Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 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.’ 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.’
‘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. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 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.’
Grace to you and peace, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Before I get into this message, I want to say that these passages could be, and perhaps should be, talked about for much longer than I have. But don’t worry. I’m not going to unpack each individual parable, analyze each analogy, and leave you swimming in information that has little bearing on your life. Well…at least I won’t try to.
Instead, I want to describe a few situations and see if you can find a connection between them. A young man nervously stands in a jewelry shop looking for the perfect ring for a young woman, wondering how in the world he’s going to pop the big question and praying that the answer is an elated, exuberant “Yes!” A mother of 3 children is looking at the calendar, wondering how in the world she will be able to drop off her 3 kids at soccer practice, piano lessons, and the swimming pool at the same time all across town. A family of farmers trying to figure out what to plant in their fields in order to take good care of the soil that has been hit so hard by drought the last few years. An elderly couple is wondering how they are going to take care of each other as mobility and health problems become an issue. Finally, 20,000 people ride into town on bicycles, looking for a place to stay, eat, and have fellowship with one another. Sound familiar? What do they all have in common? Each have a problem to solve. There is a solution to whatever problem is set before them, but often the answer is hidden. It takes some prying and different perspectives to get it all put together. It takes some creative thinking!
Jesus, in telling these parables, is also thinking very creatively. If you’ve been paying attention these last few weeks, you’ll have noticed a trend that parables have been in the foreground in these texts. In fact, from what we can tell, Jesus is still in that boat, talking to the same crowds gathered on the beach that he started talking to 3 weeks ago! And his final series of parables, he describes the kingdom of heaven. Of course, I’m sure it would have been easier to just say, “This is what the kingdom of heaven is this.” But Jesus didn’t do that and many have speculated as to why. How could he describe the perfect kingdom of heaven to people who have no idea what perfection looks like? In my eyes, Jesus was thinking creatively to tell the parables, finding God in the everyday things of this world, the dirt, weeds, plants, bread, and fields, because the kingdom of God takes creative thinking. It takes some puzzling over. It requires looking at ordinary things from different angles, sometimes pleading with it and other times, if we’re honest, impatiently commanding it to reveal itself.
And, as we’re thinking creatively, we begin to see what ties these parables together. The mustard seed, the yeast, and the fields with treasure are all ordinary things and they all hide something. We cannot see the seed once the shrub is grown from it. The yeast cannot be seen once it has been mixed into the dough. The treasure in the field is hidden until the merchant basically stubs his toe on it. The kingdom of God may begin to look like this world, but maybe not always act like this world. I want to say that again, the kingdom of God may begin to look like this world, but maybe not always act like this world. In a world of war and famine, drought and disease, plane crashes and suicide bombings, I think it’s safe to say that the kingdom of God can be quite hidden from our eyes. If it’s there at all, we can have a really hard time finding it.
Yes, it’s pretty easy to see that the kingdom of God has yet to fully arrive. We may see glimpses of it, though at this point we do not see it fully. We can strive to live up to it, but will always struggle with sin and temptation. We may yearn for its coming and at times feel it’s here, but are unable to make it a permanent reality. These little glimpses have a name. It’s one of the $5 seminary words I learned last year. It’s called prolepsis and it means that we can speak of something, know something, or get a glimpse of something before it actually happens. In a similar way that we can make predictions about weather or crops based on previous knowledge and various signs, we can make predictions about the kingdom of God only though what is experienced in this imperfect, broken world.
And Jesus knew that was the case. God knows that we cannot make the kingdom of God the reality on earth. So Jesus, in a brilliantly creative move, put himself in the parable. Did you catch it? It’s in the part about the merchant selling everything he has for the pearl hidden in the field. Let me read it again:
‘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. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
You see? Did you catch it this time? All this time, we’ve been trying to be the first merchant who bought field in order to get the one pearl. We try to control our sin, give up our lives, carry our cross, bear each other’s burdens, and love one another. We may sell everything we have to get the field and that’s not a bad thing. You need to hear that: that is not a bad thing. However, we need to understand what comes first. We need to remember the second merchant who goes out and searches for fine pearls, giving up everything while seeking this great treasure. And, like our Romans (Romans 8.26-39) text says, this merchant will not be turned away from his pearls. Neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, things present nor things to come, height nor depth, powers nor anything else in all creation will stop the merchant from finding his pearls.
Jesus is that merchant who found pearls in the midst of a dirty field. Jesus in the merchant is in search of fine pearls. God, in joy, came down from heaven to earth to seek those that are lost. God finds us in our weakness and strengthens us by the Holy Spirit’s groans and by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus sold all he had to find and redeem his pearls. God left heaven, left the kingdom of heaven that he spoke of and which we want to see so desperately. He became a man who was tempted, who suffered, who gave up everything so that you and I could be found. You are God’s pearl. You are one whom God was willing to give everything for. You are God’s pearl.
So, maybe Jesus, here, isn’t giving us a guilt trip, telling us we have too much stuff to experience the joy of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus isn’t wagging his finger saying, “Why don’t you give more money to church?” or “When was the last time you set aside time to read the Bible and pray?” Jesus here seems to be saying, today and always, that you are treasured so much that God, the infinite creator, was willing to give everything to purchase you, justify you in the court of salvation, and adopt you as a child. This comes before, not after, our lives line up with what the kingdom of God is because our lives will never fully line up with the kingdom of heaven. If our entry into God’s family was based on our merit, none of us would be in it. Before we can take up our cross, Christ took his cross for us. Before we give our time, money, skills, and energy, we remember that Christ gave everything for us. Before we can seek that field with the hidden treasure, we have been found by a merchant looking for pearls all over the world.
Once we have that figured out, the kingdom of heaven is maybe not as distant as we might think. Jesus has shown us through both his parables and the events of his life what the kingdom of God looks like. By the creative thinking and the Holy Spirit’s stirring of God’s people around the world, people are fed and homes are built, relationships are mended and addictions are battled, diseases are fought and peace is sought. You see, the kingdom of God, like these parables, is hidden and takes creative thinking to find it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be seen. It can be found in the singing of a simple prayer service, like the one we had here Wednesday night with a few of the cyclists. It is found in serving those who are the nomads of our world, whether they come in the form of RAGBRAI riders for a week, refugees, or the displaced homeless. In comes in opening the doors of our church because we understand that God has opened the gates of heaven to us. Yes, it can be messy. Yes, it can be exhausting. Yes, it can be scary. Anybody who has stepped out in faith can tell you that. But yes, it is totally worth it. The kingdom of heaven is not some distant place in a different time. The kingdom of heaven is happening now. So remember, be aware, keep your eyes opened because, with a little creative thinking and the right perspective, the everyday events of this world become a way for the kingdom of heaven to silently, gracefully, march through the brokenness of our and come into plain view, even if it’s only for a moment. Amen.