This summer we have been treated to a veritable onslaught of parables from Matthew, and we are still in chapter 13, now for the third Sunday in a row, and the onslaught continues.
I think we can read this series of short parables as continuing to shed light on the reality of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and the wisdom that belongs to those who believe in that kingdom and choose to live within it.
The first two parables belong together, as do the following two.
Let’s start with the mustard seed and the leaven.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all 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. The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
Both of these simple parables suggest that the kingdom of heaven realizes extraordinary results from unpromising beginnings.
A mustard seed is indeed tiny, and yet it grows into a sizeable shrub, large enough that birds find a home in it. And a little leaven can cause a large quantity of flour to rise.
Both of these metaphors are organic, suggesting a natural development. A seed naturally grows into a tree as long as it is allowed to do so, and leaven, given time, can convert dry flour into dough.
Two weeks ago I pointed out that Jesus tells his disciples that to them “it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” So there is something secretive about the operations of the kingdom of heaven, something that not everyone will see.
Not only is the organic development of the kingdom of God inconspicuous but downright hidden. The action of living things like the seed, like the leaven, can be invisible for much of their life.
Yet again the lectionary omits something here that is important to this very point. Between the first two parables and the last three we get yet another comment on parables. This time it’s not Jesus speaking but the narrator of Matthew. The lectionary skips verses 34-35, which read as follows: “All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’”
Now no Gospel writer is more concerned than Matthew is to show how Jesus fulfills prophecy, and here again Matthew goes out of his way to show how even Jesus’s method of teaching through parables is itself a fulfillment of prophecy.
In this case the prophet is Asaph, a writer of psalms, and the verses that Matthew quotes come from the beginning of Psalm 78, where Asaph says he will open his mouth in a parable to utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world. So why is Matthew connecting this psalm to the parables of Jesus?
It will help to know something more about Psalm 78. It’s a long psalm, and it recites at some length the dealings of God with his chosen people Israel. Psalm 78 recounts how God struck down the Egyptian oppressors with a series of plagues, how he allowed the people of Israel to escape Egypt by crossing the Red Sea, how he led them through the desert by day with a cloud and by night with a pillar of fire, how in the desert he caused water to gush from the rocks, how he fed them with manna. Amid all this Israel was repeatedly unfaithful and forgot God’s mighty works and yet God always took them back and eventually established them in the promised land under the kingship of David.
So how is it that Matthew presents Asaph, in telling this long but familiar story, is uttering secret truths that have been hidden since the foundation of the world?
Here is what I think: Asaph in Psalm 78 is not just recounting familiar events, things that would have been known to any Israelite; he is disclosing their meaning. Asaph is not just telling Israel’s history; he is telling us what that history means. Matthew thinks that the content of the story that Asaph tells in Psalm 78 is not hidden, but that content is now being revealed in a way that has not been before—the true character of events is being disclosed. The essential message of Psalm 78 is not just that certain things have happened to Israel over their history but that those things are the result of God’s action in the world. So much so that even when Israel is faithless and punished by God, even these failures are overcome by God’s steadfast love.
So I said a minute ago that the metaphors of the mustard seed and the leaven are organic metaphors, suggesting a hidden but natural process. I think Jesus uses these metaphors to show how the kingdom of God that he is proclaiming is the natural outgrowth of God’s entire dealings with the history of his chosen people. Just as Asaph reveals the hidden work of God in the history of Israel, so now Jesus implies that the new moment in the kingdom of God that he is preaching is also the hidden work of God, now in a new phase.
Everyone in the crowd listening to Jesus expected the kingdom of God to be inaugurated on earth by the Messiah and that such a kingdom would be glorious and global in reach. That the kingdom of heaven will be like a tree full of birds is not surprising or secret. The surprising secret part is that it will come from the mustard seed. The point is that the next stage in the kingdom of God begins so unnoticeably that it could easily be missed by the inattentive or the unreceptive.
Jesus takes up the history of Israel that Asaph narrates in such a way as to reveal its inner logic and shows through his own teaching how that history is now being fulfilled in himself, in his own work and instruction to his disciples.
The next two parables, of the field with the treasure and the pearl, prove this and furthermore show us that while the kingdom of God may be found in small beginnings, we definitely do not want to overlook it.
Remember that Jesus said the disciples have a certain knowledge of things hidden. I think this is true too of the man who buys the field and the pearl merchant.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; 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, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
What do these two guys have in common? I think they both know what they are doing. The man who finds the treasure leaves it in the field because he wants to establish his legal title to possession of the treasure. But to do that he has to buy the field and thus secure the right to whatever is buried there. He does this joyfully, selling all he has just to buy the field. He does so because he knows that whatever he has to pay doesn’t matter because what’s in the field is worth much more than what he has to pay for it.
Same story with the pearl merchant. He is searching for pearls, and he deals in pearls, so he knows what he is doing and what he is looking for. He happily sells all he has when he finds the one pearl of surpassing value, because once again he knows he has found the one pearl worth having, more precious than all the others and therefore worth selling all the others he has just to have this one.
So here is the lesson it seems to me: It may be very hard to discern where the kingdom of God is establishing itself. Remember last week: We can’t tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds in the early stage of growth because we don’t know what might be the beginnings of something new and powerful.
This is because the kingdom of God takes its place not instead of the world but within the world. The seed is buried in the ground, the leaven is hidden in the flour, the wheat and the weeds are in the same field, the bad fish are in the same net along with the good fish. Our challenge is to discern where the kingdom of God is invisibly at work in our world, knowing that it may be almost imperceptible. The key is I think to take a page from Asaph and Psalm 78: We must come to understand the events that go on around us as not just things that happen but signs of God’s action in the world, an action that is always steadfast, loving, and faithful.
What we are to do when we see that action is easier than seeing it: We are to seize it, giving up everything else we have in preference to the infinite value of the kingdom of God wherever we find it at work.