Puzzling parables

Biblical heroes are broken people.  When we tell their stories – stories of wisdom and beauty and earnest failure, we often forget that it is their brokenness that makes them special.  All the greats are included; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – Moses, David and Solomon, whom we meet briefly this morning.  We explain away their failures and remember their successes, but make no mistake, their stories are incomplete if we don’t consider their flaws.

Even Jesus – whom we hold as the sole example of human perfection – is found doing and saying things that cast doubts on our assessment.  He eats and drinks with “tax collectors and sinners”; “he has a demon!”  His very notable public activity leads to his arrest and execution as a blasphemer, and a revolutionary – enemy of both church and state – and in Jesus resurrection we see the pattern continued; the pattern of God’s glory revealed in brokenness.  This defies the logic of the world, and suggests something wonderful and refreshing about the kingdom of heaven.  It is coming as a new and entirely different entity, and the people of God are called to participate in this kingdom – to urge it into being – in ways that we cannot imagine possible for us.

All this is a prelude to hearing these puzzling parables in a new way.

Typically, we have read these as simple and straightforward; Small things have great effects; true value is measured by quality, not quantity; and the “kingdom” is the place where all this will be sorted out.  But consider them again, remembering God’s tendency to ‘re-purpose’ broken people, and imagine how Jesus might be playing with our perception here.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…wait, isn’t mustard a weed?  Certainly it has been cultivated and used as an important spice for centuries, but trust me, if you have a cash crop other than mustard, you do not want evidence of mustard in your fields.  Tough, invasive and prolific (small seeds means MANY seeds) mustard may not be the biggest shrub on the block, but it can become the biggest problem.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, worked into a large measure of flour…but leavened flour has only limited use, and nearly all of the other references to yeast in the new testament consider yeast as something small that spoils the thing to which the yeast is added. We hear about the ‘yeast of the Pharisees” as a warning not to be infected by their ideas (for example).  Consider too that bread made without yeast is culturally (and religiously) very important to the Jewish people.

And what of the idea that the kingdom is something that should be bought “at any price”…and kept.  Does that seem like a good thing?   Aren’t we supposed to be making disciples “of all nations”?   And doesn’t the tone of this parable suggest something other than ownership?  What about the commandment against coveting…?

That the kingdom may be like a net that catches everyone – such an idea sounds strangely comforting – but in the end, only some will be kept.  We’d like to imagine that there is an easy way to distinguish the good from the bad – and we have tried very hard to make those distinctions for ourselves – but the real problem is we just don’t know which is which.  This is a parable of the kingdom, after all; and this kingdom is like nothing we have yet imagined.

I challenge our conventional readings of these parables this morning  -with some prompting from Dr. David Lose, whose columns I receive regularly -because I think that we sell Jesus short by accepting easy interpretations.

If we come quickly (and easily) to the conclusion that “good things come in small packages” (as in mustard seeds and yeast), I think we miss a chance to be challenged.  It would be easy to use these parables to justify our small (but never insignificant) contributions in a small-ish, part of the church – in a denomination that shrinks every generation (you see my point…) I think that while “small may be mighty”, we are called to be more than just a ‘small package’ in the kingdom of God.

Yeast affects every bit of flour that it contacts – in fact it changes the character of the flour completely.  Mustard seeds are powerful because they can be pervasive and difficult to control.  When ground as a spice, it can be prepared in ways that change the character of the dish that it seasons.  Parables about value and desirability – pearls, hidden treasures and good or bad fish – raise questions about how we assign value to things, and how God may assign value to those same things – and ultimately, to us.

Jesus is not trying to make things harder for us – often enough, that’s the preacher’s job – but Jesus is certainly trying to wrench us from our easy acceptance of the status quo.  Only then can he point us to a time and place where nothing will be as it is, and everything will be as God wishes it to be.  That kingdom comes to us as a result of struggle; struggle with our effectiveness, our worth; our desirability.  The kingdom comes as a result of God’s deliberate intent, and not of our own wishing and willing.  Being small, or mighty, or particularly good or valuable is NOT what brings the kingdom close.  Only God can do that.  And thanks be to God, that kingdom is coming nearer every day.

With each small act of compassion; with every word of grace and love that comes unexpectedly to us.  Every offering of worship, which is, for us, a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, brings us in contact with the kingdom. From the wreckage of the cross – from the deep brokenness of our societal systems, God calls us to something different; something radically new; something better than we can imagine.

These parables are not offered so we can be satisfied with what we have – they are revolutionary speech, undermining what we know and calling us to look beyond our own knowledge, abilities and values to imagine how God is redeeming them and us in Christ.  May we, in faith, live into that redemption, with the confidence of the apostle Paul; that God, who began this good work among us, will bring it to completion in God’s own good time.

(I owe great thanks to Dr. David Lose and his blog post for this weekend.  You can find this at  http://www.davidlose.net/2017/07/pentecost-8-a-parabolic-promises/ )

 

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