Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Ordinary 17A; Proper 12
What is the kingdom of heaven like?
A) A mustard seed
C) Buried treasure
D) Fine pearls
E) A net a net full of fish
F) All of the above
As I read the verses appointed for today from Matthew’s Gospel, I couldn’t help but recall the evil standardized tests of my grade school years. No. 2 pencils, fill in the entire bubble, timed, tense and given far more weight than they could have possibly merited. I dreaded those highly hyped test days. It felt like our worth and that of our teachers and school was riding on the right answers to those endless Scantron sheets.
( ) : mustard seed :: yeast : bread
If the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed and yeast (as well as buried treasure and fine pearls), explain, with examples, how it is also like a net full of fish? (You have 20 minutes to complete your essay. Spelling and punctuation will be evaluated.)
I am sweating bullets just thinking about it. Jesus tells the disciples why he is using parables: as a litmus test as to who is able to discern and respond to the current and coming rule of God and who isn’t. But like the teacher’s monotone reading of the testing rules, his answer only adds to the pressure. I should have an aha! moment after he’s told these metaphor laden tales. Like those seated at the feet of any master teacher, once the wise one has spoken, we nod and murmur “yes” or “now I see” in hopes that our assent will lead to our understanding. Of course, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Yes. Now I see. A pearl of great price, that’s what I always thought the kingdom of heaven was like. Every time I bake bread I can’t help but notice how the yeast is like the kingdom of heaven, don’t you agree? Yes. Right. Crystal clear now.
But really, when I read these parables, I feel more like a nervous middle schooler taking the PSAT than a star student of a revered mentor. I don’t see. I don’t get it. I am afraid I am destined for the fiery furnace along with all the others who failed to use a No. 2 pencil, or completely fill out the bubble, or put their name of their paper.
My hope is that my wanting to understand, like Merton’s prayer about wanting to please God even when I don’t, grants me at least some extra time before the buzzer sounds.
Maybe translating these metaphors into less planting, baking, treasure-finding, pearl-seeking terms will help.
If the kingdom of heaven, the rule and reign of God right here and now, is like a mustard seed – tiny, easily overlooked, hidden away in the deep soil, but eventually will invasively explode – perhaps I might say that the kingdom of heaven is like a computer virus: unknown until it blows up your hard drive and your day-to-day routines are upended as a result. I get that.
Or how about this? If the kingdom of heaven is like a massive amount of yeast – unseen, but powerful – that eventually produces enough bread to feed a huge crowd, then I might say the kingdom of heaven, God’s presence and will, is like an antibiotic: silent and unseen, but active, life-saving and history-altering. Yes. I see.
These first two kingdom parables emphasize God’s presence and power at work in the world even when people fail to notice it until that time it is unmistakable and transformative. The kingdom of heaven is here even when we fail to perceive it. The kingdom of heaven will not remain invisible forever. The kingdom of heaven, when God deems it so, will encroach radically on our “normal” living and alter not just our lives, but the entire world.
These first two parables remind us to trust the salvific, exponential expanse of God’s reign even, especially, when it appears that nothing at all is happening and there are no places for the birds to nest and no bread to feed the hungry crowds. The kingdom of heaven is already present and coming.
But what about the hidden treasure and the exquisite pearl? These two go together just as the first two do. The kingdom of heaven is like the painting you found in the attic of your grandparents’ house, the one stuck in the middle of boxes and junk. It caught your eye, so you dusted it off and took it home only to Google the name of the artist later and discover it’s worth a mint. You quit your day job and start working your way down your bucket list.
Or (and!) the kingdom of heaven is like that heart-tugging show where people search for family members from whom they’ve been long separated. They search for years and enlist the help of experts and finally are reunited in tears and joy. Questions and conversations will follow, but there is no going back. The family is forever reconfigured and redefined.
The point of these two analogies is as much on the response to the great discovery or find as it is on the treasure or pearl themselves. When we happen upon the presence of God or search and find God, we give up anything and everything for the sake of that relationship. Nothing is more precious or valuable to us than participating in the kingdom of heaven that’s been revealed to us, whether we were looking for it or not.
Further, the scope and scale and pull of this heavenly kingdom brings in all kinds of fish, the good, the bad and the ugly. The catch is the not our concern. If we are blessed to recognize the present and coming kingdom of heaven, then our role is to respond by being all in with our whole selves. Yes. I see. (Even if I don’t always do what I know.)
The kingdom of heaven is, thankfully, not like a standardized test. The timing is that of God, not the proctor, and God, it would seem, has incredible patience, waiting for seeds to grow, bread to rise, treasure to be happened upon, and pearls to be found. While eventually the contents of the net will be sorted, there is no urgency to eradicate the bad fish who may well have value God alone can see.
There is a great deal of variety in the kingdom of heaven, not so much about the one correct answer, as many paths to the right relationship to the one true God. We may discover God, we may look for God, we may get accidently caught up in God’s broad net; no matter, for we are still part of the kingdom of heaven, the one we can be certain is present and powerful and growing and sure to provide home and sustenance for more of creation that we can imagine. Even when we can’t yet perceive or understand, we can trust and be on the lookout, so we will be ready with a radical response to God’s reign when it comes. And there is no No. 2 pencil required.
- If you were to “translate” these metaphors for the kingdom of heaven, what analogies would you use? What images and comparisons would particularly resonate in your community?
- When have you discovered the treasure of God’s power and presence? When have you sought it out and found it? When have you had to wait a long time to perceive God at work?
- Look at other texts that use some of the same images found in these parables. Look in a biblical concordance for “yeast” and “net.” What do you discover? How are these images used similarly or differently than they are used in Matthew chapter 13?
- Are you a gardener? Baker? Have you ever fished with a net? How do your experiences of these activities inform your understanding of the kingdom of heaven as described by Jesus in these parables?
- Note that Jesus is speaking to two different audiences in chapter 13 of Matthew. In Matthew 13:1-33 Jesus is speaking to the crowds. In Matthew 13:36-52 he is talking to his disciples. With this in mind, read Matthew 13:1-52. What do you notice? What is shared only with the disciples? Why?
- As you go about your week pay attention to things that are hidden, yet powerful. Make note of instances when you discover something by accident and times when you are actively looking for something. Consider how these experiences might help you understand the nature of the kingdom of heaven.
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