July 30, 2017 8th Sunday of Pentecost
Genesis 29:15–28 Romans 8:26–39 Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52
While looking at all these examples of the kingdom of heaven I wondered: What do they have in common other than the fact that they are examples of the kingdom of heaven?
My first thought was: they relate to things that people would normally find in their environment, work that people would normally do, and places that they would normally be.
For instance, the mustard plant is the dandelion weed of the Middle East. Like the dandelion it grows everywhere. It has teeny-tiny seeds that get into cracks and between rocks, and then grows into a scrawny bush that everyone would have around their house or in their garden.
Yeast is something that a woman would deal with every day to make bread, a staple food that people would eat every day.
People might not have had gold and silver treasures in their fields, but the land of Israel was lived in for centuries before Jesus and, just as kids sometimes dig up arrowheads here, people would dig up old pots, weapons, or other things on occasions. I can’t tell you how much old pottery and toys Michael and I have dug up in our garden, not to mention the garbage we have found!
Pearls weren’t common, but people knew that they were found by divers who were mining oysters – and to the Romans they were the diamonds of the 1st century. Pearls were definitely a commodity that a merchant would deal in if you lived near the Mediterranean Sea, so probably a lot of Jewish merchants had access to them. And a lot of people were fishermen so they would know about fish and nets, the diversities of a catch, and that you had to sort out the edible from the un-edible fish.
So the first thing that comes to mind is that Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven is surrounding us right now in the common things and events of our lives. It seems that we can find the Kingdom easily if we just shift our perspective and start to appreciate and be grateful for the little things that God gives us and give us joy, like nature, bread, unexpected finds, beautiful objects, and the foods we eat.
Another facet of these parables is that the Kingdom of God seems to be for everyone. These parables are inclusive because everyone would have had mustard seed plants in their garden or around their house. Women are included, which is interesting because a common conservative view was that God valued a man’s connection over a women’s, and that women were connected to God through their male associations. Then Jesus mentions farmers, merchants and fishermen, which pretty much covers about 95% of the Jewish male population, but the ones who would not have a lot of political power. There is even a hint of foreigners being included because Jewish people couldn’t come into contact with shellfish, since it was one of the forbidden foods. Only gentiles could harvest the oysters and eat them, which is how they would find the pearls. So God’s kingdom is suggested to be far more inclusive, and existing for the common people, rather than just the Hebrew people or the nobility and people in power.
But then I began to realize that above all those meanings, that all these examples are hidden items.
Wild mustard seeds are so tiny that they are practically invisible. You can’t distinguish them from a piece of dust when they get picked up and blown on the breeze. And yet you can see the result of their planting. They turn places that are desert or rocky, where nothing else will grow, into areas of green, with flowers for bees, and food for goats, and leaves and spices for people’s food. Even if you were poor you could eat wild mustard greens.
You can’t see yeast. Today we buy yeast from the story in packets, but yeast is actually present in the air around us. A woman would grow yeast by mixing water and flour in a jar and in about a week the yeast would start to bubble and grow in the mixture. She then would take a measure out of the jar and mix it into more flour and water to make bread. You can’t see the yeast but you can see what it does and it can be used with a whole bunch of different grains to produce something really yummy and nutritious.
The treasure hidden in the field is a little more complicated. First a person finds the treasure, maybe while he was working the field or he could have found it outside of the field. But he hides it in the field again. And then he goes and sells everything he has to raise the money to buy to field that he hid the treasure in. I had to think about this one for a while, and then I realized that when we do find out what God’s Kingdom is we need to claim it for ourselves. Not in a selfish way, but recognizing that that it is valuable to us, that we want to be a part of it, and that we are going to be responsible for it. Because when you buy that field you are accepting responsibility for its management and development. We claim our part in God’s Kingdom by accepting a responsibility for developing God’s kingdom. And we should joyously put everything we have into that development because we know that God’s Kingdom is the ultimate good thing in the universe.
Pearls are also hidden, and random, and take time to be made. Not every oyster has a pearl; not every oyster has a well-formed pearl; not every oyster has a big pearl; and not every oyster has a beautiful colored pearl. But every once in a while you get an oyster with a pearl that is well-formed, big, and very beautiful. But those pearls take time to grow. This is why wisdom is equated with pearls. Pearls of wisdom are thoughts that are well-formed, well-thought out, encompass what needs to be said, and convey a beauty of knowledge. Wisdom takes work and time to develop. Like the oyster, you need to work, sometimes for years, on cultivating your mind and your spirit. The person who is looking for the Kingdom of Heaven is actually looking for a hidden wisdom that will lead them to God. And when that person finally finds how to have God in their life, they gladly give what they have to continue to have God in their life. And they will treat that connection like the precious commodity that it is, because they know that nothing is more valuable than being and living in God’s love.
Fish in the sea are also hidden. Fishermen can sometimes see fish, if they are close enough to the surface, but for the most part a fisherman just casts his net into the water and brings up what he can. It’s always a surprise. Christ says that the net is the Kingdom. The net attracts and pulls up all different kinds of people. Not just Hebrews but people from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia: All those different people are included in the kingdom. But then the fisherman sits in the boat and sorts the good fish from the bad fish. Now I’m sure a lot of people thought that at first Jesus was talking about the obvious distinction: Jews vs. Gentiles. But then Jesus says that the angels will separate out the evil people from the righteous people. It is not what is on our surface, what we look like, that God cares about – it is what is hidden in our heart that God looks at.
Jesus finishes this string of parables with an interesting sentence: “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.” Suddenly we have a scribe – Why a scribe? Well, although scribes were people who knew how to read and write, and therefore functioned as secretaries in an age when many people couldn’t read and write well: scribe could also be a word meaning a general teacher. So Jesus is saying that every scribe, who has been first a student, and has worked diligently to understand God and his relationship to us and the world, is going to bring the treasured wisdom of God to us. Not only the traditional wisdom, but they are also going to be conveying what they have learned that is new.
Like mustard seeds and yeast, knowledge and wisdom of God is always growing for us. Like the treasure and the pearl it is hidden, so we need to look for it. And it’s also valuable, so we need to take responsibility for it and claim it as our own. And like the net it’s universal for all people and all ideas, but we must discern which are good people and ideas to associate with, and which are bad.
God’s Kingdom is there for all of us, but it’s going to take time, practice, study, learning, and dedication to find it. It is the revealing work of a life-time, the treasure of eternity, and it’s out there for us to find. And Jesus is the map to get to it, so follow him and let him lead you to the Kingdom.