By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
July 27, 2008
Read: Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks the disciples at the end of our gospel passage for today. The question follows the telling of seven parables, each describing some aspect of the kingdom of heaven. Here, the disciples confidently respond “yes,” yet it is clear from their earlier question in verse 10 that parables are not easily understood. They are a little like looking through a kaleidoscope: depending on how you turn them, you see different images and patterns of color. They provoke a different way of seeing things and leave room for questions.
There are five parables in our passage for today. In the first parable, the kingdom is likened to a small seed. Later on in Matthew 17:20, this same small seed gives way to great faith. Its description as the smallest of all seeds is poetic—there are other seeds just as small. The description of its growth is also poetic: mustard is a shrub rather than a tree. Parables are intended to stimulate our imaginations through vivid imagery. This parable gives way to questions, for instance: When have you been surprised by a small gesture, a small vision, a small donation giving life to more than you expected? What does the image of sowing the kingdom in a field suggest to you? Who are the birds and what is it about this tree that invites them to nest in its branches?
A seed is placed in soil and relies on sun and rain for growth. In the next parable, a woman takes a growth agent, leaven, and mixes (literally “hides”) it with flour until all of the flour has been mingled with the leaven. The amount of flour leavened reflects a context in which bread was baked for more than one family. Emilie Carles, a peasant who grew up in the Alps of France, recalls how the community gathered together to bake large quantities of bread, which had to last them through the winter. What does it feel like to knead leaven into dough? How is this different from planting a seed? Why leavened bread rather than unleavened bread?
The parable of the bakerwoman is linked to the parable of the treasure by the repetition of the verb “hide”. A treasure hidden in a field is found by someone who hides it in another location until, selling all he has, he is able to purchase the field and so claim the treasure. Burying treasure was not uncommon then; only the wealthy could afford a treasure house, and hiding treasure could be safer. The “hidden treasure” echoes the description of parables in verse 35, as that “which has been hidden from the foundation of the world”; within the context of chapter 13,our chapter for today, this is understood as “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (13:11). It is these secrets of the kingdom that, like the treasure, are to be sought above all else (see also 6:19-21, 33; 19:21). What sort of person is it who finds the treasure? What would be hardest for you to sell in order to buy the field? For what would you be willing to sell everything?
The parable of the pearl presents a close parallel to the previous, but it is not identical. The agent is identified as a merchant, one of those who traveled the numerous trade routes of the Roman Empire. The treasure here is a pearl. Pearls were luxury items, associated with gold and precious stones (1 Tim. 2:9; Rev. 17:4; 18:12, 16). Earlier in Matthew, Jesus has warned against casting pearls before swine (7:6). This person, also, sells all he has for the one pearl. How is the pearl different from the treasure hidden in a field? How is the merchant different from the man who finds the treasure? What do all of these parables suggest about how people experience the kingdom of heaven?
The final parable today marks a shift; it moves from everyday time to the end of time. It also differs from the previous four in that it is interpreted for us (VV. 49-50). The gathering of “fish of every kind” indicates that all are drawn into the kingdom; yet at the end of time the evil will be separated from the righteous. Do we expect God’s grace while ignoring God’s justice? Why does God wait until the end of time to sort out the fish? What emotions does this parable evoke?: Fear? Compassion? Hope?
Our attention is caught by the positive reference to a scribe. “Trained” (mathēteuō) may also be translated “discipled.” “Bringing out old and new” indicates that Jesus both draws on the traditions of Israel (so 5:17-20) and offers new interpretations of the tradition. Do we know the traditions of Israel? Are we prepared to hear new interpretations? (Holly Hearon)
Remember that parables are something like a kaleidoscope. You see different colors and images as it is turned. In life, we see different colors and images as we journey on…if we are open to it.
There is a legend. A little girl was walking through the woods near her home, picking wild flowers. She saw one lovely flower she had never seen before, so she picked it. As she turned to the hillside beside her, she saw a large, cave-like opening that she had never noticed before. Wonderingly, she stepped inside. There, on the ground all around her, were jewels of every kind – rubies and sapphires and diamonds.
Quickly she scooped as many of the jewels into her pockets as she could carry. In her excitement, she dropped the flower. As she started to leave the cave, she heard a voice. The voice said, “Don’t forget the best!” She looked around and decided that she already had the best of the jewels. She walked out of the cave – never thinking of the flower that she had dropped.
Once out of the cave, she felt for the jewels in her pockets, but found only dust. She turned back to the hillside, but the entrance to the cave was no longer there. In dropping the beautiful flower, she lost the key to the riches of the cave. The flower had seemed unimportant. But, in fact, it had been the most important thing in the cave!
It is often the seemingly unimportant that becomes all important and meaningful for us. Remember how a kaleidoscope works…as you turn it, the colors change and the image changes. Your focus changes. It provokes a different way of seeing things.
St. Theresa is known as the Saint of Little Ways. She believed in doing the little things in life well and with great love. The prayer attributed to Saint Theresa is this:
May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be confident knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us. Amen.
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