Jesus is back with more parables. If you are counting, this is seven parables that we have read over the past three weeks, all from one chapter of Matthew. There are five in today’s reading alone.
Now, I like a good story; I like a helpful comparison as well as the next guy, but Jesus seems to be getting carried away, like he doesn’t know when to stop. Is anyone else getting tired of parables?
The problem we have here is not that we need Jesus to be more direct. We’re OK with getting at truth and thinking about God and the world through images and stories and metaphorical language. That can be pretty helpful, and when it comes to talking about God we really don’t have much choice. The problem today is that with so many parables told in a row, piled one on top of the other, we are kind of overwhelmed. We tend to want to find shared theme or nugget of truth. We want to connect the dots and find the overarching point they are making about the kingdom of heaven. But to do that, to make them all fit together, you risk losing the punch that can be packed into the details of each parable. Making all of these parables to be about the same general idea, looking for the lowest common denominator, can make them bland and domesticated. So, what do you do?
And while I’m at it - complaining about today’s reading - I may as well go ahead and tell you what bothers me most about it. It is the certainty that the disciples claim in verse 51. Jesus asks, “Have you understood all this?” and the disciples say, “We sure have.” Seriously? All of it? Well, good for them - but considering they had just asked for explanations of the last two parables Jesus told, this is a little hard to believe. And the disciples don’t generally come off as “getting it.” I mean, if they really understood it all, it might be the first time. But if they did, well, good for them – fantastic. But I will readily admit that I do not understand it all.
I think the question for us this morning is, “What is Jesus trying to say to us about the kingdom of heaven?” And to that end, I’m going to focus on the first couple of parables in our text, and encourage you to go home and read again and think about the others this week as we consider what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of heaven.
In our world, it seems as though bigger is better. People like things that are over the top, flashy, spectacular. We want laser lights and smoke. We want fireworks. We want marching bands. We are attracted to things that are larger than life. We are told to make a splash, get attention, grab the headlines. They don’t market the 8 oz. Small Sip, they push the 44 oz. Big Gulp. They don’t feature small regular hamburgers, but there are TV shows devoted to 1 pound burgers with four slices of cheese, 6 slices of bacon and a fried egg on top. If you had your choice, would you want a computer with 4 GB of memory or 32GB? Do you want a slow internet connection or a fast one? If you somehow won a free car, would you choose the 3 cylinder, 74 horsepower Mitsubishi Mirage or the 520 horsepower Porsche 911 turbo?
We celebrate what is big and fast and powerful and spectacular. We pay attention to whatever is new and flashy and trendy and hip.
So Jesus comes along, telling stories, making comparison about what he kingdom of heaven is like. And he compares the kingdom of heaven to – a mustard seed. So small you can hardly see it. It is very unimpressive. It is unspectacular and not at all flashy. And it grows into – what? – a mustard bush. Even all grown up, it is still not very impressive. It is the opposite of what we find appealing.
We have heard this parable so many times before, about the tiny seed that grows into the great tree, that we don’t catch what is going on. If Jesus wanted to emphasize how something so small and insignificant becomes so great, why not an acorn becoming a mighty oak? Why not a small seed growing into a great Cedar of Lebanon?
Jesus’ story parallels one of the visions of the prophet Ezekiel, found in Ezekiel chapter 17:
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar… I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.Israel is depicted as a mighty cedar tree which grows from a tiny cutting, planted by the Lord. This mighty cedar stands proudly on the mountaintop and its great branches provide shelter for any number of birds. Israel is seen as powerful, a place of blessing and refuge for all the world. This vision of Ezekiel was a point of pride for the people, something to make every Israelite feel good about themselves and their nation.
Jesus’ parable is similar enough to the Ezekiel reading that people would have understood the connection, but Jesus has turned the story on its head. He messes with it. Instead of being like a cutting from a cedar tree, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed. Technically, a mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds, but compared to a cedar sapling, it’s pretty tiny. But a mustard seed doesn’t grow into a mighty cedar, strong and tall and powerful and majestic. Nobody calls a mustard plant “noble.” A mustard seed grows into what is at most a shrub, and not only that, it is generally regarded as a weed. The familiar prophecy from Ezekiel demands a mighty tree, but Jesus twists it and gives us a weedy shrub.
The kingdom of God is not like the biggest tree on the mountain. The world will not stand back and admire its branches. On the contrary, the work of the kingdom will mostly be seen as weak and insignificant alongside the powers and dominions that shape the world and call the shots. Signing up for the kingdom of God is not about glory and honor. A mustard shrub, a weed, is not highly regarded – in fact, it is more often detested.
We have kind of romanticized the idea of a mustard seed, but for Jesus’ hearers this must have been a startling image. The kingdom of heaven is like – an unsightly and invasive weed? Are you serious?
Mustard can grow to be a large bush – it can reach up to 9 or 10 feet in height, even more given the right conditions – but it’s definitely no tree. It would seem to be kind of a pitiful symbol for the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard. It’s a noxious weed that will not go away. It refuses to die. It just grows and spreads and grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.
In Matthew chapter 17, Jesus talks about having the faith of a mustard seed. Just a little bit goes a long way, and it can grow and grow into something wonderful. Well, that is true, and that is part of what he is saying here – the kingdom may be small, but it will grow into something great. That is often the way we think of this parable, but the overall tone and feel of what Jesus is saying is much more than that.
This is not a comforting, homespun message about the way God is at work in the world. Jesus is describing a kingdom that is invasive, shocking, scandalous, and a nuisance – but also unstoppable and abundant.
