
31 Another story. "God's kingdom is like a pine nut that a farmer plants. 32 It is quite small as seeds go, but in the course of years it grows into a huge pine tree, and eagles build nests in it."
33 Another story. "God's kingdom is like yeast that a woman works into the dough for dozens of loaves of barley bread—and waits while the dough rises."
44 "God's kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field for years and then accidently found by a trespasser. The finder is ecstatic—what a find!—and proceeds to sell everything he owns to raise money and buy that field.
45 "Or, God's kingdom is like a jewel merchant on the hunt for excellent pearls. 46 Finding one that is flawless, he immediately sells everything and buys it.
47 "Or, God's kingdom is like a fishnet cast into the sea, catching all kinds of fish. 48 When it is full, it is hauled onto the beach. The good fish are picked out and put in a tub; those unfit to eat are thrown away. 49 That's how it will be when the curtain comes down on history. The angels will come and cull the bad fish 50 and throw them in the garbage. There will be a lot of desperate complaining, but it won't do any good."
51 Jesus asked, "Are you starting to get a handle on all this?"
They answered, "Yes."
52 He said, "Then you see how every student well-trained in God's kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
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