Scripture: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
What is marshmallow fluff like?
What is the Caribbean like?
What is your ideal day like?
People ask these questions regarding things they don’t know about yet and need some type of comparison to understand it better.
What is the kingdom of heaven like?
I imagine that, as Jesus was spreading his message and telling people about this mysterious “kingdom of heaven” (as opposed to the kingdom of Caesar), he was often asked “what is this kingdom of heaven?”
What is the kingdom of heaven like - what can I compare it to - what is this way of living that Jesus is promoting and sounds so different from what I know?
His answers are far reaching….
I love that they are varied - oh, you don’t really understand the significance of a mustard seed? Well, let me put it to you in another way - yeast leavening bread or a treasure in a field or fishing!
I really appreciate that Jesus was meeting the people where they were with their understanding, which is a constant theme with God. Jesus was adapting to how they would understand, not making them fit into one mold. (education, anyone?)
He was making it so that a diverse number of people could connect to his message
It shows diversity in Jesus’ audience - in the people to which God was ministering.
It’s not the first nor the last time we can gather from Jesus’ message the importance of not discriminating. Who knew that talking about mustard seeds, yeast, hidden treasures, and fish could promote diversity? (God knew)
All these responses could be a sermon unto themselves
A mustard seed - it is small, but it is mighty. In this, we can be reminded that just the tiniest of effort or skill or love that we have within us can multiply into wondrous results. We can be encouraged to nurture that small spark in ourselves and others.
Leavening yeast - adding this to flour would make the dough rise into what most of us love in fluffy, soft, delicious bread. We can be reminded that one addition can make a huge difference! One comment, one person, one action taken in a situation has the potential to really change the whole outlook and grow into something incredible.
A hidden treasure - reminds me of the parables of the lost coin or lost sheep, reminding us that even just one of us is important enough to God that we are not forgotten. Each person within the kingdom of heaven is important enough to put aside everything else - sell everything - and go after that one person.
Fish - how awesome to think about a net being cast so wide that it pulls in a diverse amount of fish - big, small, spotted, striped. The kingdom of heaven is diverse. (Confession: I don’t really like the good/bad breakdown. I personally don’t like labeling an entire human being “good” or “bad,” but see it as saying the kingdom of heaven holds people accountable for harmful actions in this world. Those harmful actions are not acceptable.)
So, is the kingdom of heaven splintered? Is it this one type of thing over there and a different type of thing over here….is there any continuity?
What is the kingdom of heaven like?
Kathryn Matthews (ucc.org, Sermon Seeds) makes a beautiful observation that all these responses have a commonality of the kingdom of heaven coming to fulfillment in the unexpected, the unseen, even the unclean. (And it isn’t the fish that would be seen as unclean.)
The kingdom of heaven works in ways not always seen...a tiny seed growing, yeast doing whatever yeast does, treasure hidden underground, fish swimming beneath the waters. The kingdom of heaven works within and then has profound results...AND these particular examples are of some pretty offensive items. (Jesus, offensive? Never!)
Yes, there is encouragement in the parable of the mustard seed. But let’s not miss out on the significance of the plant used for the parable - the mustard seed. The mustard plant was considered a weed in that time and according to Jewish living practices, planting “a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life" (Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).” Planting a mustard seed would have drawn gasps and strange looks in the Jewish community.
Let’s not overlook that yeast made bread “leavened” and in much of the Bible unleavened bread - bread without yeast - was associated with being holy. Yeast was considered unclean. Yet, Jesus is comparing the kingdom of heaven to it!
Let’s not overlook the craziness of “selling all that you have” so that you can then buy this one thing, this one treasure. Giving up everything else - joyfully! - so that you can seek and obtain one valuable item? (Remind you of the parable of the one lost sheep? Jesus will seek you!)
These parables offer us a challenge, once we dig into the context surrounding them. Matthews says: “in the first two [the mustard seed and yeast], our expectations and comfort zones are disrupted, and what we have considered "unclean" is somehow related to the reign of God--shocking! [Bernard Brandon] Scott” notes “[Christianity’s] long domestication of these parables - so that we read them in a "non-threatening, actually reassuring way--from a little beginning comes a great end" and miss the offense provided by "unclean" elements such as leaven and unwelcome weeds (Re-Imagine the World).”
“Could it be that our considerable efforts to avoid offense in the life of the church and in its ministry run the risk of neutralizing the gospel that Jesus embodied?” (Matthews, Sermon Seeds, ucc.org)
It reminds me of the Civil Rights activist, John Lewis, who just passed...in his 2018 tweet saying “"Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."
Jesus, I believe, was a good trouble maker. I believe he would be the person who wouldn’t laugh at a racist joke, who would speak up for the person being outcast, who would ask why a person believed/thought what they did, who would challenge laws and policies which continually oppress an entire community of people. I don’t believe he would do it simply for the sake of an argument or to prove he was better. I believe he always did it with the best interest of another human at heart. He did it because of the compassion he had for the world. He did it for the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like the unexpected mustard seed, like the unclean bread yeast, like the unseen treasure, like those smelly fish. It is, at times, beautiful and peaceful; and it is, at times, unclean and offensive.
What is the kingdom of heaven like? I would love to hear your responses.