Proper 12a – Sunday 24th July 2011
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
When I was in the final year of my University studies, and the shadow of a dissertation loomed large over me, there was only one placed that I went to – The Parables.
The Parables have always spoken to me in a way that no other part of scripture does. I can relate to their setting, to their intended audience, to their purpose. In them I see the deeply manifest love of God, and the desire of a God to be reunited with his people who have become estranged because of their sin. He will do anything to win them back, he will go to the ends of the earth. They provide me with such inspiration, hope and belief. They’re fantastic.
Before you get carried away and go searching on Google for “Neil Chappell – masterpiece on the parables” it’s not there! I didn’t write a bestseller. I didn’t shed light in a new and radical way. I just wrote 11,754 words on “Parables of Mercy and Grace or Parables of Justice?” – (I still have the file on my computer!).
It was something I really enjoyed doing, and hey, who knows, one day maybe I might return to write that book that lies dormant inside every one of us – although I figure the book inside me is more on a par with Noddy goes to Toy Town!
But the reason I mention my distinguished academic career is because I started that dissertation in Matthew 13 – which along with Luke 15 is one of the great Parable chapters in the Gospels. The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds, the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast, the Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl and the Fishing Net. And alongside all those stories Jesus tells his disciples why he speaks in Parables, and also explains the first two Parables.
What I particular like about the Parables is that they talk about Kingdom life. And here in Matthew 13 we are given some fascinating glimpses of what the Kingdom is like. Of course, one of the purposes of the Parables is to overturn all the preconceived ideas we hold. And one of the first on the list is that bigger, bolder, richer, more beautiful is best. Put your hand up if, when you hear the “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” passage, you start to imagine the palatial suite awaiting for you in heaven, with the majesty of the view, the grandeur of the fittings, the beauty of it all. We imagine the Kingdom to be something spectacular – as if Roman Abramovich has had a hand in designing it.
But we forget that the man who rode on a donkey into Jerusalem is the same man who told these Parables. The Kingdom of Heaven is not like the mighty cedar tree of Lebanon. The Kingdom of Heaven is not like a beautifully scented rose plant. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. Whoa. I didn’t see that one coming. Small not mighty? Bit weedy and insignificant?
Ok. Ok. Maybe that wasn’t a very good example. What about the Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. I love a good sandwich as much as the next person – peanutbutter spread thickly on a farmhouse loaf – I’m going to like this Parable. I’ve just counted up the number of words in this Parable and there are 34. I’m not sure if there is a quicker way to upset the faithful Jewish people (and even our nicely comfortable and apathetic church folk) but this is pretty good. For this Parable compares the Kingdom of Heaven to corruption. It compares it to domestic work. And not only that, but domestic work carried out by women. Is the Kingdom really like some yeast that corrupts the pure flour?
Let’s move on, cause I’ve temporarily lost my train of thought. Oh yes, treasure. “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man happens to find a treasure hidden in a field.” A man digging in a field would have been a worker. And a worker would have been a labourer, one of the lowest on the social ladder. One of the poorest of them all. Scratching to make a living. Working from day to day. Taking whatever he could to feed and support himself and his family. So the Kingdom isn’t about the rich and powerful? It’s the downtrodden who make all the great faith discoveries? And what’s this, “He covers it up again, and is so happy that he goes and sells everything he has, and then goes back and buys that field.” How could he possibly afford to do that? My minds gone blank. Quick, to the next parable.
Now before I start this paragraph let’s cross our fingers that we’re onto a winner here. I’m not holding my breath, mainly since I don’t get it about pearls. Our hero of the hour spends a living looking for fine pearls. Good stuff. What’s so newsworthy about finding an unusually fine pearl? I mean, here’s a man who looks at beautiful things day after day, and one day he finds something even more beautiful and special. Is the Kingdom about people who are accustomed to finding and trading fine things stumbling across life-changing experiences?
Ok, let’s go fishing. That’s a good analogy. The disciples were fishermen. We’ve got that hip saying, “I will make you fishers of men (and women)”. I’ve got a good feeling at last. What could possibly be so hard here? Well, there’s fishing for a start. Have you ever been? I’ve only ever been fishing with a line and rod, and you have no control over it whatsoever. You can’t pick and choose which type of fish you catch, let alone start thinking of big or small. And that’s if you catch one at all. I suppose with a net you’ve more of a chance – although there again you lose control. You can’t say I’d like all those wiggly blue ones with the dinky little fin. You get everything. Short ones. Fat ones. Blue ones. Black ones. Thin ones. Manky ones. Slimy ones. The Kingdom of heaven is about sweeping everybody up? Leaving God to decide who gets in? Really?
I must apologise. Week after week I have cracked some divine nugget for your perusal, for you to chew over and think about. Some thought to inspire your day, maybe provide a chink of inspiration for a sermon, or a word of wisdom for a friend. But today I seem to have drawn a blank. I’m sorry. This Kingdom of heaven thing isn’t what I was expecting at all.