Sunday 30th July 2017
Sermon on Matthew 13. 31-33 and 44-52.
Well, we have some very interesting scriptures this morning, we see Jacob the deceiver, deceived, and from Romans, some of Paul’s most loved and memorised teachings, showing us that whatever happens, God is in control and we have the victory in Christ. That could be the sermon in a nutshell!!
But these parables of Jesus, what is He saying? What does it mean to us? Jesus’ parables are often allegorised to fit our Christian faith and ignore their Jewish context so let’s look at these wonderful stories as if we are with Jesus on those dusty warm, Palestinian hills, not too hard to imagine at the moment here in Spain.
Jesus wanted to grab the attention of the people who came daily, waiting for His words and more than ever, His miracles. He wanted them to think, maybe feel uncomfortable and ask questions of themselves. Their idea of the coming of the Kingdom of God which Jesus spoke about so earnestly was so very different from His. They saw a Messiah, the anointed one, coming to overthrow the Roman Empire and restore Israel to its former glory; free, independent and prosperous with God’s reign supreme and their lives blessed and happy. They had had this before and they blew it, and now they longed for their Messiah to come and regain what had been lost. Jesus’ view was very different.
So His first parable, the mustard seed. Jesus must have spoken this with a twinkle in His eye and tongue in cheek as He watched the people scratch their heads! The mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed and it certainly doesn’t grow into a massive tree to give a home to many birds. It is a shrub, a herb, growing to maximum of maybe 6 plus feet, with thin branches which only the smallest of birds could land on. This isn’t just about “great things from small beginnings”, the church growing from the testimony of a few uneducated men but a much deeper truth. The Jews were used to much grander symbols of success, “the noble cedar” of Ezekiel, or Daniel’s comparison of Babylon to a mighty tree, “The tree grew and was strong and its height reached to the skies and its sight to the ends of all the earth. The leaves were beautiful and its fruit much and in it was food for all....animals lived in its shadow, birds lived in its branches and all flesh was fed from it” Now that is a real symbol of a powerful, successful Kingdom. Was Jesus having a bit of fun with His listeners?
What was He saying? Let’s look at the woman and her Leaven, baking her bread, a very common every day event in Jewish homes. It is the woman here who starts this process. Leaven for the Jews was not the yeast we know today. It was a chunk of rotting, mouldy old bread, left from a previous batch; it was considered corrupted, unclean and there was none to be found in the house before Passover; it was referred to negatively to say something was no good, defiled and rotten. And the woman didn’t mix the Leaven, Jesus said she “hid” it in the flour, so for the listening audience this would make them think something furtive was going on. Something bad infiltrating the good. And the quantity of flour! Three measures would make bread for 150-200 people! Maybe another example of a little making a lot?
Or was Jesus saying, God doesn’t act in the worldly ways we expect, He brings in His kingdom against the backdrop of seeming failure or weakness and things the world considers worthless, like a cross for example?
And so to the Treasure in the field and the pearl of great value. In Jesus’ day, a family’s wealth and precious objects were often buried to keep them safe from soldiers’ greedy acquisition, thieves or even relatives who claimed their rights. It was a common occurrence and one the listeners would have nodded to. Also the Law said whoever found the treasure, it was theirs through the finding.
Pearls were also much sought after and living by fishing, many would be drawn up and to find a beautiful pearl within the catch was rare and wonderful good fortune. They understood Jesus here. But did they? Many have taken these parables to represent the cost of discipleship, looking at the rich young man who left sadly as he was unwilling to give up his wealth to follow Jesus. I can see this could be so, giving up everything to possess the treasures of the Kingdom but I also struggle a little with this thought. I understand Jesus wanted His followers to realise the cost of discipleship and for our heart to be where our treasure is. However, for me, the Kingdom of God is without price and is something we cannot buy, it is a gift of grace, so what if, just what if, we are the treasure, we are the pearl? Paul says that God chose us from the very beginning, He wanted us to share His Kingdom and Jesus, “to buy” what God treasured most, and here the Greek word is “to redeem” in the original translation, gave up everything and died for us to be one with Him and to enter His Kingdom and know the joys of citizenship or sonship as Paul says.
