Proper 12, Year A
In our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus describing the kingdom of heaven with four short parables. Then, he turns to his disciples and asks, “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”
Up to this point, the disciples have not done very well trying to understand Jesus. Jesus told the parable of the sower to the gathered crowds. Then, as soon as the disciples get him alone, they ask him to explain the parable to them. The next day, Jesus is again teaching the crowds and tells the parable of wheat and the weeds. Again, as soon as they get Jesus alone and away from the crowds, the disciples ask for an explanation.
So I’m a little skeptical of the disciple’s answer. I imagine them looking at him with a mixture of confusion and worry.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed? Mustard is a weed that grows on the edges of fields. How can the kingdom of heaven be like a weed?
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast? How can that be? Yeast is consistently used throughout scripture as a metaphor for evil. The yeast Jesus was talking about was not the Fleishmann’s dry yeast that comes in a nice, neat paper envelope. Yeast in Jesus’ time was a rotting mass of flour and oil that would be mixed with flour to make bread. A baker would keep a jar of yeast going all the time, adding more flour, water and oil to the jar to keep it growing and active, and pinching off a lump each time he or she wanted to make bread. Yeast is messy, sticky, smelly stuff. What does Jesus mean comparing the kingdom of heaven to yeast?
Jesus teaches with these short, jarring parables, surprising us and challenging us to hear something new and different. Then he ends the lesson with a final parable that is about the disciples, and about us.
And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
The scribes of Jesus’ time were the people who dedicated themselves to reading and learning from the scriptures. If we want to understand the scriptures, we have to be willing to find something new along with what is old. If all we do is to learn the accepted interpretations, we are closing ourselves off to learning something new.
There is something about religion that can bring out the most conservative thinking in even the most liberal of people. We hunger for certainty. We want to know the answers. We want to know the rules. We want to know how to pray, how to worship, and how to experience God in our lives. As soon as we find one answer to one of these religious questions, we hold onto that answer like a drowning man holding a life ring. We will hold onto the life ring even when there is a lifeboat floating nearby.
Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven with parables because he wants us to let go of the life ring and get into the boat. The life ring will keep you from sinking, but the lifeboat will keep you from sinking and let you get warm and dry.
The kingdom of heaven is a way of talking about a life lived in faithful relationship with God. The Jews listening to Jesus already knew how to relate to God. The Torah, the 10 commandments and the laws of Moses, the Temple in Jerusalem, these were the ways that they related to God.
Jesus comes offering something radically different. In order to be heard by these people Jesus has to startle them. He has to use the old and familiar images in new ways. Jesus is offering a very new way of understanding the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is offering a new way of knowing and relating to God. Jesus is telling us all these parables about the kingdom of heaven because he wants to teach us how to live in loving relationship with God and with one another.
The traditions and practices of the past are important to us, but Jesus also wants us to be open to learning something new. Jesus wants us to learn to be open to the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So he tells us that we should be like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. Embrace the beauty of our traditions, but be open to new inspiration.
I see this at work every time I participate in a Bible discussion group. We will read a passage and then someone will ask a question. Invariably, the first answer will be very much like what we learned in Sunday School. The first answer is often what someone else told us that the scripture meant.
Take the parable of the net in today’s reading. One obvious lesson from this is that in the kingdom of heaven, the good and the bad will be judged. The good will be kept and the bad will thrown out. That sounds like another lesson about judgment after we die and go to heaven. When you get to heaven, you will be judged. You had better be good or you will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
If we look at what the parable actually says, and let the metaphor of the net and the catch speak for themselves, we find something more in this parable. First off, there is nothing here to indicate that the kingdom of heaven is somewhere else. There is nothing here about being judged after death. There is nothing here about waiting until we die to be judged or even waiting until we die to experience heaven. No, what we have here is a description of a net that catches every kind of fish and creature in the sea. The kingdom of heaven catches up all the fish, good and bad. God is indiscriminate. Everyone is caught up in the net of heaven. You don’t have to believe the right thing or even belong to the right religion to be caught up in this net.
Yes, it matters what you do. There is judgment. There are consequences for what you do and how you live. The good fish and bad fish are sorted. But there is more to learn from the parable of the net. There is something new for us to learn.
The surprise of these parables is that God yearns for us as much and more than we yearn for God. God is willing to risk everything to find you and to have you. And so the kingdom of heaven is like a net that gathers and includes and welcomes everyone. God’s great net will gather you in because God loves you and wants to be in relationship with you. God’s love and desire for you is even greater than your love and desire for God.
These parables are an invitation to live in the kingdom of heaven now. Are you yearning to be loved? Jesus has good news for you. God already loves you. Jesus is inviting us to live in loving relationship with God now.
The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
July 24, 2011