Jesus sees the kingdom of God, or the empire of God, as being completely unlike the Roman Empire. There is no status at all to it, it is not powerful, it is not dominant – but it is pervasive. It takes over. It can’t be stopped.
This week I thought about Bertha Jane Marshall. I knew Bertha Jane because of her brother Jasper. Jasper was the RA leader at our church. RAs, or Royal Ambassadors, was like Southern Baptist Boy Scouts. Jasper was a cop and he had to have the patience of Job to put up with all of us rowdy boys. The thing I remember most about RAs was the campouts we would go on. We would go to some farm in Kentucky, out in the middle of nowhere. We would pitch our tents, we would build a fire and cook our food, we would go on hikes, we would play softball, and the big thing is that we would shoot guns. Really. Jasper had a big gun collection. It was all well-supervised, several dads would go along, but 5th and 6th and 7th grade boys would get to shoot carbines and AR-15s and shotguns and a Japanese machine gun, though it wasn’t set for automatic fire. One year I had the best attendance at RAs, and the prize for best attendance was that I got to throw the hand grenade. I’m not kidding. I shudder to think of this now, but that’s what we did.
Anyway, to make along story just slightly shorter, Jasper had a sister named Bertha Jane who was a missionary. She served in the Gaza strip. She was a nurse and worked in a hospital, treating patients there and providing a Christian witness. Every once in a while she would be home on furlough and she would come and speak at our church.
Anyway, I thought about Bertha Jane this week and the work that she and others did, working for Christ in that little strip of land that is torn by war today. I thought of the Gaza Baptist Church – never a large congregation, but now one of only three Christian churches remaining in Gaza – 3 churches among 1.8 million people. Its pastor, Hanna Massad, fled with his family to Jordan in 2007. He returns periodically to check on his flock; some of us heard him speak at the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta several years ago. The church was hit by an Israeli rocket in 2003. The Christian bookstore closed a few years later after the Baptist layman who ran it was murdered. There are only a handful of members remaining who struggle amidst all of the violence that surrounds it.
And yet, the church struggles on. I read a Reuters story this week that said that the Saint Porphyrios Church, the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza built in the 12th century, has taken in about 1,000 refugees in recent weeks. Archbishop Alexios, who has been organizing the food and shelter for those claiming refuge, refuses—despite all the suffering and fear around him—to focus only on the carnage and destruction. He is determined to fulfill his mission of Christian charity and remains resolutely upbeat. The mosque down the street and neighbors of the church have been helping with food and supplies. Despite the overcrowding and danger, Alexios said there has been joy in the church in the midst of tragedy.
“Yesterday, a woman gave birth to a baby, a new life. We should be hopeful. There is death in Gaza, but also there is also life.”
Loving one’s neighbors, loving others as Christ loved us – that is the very core of what it is to follow Jesus, and Christians, a tiny minority in Gaza, are living that out. They are anything but powerful, they are much more like a weed than a great cedar, yet they are still there. It certainly isn’t easy, but the work of Bertha Jane and others in years past and the work of Hanna Massad and Archbishop Alexios today is not in vain.
You might think of this parable in relation to Jesus: born in poverty in the small town of Bethlehem. Raised in Galilee, the backward part of Israel – no one thought a prophet could come from Galilee. He did not come from a prominent family, was not well-connected, had no money. He was not supported by the religious leaders of the day; in fact, they worked against him. His followers were by and large hard–working, common people. Well, except for some tax collectors and known sinners.
Predictably, it did not end well for Jesus; he was hung on a cross as a criminal, an enemy of the state. But by God’s power, Jesus was raised from the dead. Like that invasive weed that you cannot kill, Jesus would not go away.
His message was hard to swallow, and still is. Give away what you have. Love your enemies. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. It’s very much a mustard seed story.
After the mustard seed, Jesus launches right into another parable. He says the kingdom is like a woman putting a little yeast in her dough, and it leavens the whole loaf. OK, that is well and good. Big deal. Except here is the deal: yeast was almost always a symbol of corruption. In chapter 16, Jesus warns to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees. Yeast was not kosher – at Passover, you have unleavened bread. And so this seems like a weird way to describe the kingdom. It is a kingdom that is scandalous and surprising. The kingdom is not what you might expect. Now, just looking at dough, you can’t necessarily tell if there is yeast present – but it is there and it will do its work. The kingdom may be scandalous and surprising, it may be hidden, but it is there, and it will be revealed.
Shortly after Zoe was born, she was given a few shares of stock as a gift from her aunt and uncle. We never did anything with it and really hadn’t given it much thought, but this spring the company was bought out in a “merger,” and she had to mail in the certificate to get stock in the new company. Which made me think about parables: the kingdom of heaven is like having a few shares of stock in a small company that you forget about, but over time it splits and grows and splits again and then the company is bought out, and you had forgotten you even owned it, but it turns out you have 25,000 shares of Apple computer. (By the way, this is not what happened to Zoe.)
The kingdom, says Jesus, is surprising. It is unexpected. And often it is small and maybe even hidden, but we can be sure that God is at work.
Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, says
The reason Jesus spends so much time explaining the kingdom of heaven is because we need to be reminded that it’s there even when it seems so excruciatingly absent. The promise of the parables about the kingdom of heaven is that even when the kingdom is not seen, it is near.Life can be hard, as some of you well know. Sometimes, God can seem absent. But the Good News is that like yeast working in dough, like an insignificant weed that just keeps growing, God’s kingdom is among us, even now, and it cannot be stopped. Amen.