The Kingdom is Like...(July 26, 2020)
Matthew 13: 31-32, 44-46
The Kingdom is Like…
We have before us today four parables of Jesus. And it may seem like they don’t have that much in common, but in reality they do. We have two sets of two really; we have the parable of the Mustardseed and the parable of the yeast, and then a little bit later in the chapter we have the parable of the treasure in a field and the parable of the valuable pearl. Each of these have their own lesson to teach us, their own things that evoked images of the world in my mind; but they also can be combined together for one giant lesson. This is what I want to do. I want to go through all of them today and look at what they can teach us, and maybe try and translate them into something a little bit more modern. But then also I want to combine them all together and take a look at what they can teach us together.
First we see the parable of the Mustardseed. Now this is not the parable of the Mustardseed that you’re thinking of, this is a different one where Jesus says that there exists a field, and in that field a mustard seed becomes planted. And that Mustardseed, being the smallest of seeds, will grow into the largest of bushes that will provide shelter and shade for the birds of the air. In this parable we see that something small, a mustard seed or planting a seed, can become something very large, the largest of bushes, Jesus says. And then it can become something larger through the work of God, primarily for the purpose of blessing others. You'll notice that Jesus does not say the mustard bush can become the largest bushes so that it can produce more mustard; rather, so that it can provide shelter for the birds of the air.
Now this is a little bit ironic, and I think Jesus is making a little bit more of a point than might be seen on first viewing. Because a mustard bush is not majestic at all. It’s not very large, it’s actually rather small and probably wouldn’t have been able to supply the same kind of shade for the birds that one might expect. Rather I think that Jesus here is alluding to a verse in Ezekiel where Ezekiel compares the Kingdom of God to a cedar tree, the largest tree in the area; a beautiful majestic tree that absolutely does provide shade for birds and for humans, and places for birds to nest. I think Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t value things like we do. We think we need this giant majestic tree in order to provide shade, but no the Kingdom of Heaven can do that with even this tiny bush. This tiny bush is considered to be majestic in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But also, Jesus uses a mustard seed. Mustard would’ve been a curse word to farmers of the day. It’s like saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dandelion to people who live in suburbia United States today. Mustard is this thing that blows in from the surrounding area, and once it’s in you can’t get rid of it. It came in and it went through everything, and it totally destroyed entire crops. I think that one reason that Jesus is using mustard is that this is an invasion, this is something from outside coming in and taking over the field, in spite of being so small that you can barely see it. This is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Then we see the parable of the yeast. We’re told that a woman is hiding yeast inside a pretty large amount of wheat, inside a pretty large amount of flour. And this yeast permeates the entire amount of flour. And this is compared to the Kingdom of Heaven: a small thing that is implanted into this larger thing, and once it’s inside it expands, and once it expands it transforms the wheat, and cannot be undone. Now, in that day actually an unleavened loaf would’ve been slightly more valuable than a leavened loaf. We like our bread leavened, but it takes up some more room, and the room was a precious commodity in those days. So actually you didn’t want to leaven your bread until you’re just about ready to eat it, if you did it at all. And remember that Jewish religious practices often use unleavened bread in reference to Passover. So you’re not going to leaven this much wheat, enough to make bread for 100 meals. You’d just take a little bit off and leaven that, just a little bit before you cook it. And Jesus here is saying “no, the Kingdom of Heaven is so invasive, so powerful that it’s going to get in there, and it’s going to get in places you don’t want it to get into. And once it does, it will transform that area, it will transform the world and permanently make it unrecognizable; make it like the Kingdom.”
I was reminded with the story concept of something small having a ripple effect, of having a much larger impact later on. This is a trope in science fiction literature, in time travel literature we call it “the butterfly effect,” you may recognize that term from a movie a few years ago. The basic idea is this thought process of a butterfly flapping its wings in New York can cause a tornado in Berlin; it flaps its wings and the wind currents are changed by that amount, and then it ripples out and causes a massive change in the wind all the way across the globe. In Syfy, for time travelers, the idea is often that if you go back in time and you change anything, even a little change, even meeting the wrong person at the wrong time or moving a pencil across a desk, that in 200 years the world can be unrecognizable. Think Back to the Future: Marty McFly goes back into the past and he meets one woman, meets his mother, and all of a sudden he’s not existing because of this one brief interaction. This is the concept of the butterfly effect. And this is such a common trope that if you don’t employ it in your time travel narrative, like Avengers Endgame did not employ this idea, you have to very specifically tell your audience that this is not a thing. This is the default. I thought about this idea when thinking about the parable of the yeast: this tiny amount of yeast completely changes this much wheat.
Next, Jesus brings us to a field, and he says that someone is walking in the field and they find a treasure in the field, and they get very excited for this beautiful treasure. They bury the treasure in the field and then they go and they buy the whole field. The whole field. They didn’t bury the treasure in a corner and try to buy just the corner that the treasure was in. This was so valuable to get so excited about this treasure that represents the Kingdom of Heaven, that they buy the whole field. That one treasure makes the whole field invaluable to this person, and it values the whole thing; even the same course even the places where it’s so low that the water never quite dries out and you can’t really plan anything, even the hills where the tractor won’t quite get; all of the field is made valuable by the treasure within it.
I was reminded here of a potluck. Ever go to a potluck, and you get to the potluck and there’s that one dish (you know that one dish for you). There’s Mrs. Tilton’s meatballs, oh...they’re there, and I’m gonna run out and sell all of my possessions so I can buy the entire spread, because I would have every last one of Mrs. Tilton’s meatballs. This is what Jesus is saying here: the Kingdom of Heaven is like that one dish at your potluck.
(Yeah, I didn’t use any of your dishes, I didn’t want to offend any of you. So you got to promise not to go back to my last charge and tell them that I like Mrs. Tilton’s meatballs over anything else that they did. However, I suspect they would agree with me that that was the best one.)
Finally, we’ve made it to the fourth parable, the parable of the precious gem. Jesus tells of a merchant that is out carousing the shops, and they see a gem that is so beautiful, that is so precious to them that they get so excited they go home and they sell everything that they owned just to get this one gem, but looking at it is so valuable to them that it’s worth everything. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to here. I feel like this is pretty relatable to our lives.
Together, these for parables don’t seem like they’re saying the same thing, but in reality they kind of are. They can be summed up in one way: the Kingdom of Heaven is something small that it is in our world, but also something powerful. In spite of being small it’s extremely valuable, valuable enough to overshadow everything else. And once you experience the Kingdom, nothing else will matter, and everything else will be transformed. The Kingdom of Heaven is active in our world and has the ability to transform our world by it’s very presence, to make the world around it more desirable. The Kingdom is a blessing to others to make the world more valuable and worth living in. And even though it looks small at the moment, The Kingdom can grow to bless our community.
One thing that has struck me for a few years now is the reality that we all tend to accept the butterfly effect as a fact. We all assume the single small action if done by the time traveler going back in history can ripple and create massive, unknowable impact in the future; but then we go about acting in our daily life as if we’re too small to make a difference, as if as if our tiny actions as a small group of people in rural(ish) America would have any impact on the world at all. Do you see how that doesn’t go? Our reality is that although we are small, although we cannot do much, we are acting as the Kingdom in our world, and the result is that anything we do, though small, can have a massive impact. Anything we do can be mighty if we trust God to make it happen.
So go out into the community today. Go out into the world today, oh church, and go do something small. For your actions might be the butterfly flapping its wings, your actions might make our church and our town the meatballs of the world’s potluck. Go and do God’s work. Amen.