What a thought, what an encouragement, we are that precious treasure, pearls without price. Think about it and if no other thought remains from this morning, remember this one thing, you are much desired and loved of God, so much that Jesus came to redeem the family treasure, us!
Jesus ends with the fisherman and the sorting of his catch, again a very familiar sight for everyone who was listening. The sorting was very deliberate and the fisherman knew what they were looking for. Like the EU Fishing Regulations of today, our Lord had given the children of Israel fishing limitations and the fish, named in Leviticus as inedible, were discarded. It was something which every fisherman knew he must do and he had guidelines to follow to obey God’s Law.
And so in the last days, Jesus says, the angels will come to sort out the righteous from the wicked, our lives will make it clear who is to live in God’s Kingdom and who isn’t. But Jesus gives us a lovely message here. It is the angels who do the sorting on God’s bidding, not us. Like the fishermen, we caste our nets wide and our churches will be filled with all sorts of people; some will love the Lord, others will not, but we are to be inclusive and accepting, not judging others but welcoming them in with the hope that, like the corrupting Leaven or the insignificant little mustard shrub, God will turn our expectations upside down and that which seems to spoil will bring an amazing abundant gift, and that which the world sees as unimportant will provide encouragement and success.
Jesus ended these teachings with a mention of the scribes or teachers of things of the Kingdom, and says we must use the treasure of Jesus’ new teachings but also what was revealed in the Old Testament. “Things hidden from the foundation of the world”. which Jesus takes from Psalm 78. Jesus used the treasure container of the Old Testament teachings to underline the new way, His way, Jesus is the Way. He often said “you have heard, but I say.” He wants those who teach to bring out His joy, His inclusiveness and His revealing of the Kingdom of God to those who are seeking not the Pharisees’ way of exclusion and bondage to the Law. God’s ways may be hidden in unexpected ways, like Leaven and like a small shrub, we need eyes to see, so Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit as spoken about by Paul. He helps us understand these formerly hidden truths.
Jesus was a delightful and funny teacher at times, earnest though His message was. He made people think, He made them question and look at things differently. I can see the mischief in His eyes, His use of hyperbole and irony, He turned things upside down and He must have been so captivating to sit and listen to. But His message is hard hitting too. There will come a time of reckoning when the successfulness of the world’s powerful and mighty will come under scrutiny; when simple faithful people will enter the Kingdom with joy, when those who have lived without this world’s wealth will find their place of plenty.
We as a church must be ready; we must live by Kingdom principles not worldly ones, always looking at the unexpected ways our God works. We may worship in a tiny borrowed chapel but we have been built up by God Himself for His purpose. We know His presence here, and we know Him as Father just as Jesus did. We may look at the world and despair sometimes; others ask “where is your God?” How do we answer? And Jesus smiles and shakes His head with love because maybe we are looking at the wrong things in the wrong places. And maybe we don’t see ourselves as the immensely precious treasures we are. We don’t need to judge, God will do that, we don’t need to be the biggest tree, just available to be what He can use best. That troublesome Jew the Romans crucified and His rag tag band of followers have turned the world upside down just as we sing, and 2000 years on His church is growing and His teaching endures, and the mighty Roman Empire? Gone, history and crumbling ruins. God turns things around and makes the unexpected and impossible happen.
God’s kingdom is about joy and freedom, love and acceptance and as Paul so rightly says, it doesn’t really matter what happens in this world, we already have the victory in Jesus. If people scoff at our faith in something unseen, that’s OK, Jesus was a King but He rode a donkey not a war horse: And if people laugh at our tiny mustard plant of a Kingdom and wonder why we suffer leaven in our bread that is fine by me. The Lord sees great value in our lives, His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts, and, maybe, that is all we need to know. Where is our God? Maybe we should look where we would least expect Him, maybe not the great Cathedrals, but the tiny borrowed chapel in a small Spanish village where He has found pearls and treasures of great value.
Margie Gall at Llanos
The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Church of England