Rev. Martha Jacobs
An Earthly Vision of God’s Realm
Psalm 103, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 30, 2017
When I last preached about mustard seeds, I talked about how small they are and how large they become once planted firmly in the ground and offer a refuge for birds. I related that to how our faith can be like that mustard seed – small but growing mighty as we grow in our faith.
Well, I was doing my research for todays’ reading, and found out that mustard seeds were not so welcome in Jesus’ time because a mustard bush is actually a weed, whose seeds sometimes found its way into the sacks of seeds that were going to be laid out and were unknowingly planted in among the neat rows of wheat, barley, beans, and the like. And not only was it a weed, but it grew into a huge bush. It disrupted the carefully planted rows of crops that were the lifeline of the farmers of Jesus’ time.
Now, this is a very different picture than we get when we hear Jesus’ words: “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.” What is he talking about? A mustard bush was considered an unmanageable weed!
And, then, in the next example, we might think that yeast is also a good thing. But, the people hearing this knew that yeast was a symbol of corruption and impurity. In the parable, according to Bible scholars, the 3 measures of flour add up to 3 gallons of leaven, which is enough to make over 100 pounds of bread. So, is Jesus saying that corruption and impurity are good?
Is it possible that Jesus is joking with them? Since he was fully human, he probably had a sense of humor, right? Think about it, a mustard seed that becomes a menacing bush in an orderly sown field and enough leaven to almost fill a small house! He had to be joking!
But wait, this gets even weirder because in the parables, God is almost always one of the people in the parable and in the one with the leaven, that would mean that Jesus portrayed God as a woman! So we have God as a female and the weedy mustard bush that will care for the birds and enough leaven to fill a small house. What is going on here?
On top of that, Jesus goes on to talk about finding treasure in a big field and about a pearl, which was of great worth, perhaps more valuable than gold! So, we go from a weed, to corruption, to joy and great worth.
And, finally, there is that large fishing net, which catches everything it can, both the good and the bad.
You know, I am not sure that when Jesus asks the disciples if they understand what he is saying that they really do understand, especially since what they looked at one way, Jesus turns into something very different.
So, here is what I think about the net, which is probably the easiest for me to interpret. In this parable, Jesus says that the large fishing net brings forth what we perceive as good and bad. I understand this as Jesus saying that God includes everyone – those with leprosy, those who are tax collectors, those who are sinners, those who are as different as the fish in the sea – the good and the bad are all taken in. And, then a decision is made, by the angels, of what is bad and what is good. Thank goodness it is not human beings that make that decision! It is the angels – God’s representatives will determine what is good and what is bad and I thank God for that!
Which tells me that God is the ultimate decision-maker – not us. And, quite frankly, I am relieved because I would not want to be the one to judge what someone else has done, good or bad. I mean, what yardstick would I use? Some say a mustard bush is a weed. But, Jesus says that it is a place for the birds to rest. Some say that leavened bread is good, others say that yeast is not so good for us.
Some say that finding a hidden treasure is good – like winning the lottery – but then the focus may become more on the money and less on the relationships – and I seem to recall hearing that a number of people who have won the lottery end up in shattered relationships – perhaps because the field of money becomes more important than the people? And then the pearl – in this parable the person sells everything in order to own that pearl…could that mean selling one’s soul as well? Again, I am glad that I am not the decision-maker.
This set of parables has a theme that runs through them. These are all down to earth, relatable ideas, which would have connected to Jesus’ audience but may not connect to us today. They are not abstract, because people didn’t think in abstract ways then. They dealt with the concrete – with life as it was for them. But, the earthly examples he uses are counter to what the norm is, at least for the mustard seed and the leaven, and the fishing net.
So for us, we may need to look at these a little differently, which is appropriate, because the word “parable” literally means “thrown alongside”. So, parables are stories that are thrown alongside life, which encourages us to compare and contrast our lives with these stories that Jesus offers. Jesus was a storyteller and invites his hearers to see something they might not otherwise see. In other words, he invites us to transform our perspective.
So, what might he be wanting us to otherwise see? I believe that Jesus is inviting us to see life in a radically new way. How we see life and how we respond to it and treat others is what Jesus was all about. So, what do we see through this set of parables?
In some ways these parables are about disruption – disrupting what we would normally expect – a net cast into the water, we would expect to bring in mostly good fish and perhaps one or two that are too small to keep. We expect crops to grow in orderly rows. We expect bread to be made in sizes we can use. We would probably not be willing to sell everything for one item, even if it is a pearl. And, hopefully, we would not try to cheat someone out of their land if we found treasure buried in it.
God disrupts our lives. God disrupts our carefully ordered, planned lives, which we don’t always see as positive. At the time, we may actually see it as a negative, if we are even aware of God in the midst of that disruption. As most of you know, I can attest to the fact that God disrupts our lives. I thank God every day that my life was disrupted – because I have come to have an earthly vision of God’s realm right here at FCC, especially as I watched us recently collect 1300 pairs of shoes that will not only provide for micro entrepreneurs but enables those who might not otherwise be able to afford shoes to purchase and wear them. This collection will also help fund our youth going to Wilmington, NC to help those whose homes are in need of repair.
I am also reminded of disruption when we open our doors on our free days during the Tag and Barn Sale – where we make items available for people who might not otherwise be able to own them. That is a disruption of the norm. Our supporting and welcoming gays, lesbians, transgendered, bisexual and queer individuals disrupts what the “norm” has been in the church. Our being willing to feed and provide sleeping accommodations in this very room in the midst of winter for those who are homeless, initially disrupted the wider community that was worried about “those” people coming to our church. I could go on, but you all know the things that we do here that disrupt what is the “normal” or usual.
This morning, I invite you to consider that what Jesus might have been doing with this string of parables, was letting us know that there are many ways to disrupt the system. That sometimes we do so in ways that may appear to be the norm, but really are opportunities for us to see God’s realm from a new perspective.
What it comes down to is this: Jesus is all about our seeing God as a compassionate one who wants to be in relationship with us. Jesus invites us to be compassionate as God is compassionate. And, as we are reminded in the psalm Esther read this morning, “As a father has compassion for his children, so God has compassion for us.”
By disrupting our carefully planned lives, God gives us the opportunity to disrupt what is expected, what is accepted. In the end, I believe that how compassionate we have been to each other and to those we don’t even know, including ensuring good and accessible health care for all, equality for all people and opportunities for those who have come to the U.S., as most of our ancestors did, seeking a better life. The ways we show compassion for others, especially for those we don’t even know, I believe, will be more important than just about anything else.