Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples proclaim the good news that “the kingdom of heaven is near!” Here, Jesus offers several brief parables that explore the implications of this announcement for people’s lives.
31[Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;32it 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.”
33He 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; 46on 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; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and 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.” 52And 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.”
It’s hard to talk about believing in God. Faith and trust in this relationship I have with the God who created me and everything else in the world and with his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit – this is hard to describe. Have you ever tried to describe an experience you had? To put words to something you felt deep inside. Like returning to a place that holds deep meaning for you. Like leaping from a cliff. Like falling deeply in love. Like looking up at the stars. Like…
You’d think of all people, Jesus would be able to speak about a relationship with God. And he does at length. All of the times he talked about the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God – he’s talking about what it’s like to live in that relationship. What it’s like to dwell in God’s presence. And using our limited human language to describe the divine – he describes it in the language of metaphor. One after another, as though he doesn’t want us to dwell too long with any one description or delve too deeply into any one scene or get stuck in one mode of thinking about the kingdom – but continue to be surprised and caught off guard by the number and variety. Jesus uses ordinary imagery in his parables and metaphors. There’s nothing mystical or mysterious he describes. But there’s always a twist. There’s always a shock or a surprise.
The last verse of this passage is extremely interesting to me – and I think serves to tie it all together in a lop-sided bow. “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.” When we read these parables – when we think about the kingdom of heaven in our midst, we look towards the common and ordinary and are surprised by a fresh take on it. Something traditional being used in a new way. Something basic that hides a nugget of truth behind it.
So here’s some tradition. Planting a mustard seed in your garden was against the rules of being Jewish. There were prescribed things that you could and could not plant in a garden together – one of the things that you should not plant is mustard. For a variety of reasons including its ability to choke out other plants – but mostly because it was considered a weed, and it introduced disorder and a mixing of “clean and unclean” elements into your tidy garden. And being Jewish according to the book, is about how you order your life. And according to one commentary, “Living a Jewish life means living a life that witnesses to the stable and orderly love of God in all things. Planting a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life” So what’s Jesus getting at?
Many interpreters suggest that this gospel of Matthew was written to a Jewish audience – and with that in mind perhaps we can shed some light on the final verses meaning for them and for us. It is very likely that this distinction between new and old refers to the relationship between the distinctive vision of Jesus and the Jewish tradition that formed both Jesus and the earliest Christian communities. The parable affirms the value of both. There is value to order and there is value to surprise. There is value to tradition and there is value in cracking open that tradition to get to the truth inside.
Think about the master of the household at the end of the text. bringing out of his treasure what is new and what is old. Let’s freshen that up a bit. Think about the truth suggested by the parable. Let’s picture a couple hosting a small dinner party in their home. They decide to serve a traditional French dinner with a vintage Bordeaux collected from a recent vacation, but for dessert they experiment with an exotic new recipe, to which a Thai neighbor had recently introduced them. They listen to their prized Sinatra records during dinner. After dinner, they sit outside and hook up speakers for their iPhone and try a new brew from a new local microbrewery. Out of the resources they have gathered and stored, the couple brings out things both new and old for the delight of their guests.
The “scribe” (perhaps in this text literally one who has been trained to teach the Jewish law) who is also “trained for the kingdom of heaven” is able to bring out of a well-stocked storehouse of learning, reflection, and experience resources for the nourishment of the community both from tradition and from the new vision to which Jesus bore witness.
How do we live out these parables in our community? Being receptive to both the new and the old, to the commonsense tradition and to the radical subversive hospitality and welcome that Jesus speaks of can take some practice.
This is one of the great difficulties of being a Christian – living in the tension of tradition and the new thing that God is doing. Living in the tension between Law and Gospel… Living in the tension of we’ve always done it this way and maybe God is calling us to something new. Telling the old old story, teaching the timeless truths – and then being willing to see the surprising places that takes you.
After planting your garden a certain way for your whole life, would you be willing to plant something that just might wreck your nice neat ordered rows and take over? Would you be willing to start a new ministry that just might cause others to cease and be really unmanageable for the sake of the Gospel? Would you be willing to give it all up for – to get rid of everything else – for the sake of the treasure of the Gospel?
I’ve read that being a Christian is like learning to play jazz. Unless you’re some super prodigy, it starts with learning scales. It starts with the building blocks and the basics of music theory. It starts the traditional way that all musicians must start, learning how chords are put together, and how tempo and rhythm and volume and tone affect the music. You learn your instrument backwards and forwards. You learn what every notation on the page means, you learn to play quietly and loudly, you learn to take direction, and play well with others.
And then and only then, you can start to experiment. You take those scales and break them apart and put them back together. You play the guitar with your teeth. You make weird sounds with your voice. You pound on that piano. You close your eyes and settle into an unseen rhythm and feel your way through a riff with your bandmates. You do a surprising thing with what you have learned, and it makes a connection. It becomes an experience like nothing that has ever been played before or will be played again, and the tune sticks with you. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. Amen.
Pastor Erin Evans