The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez
Is it just me, or are you getting tired of parables too? Matthew’s Gospel contains the most parables of all the Gospels, but the fact is that most of them are the “B-side parables.” They’re not the ones you bought the record for. Those parables are all in Luke. Prodigal Son—Only in Luke. Lost Coin—Only in Luke. Rich Man and Lazarus—Only in Luke. Pharisee and the Tax Collector—Only in Luke. The Rich Fool—Only in Luke. What Matthew gives us is quantity, rather than quality. Like this morning, where we heard five short parables in rapid succession. It’s a little unnerving. Unlike the longer parables that we hear in Luke’s Gospel, these five parables, the last four of which are unique to Matthew, don’t tell a story. They don’t have an explanation attached. We’re just told, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” And it’s like so many things that it can be hard to see what they have in common, isn’t it?
There is a common thread between these five parables though, but it’s not one that you or I would easily identify, separated as we are from Jesus’ words by two thousand years. There’s some nuances that we’re missing.
To begin with, did you know that mustard was not valued as a spice in ancient Palestine? These mustard plants, which grow so quickly from such a small seed, were viewed as weeds by the people Jesus told that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. I know that some of you are avid gardeners, and you’d appreciate how Jesus’ first audience felt if I were to stand up before you this morning and begin my sermon, “The kingdom of heaven is like kudzu.” No one wants kudzu. No one wanted mustard. And the birds? Forget the birds. Just a few verses ago, when Jesus told the parable of the sower, the birds were stand-ins for the devil and his angels, snatching the word of God from people. Birds are not generally a reputable sign in the Bible.
Yeast is similarly disreputable. In fact, this is the only positive references to yeast in the Bible. Everywhere else it’s viewed as a contaminant—since you couldn’t just pick up a jar of Red Star Yeast from the corner store, you had to let old bread dough ferment to get yeast. Jesus has recently told his disciples to beware the yeast of the Pharisees, using yeast as a metaphor for false teaching. Now yeast is a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven!
The next two parables are just as bad. The parable of the treasure hidden in a field sounds good at first. The kingdom of heaven is a costly treasure, and we should sell everything we have to get it. That sounds nice. Respectable. The sort of thing you go to church to hear, right? But let’s read it again, carefully: The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells everything that he has and buys that field. What Jesus is actually describing is someone digging for buried treasure in his neighbor’s backyard. And when he finds treasure, he goes and buys the house, neglecting to tell his neighbor the property’s real value. This is a parable about someone practicing shady business, if not outright thievery.
The parable of the pearl of great price is similar. The piece we’re missing there is how Jesus audience would have viewed merchants. The merchant in this parable isn’t anything like the fine, upstanding businessman or woman of today. No, if Jesus were to tell us this parable using modern day language, he’d say something like, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a used car salesman…” People used to assume that a rich merchant had gotten rich by cheating other people. And the kingdom of heaven is like that?
The final parable of the set is the least objectionable, and even it’s a bit fishy. There’s nothing dishonest about it, but no one really aspired to be a fisherman in those days. It was hard work, and you were at the mercy of fish. I can’t be sure about this, but there might have been a popular song back in those days, “Mommas, don’t let your boys grow up to be fishermen…”
So what are we to do with disreputable parables? What is Jesus trying to tell us? None of them describe the way that we typically imagine heaven: fluffy clouds, angels flying around strumming harps. Maybe that’s the point. Jesus isn’t talking about heaven, about some future state of bliss. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign on earth. You know, the one we pray for: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Maybe we need that reminder that the kingdom of heaven is amongst us, here and now. It’s often in unexpected places. We should assume that it is. After all, its king was born in a manger, not a palace. Should we be surprised that we can find the kingdom among gardens and kitchens, in backyards and in used car lots, even at the end of a fishing pole? The kingdom of heaven is revealed among us, in the last places we’d choose to look. Anyone who’s served breakfast at Our Daily Bread or lunch at Paul’s Place knows that. We see Jesus in the least of these: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The kingdom of heaven is a thoroughly disreputable place, at least by the world’s standards. But in this kingdom, all are free and all are loved, simply because all are made in God’s own image. Thank God for the disreputable kingdom of heaven, because, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’d make it into a thoroughly reputable one. May God give us eyes to see the kingdom of heaven already around us, and hands to help it come more fully on earth, as it already is in heaven. Amen.