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The Kingdom Parables: The World Made Strange

July 26, 2011

A sermon preached at The White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 24, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
Genesis 25: 19-34          Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

We have found ourselves this summer in the midst of a long sermon on the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus delivered standing in a boat, while a great crowd gathered on the shore to listen.  But more than listen, for without doubt they had questions. They must have shaken their heads a number of times and simply said, “I don’t get it.”

That the crowd found these teachings strange and provocative can be inferred from the fact that even the disciples, those who thought they knew Jesus best, couldn’t fathom what he was talking about. Or perhaps they did. Perhaps they saw so many possibilities for understanding the ordinary but extraordinary way that God’s kingdom of grace and mercy moves in the world that they wanted to nail down ‘which interpretation was the right one,’ or at least the one Jesus meant. If this was the case, then the disciples’ request, “Explain to us the parable,” might best be translated, “which of these tantalizing possibilities is the right one?” But that, of course, would be to miss the point of a parable.

Alyce McKenzie, a United Methodist pastor who maintains weekly blog on the scripture readings for each Sunday, wrote last week that the best definition of a parable is still the one that Biblical scholar C.H. Dodd penned back to 1935. He defined a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” In other words, a parable has not done its work, and we might say that it has not yet become the Word of God, until it addresses us by engaging us with the many possibilities of its meaning.  Parables require interpreters; interpreters who are ready to be awakened by the parables themselves.

So we’re going to practice some active thought today, that God’s word might be active among us, waking us up. So what I’m now going to do is read our scripture for the day, four short parables.  As you listen, I want you to ask yourself, “Which of these parables am I most drawn to?  Why?  What is surprising, confusing, provocative or challenging in the parable?” After I am finished reading I am going to give you thirty seconds to gather with a couple of other people in the sanctuary and then about five minutes to share which parable spoke to you (you must choose one!) and why it speaks to you.  When you are finished sharing I will add some further observations about these texts to our discussion, and then ask you to share something further with your group.

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 a 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.

OK. You have thirty seconds to find just two or three others with whom to share which parable speaks to you, and why.

SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION (5 minutes)

Alright.  It’s great to have the opportunity to listen to others listening for God speaking in the scriptures. This is what a sermon in the Reformed tradition is all about – making space for God to speak through scripture. Alyce McKenzie, the pastor /blogger I mentioned earlier added to C.H. Dodd’s definition of a parable that “A [good] rule-of-thumb for parable interpretation is this: identify what is strange about the parable. [because] It is your window into the kingdom of God.” So I want to add a few observations to our hearing of our savior’s “metaphors and similes.”

One of the most obvious things we can see when we look at these parables together is the theme of abundance. From small beginnings (a mustard seed, yeast) come great results (a tree to house birds, bread in abundance). 

But we can also look at these Kingdom Parables as showing that that which is hidden will one day be revealed.  The yeast eventually infects the whole dough, revealing itself in the risen loaf. The buried treasure is discovered; the pearl of great price is sought out and found.  

But I am also taken by a few other things about each parable. For example, in the ancient world mustard was considered to be a weed. It was invasive, fast growing, hard to control and would threaten to take over everything else in the field.  No farmer in their right mind would plant it near other crops. To imagine a farmer planting mustard in their field would be like watching your neighbor plant dandelions in their lawn. What does it mean to think of the Kingdom of Heaven as an invasive force, which eventually takes over completely?  What is being invaded; overtaken?

In a similar way, leaven was considered a corrupting agent.  In the parable a woman hides her yeast in three measures of flour, and it is only revealed when it infects the whole loaf. Three measures of flour, by the way, is 50 pounds of flour, enough to feed a feast of a hundred guests.  If this woman were budgeting her household expenses, she just blew everything on a single feast. This is no ordinary kitchen, or ordinary bread. What do we make of a Kingdom that produces so much more than is needed?

Or take the last two parables, the treasure and the pearl of great price. They compliment and contrast with one another. According to one commentary

In the first, the one who finds this treasure does so quite by accident. Evidently, as a farmer plows a field, he hits something; this is not unusual, as farmers regularly scrape rocks or hidden tree stumps. We might assume the one who plows is plowing in another person’s field. Perhaps the farmer has leased it to put in the crop. But upon stumbling onto this treasure, the farmer immediately surrenders all he possesses to purchase the field. Thus, we [may] imagine that the one who plows is a common day laborer who simply, in today’s vernacular, wins the lottery.

[One the other hand,] A merchant in search of fine pearls is a person who has undoubtedly already amassed some wealth. The merchant searches for fine merchandise, trading presumably in other finery besides pearls. Diamonds, gold, and other precious commodities may make up the list of trade wares. What makes his circumstance similar to the one who plows is that the merchant also sells all to obtain the pearl of great price.

One of the characters is relatively poor, while the other is affluent. One intentionally seeks that which has great value while the other simply trips over it. But in both cases, the individuals sell everything to attain the object of unsurpassable worth.[1]

How does this additional information shape your understanding of the parable that you were drawn to?  Are there things that get unsettled or deepened?  With another five minutes, I invite you to share again with those around you what additional meanings (meanings for you) that you now hear in these stories by Jesus.

SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION (5 minutes)

My friends, the Kingdom of Heaven demands everything: the whole garden, the whole loaf, everything we possess, our very livelihood. It is beyond price; and in the end, though we may find it, we do not possess the kingdom: it possesses us. It is at work among us, right now; it may be small, it may be hidden, but it is at work transforming us, and transforming our world.

Let us stand together and sing the new hymn We Plant a Grain of Mustard Seed , inserted in your bulletin, and as we sing let us proclaim God’s Kingdom at work among us and give ourselves again to it, heart, mind, soul and strength, that the love of God may be known.

 


[1] David Mosser. The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching. Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press, 2007.

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