"What Is the World Like When God's Will Is Done?"
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
How can we speak of God and how God works? There are no words that are true enough…right enough. How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven and of God’s purposes for earth? How do we speak of holy things? Sometimes we struggle to find the right words. We don’t do it well. But because we need to try, we tend to talk about holy things by making comparisons to ordinary things…things we know.
Jesus did it all the time. Throughout the gospels, and in Matthew’s gospel in particular, Jesus was always making comparisons. Sinners are like lost sheep. The word of God is like seed sown on different kinds of soil. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast. God is like the owner of a vineyard. Over and over again in Matthew, we hear Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like this…”
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus strings a series of comparisons. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, he says…like yeast…like buried treasure…like a fine pearl…like a net cast into the sea. The images come quickly, right after another, with no preparation, no explanation, no time for questions and answers.
Jesus zings us with them—these five—like a slide show…or like scenes glimpsed through the windows of a fast-moving car. The kingdom of heaven is like this…and this…and this, Jesus says. It’s almost like Jesus doesn’t want us to get stuck on any one of them, but to be dazzled by the number and variety of things the kingdom of heaven is like.
The first two comparisons seem easy enough, at first glance. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed or a handful of yeast-- nothing big or much to look at. But the results are amazing!
In verse 32, the surprising turn is that the seed grows into a tree where even the birds take refuge. The mustard plant is an annual herb that normally grows no more than six feet in height and would be considered a shrub, rather than a tree. It’s in the imagination of the parable that a mustard seed can produce a tree with branches…and be similar to the imperial trees that symbolize kingdoms.
Tom Long suggests that Jesus must have had a twinkle in his eye as he played on the popular image, drawn from the Old Testament, that a mighty political kingdom is like a great and strong tree. He may have been alluding to the depiction in Daniel of Babylon as a tree standing at the center of the earth, with a top that reached to heaven, a tree that was visible to the ends of the earth, abundant enough that “the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living things were fed.”
They thought great kingdoms are supposed to look like the massive cedars of Lebanon or towering sequoias; instead, Jesus offers the humble image of a mustard bush. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard bush? The main point is that the kingdom grows to great size from very small beginnings. But another point gets made as well. This greatness doesn’t come in the form we expect.
As it turns out, the parable of the yeast has the same kind of unexpected twist. To our ears, it may sound like a gentle cooking illustration. But in Jesus’ day, yeast was a popular symbol for corruption. To observe that “a little yeast leavens the loaf” was similar to saying “one bad apple spoils the barrel.”
Not only that, but what the woman does with this yeast implies some stealth. You’d miss this in the New RSV and the NIV, but according to the original Greek, she hides the yeast. And she is apparently baking for a small army, because she hides the yeast in “three measures of flour”—which is about fifty pounds of flour—enough to make bread for a hundred people!
When you put all this together, the parable of the yeast pictures the kingdom as a hidden force, working silently to “corrupt” the world-- that is to corrupt the corrupt.
We can’t see the kingdom pervading the world. But when its hidden fermentation is accomplished, the bland flour of the world will be transformed into the joyous bread of life.
The next pair of comparisons are harder. Jesus has left the crowds and gone into a house. He’s talking with his disciples privately when he tells the next two parables: the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl. In each case, someone sells everything that he has in order to possess something of great value.
The point for both parables is that the kingdom of heaven is like this. When people truly encounter it, and realize what it is, it enters their hearts, seizes their imaginations, and overwhelms them with its precious value. No price is too great. Nothing that they own can compete with its value.
The final glimpse we had today compares the kingdom of heaven and a fishing net. The fisherman throws the net into the sea, and he doesn’t have any idea what kind of fish he will catch. He doesn’t hesitate to cast the net for fear that he’ll catch the wrong kind of fish. He casts the net wide and deep. The sorting out of the good fish from the bad fish will take place later.
So it is with the kingdom of heaven, and with the church. The doors of the kingdom of heaven are thrown open… the programs are open to all… the net is cast wide and deep. Into the church come people who are deeply serious about the things of God and people who are looking for a pretty sanctuary in which to get married. Some of the people are lonely or hurting. People show up who are hungry to do righteousness, and some come because their spouse or a friend comes and they come along because they’re going out for lunch afterward.
The kingdom of heaven and the life of God’s people is wonderfully open and nondiscriminatory. Everybody is welcome to come on in. The job of sorting everybody out is left to the angels-- in God’s time.
Have you understood all this? Jesus asks. Do you understand the profound truths of God? The deepest mystery of life—the secrets of the kingdom of heaven?
Then, how are we to live, according to these glimpses of heaven?
This is important. The Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God is a constant theme throughout the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew alone, “Kingdom of Heaven” is used over 30 times. The term has been understood in various ways: in pointing to the Parousia and return of Jesus, to the true life that is after life, to the promise of the social gospel, where the Kingdom can be created here on earth, in this lifetime. I think Jesus is talking about the Christian project on more than one level, talking about the Kingdom of Heaven in the time that is “not yet” fulfilled, but also in the “now,” as his followers embody his love and compassion and justice and, in doing so, gradually transform the world.
God’s presence and power is at work in the world, even when people don’t notice it until a time when it’s unmistakable and transformative. Even when we can’t perceive it, even when it looks like nothing is happening and there are no places for the birds to nest and no bread to feed the hungry crowds, the Kingdom of heaven is present and coming.
Do we understand these things?
I believe Jesus calls us to live with open eyes, minds, and hearts, never knowing where or how or when God’s surprising grace will erupt amidst the ordinariness of life.
Like those who go out and sell all they have for a field with buried treasure or a pearl of great value, God sometimes calls us to decisive, uncalculated action. Such extravagant living goes against the careful, calculating kind of living most of us have been taught to practice. The subversiveness of this and many of Jesus’ teachings challenges us to live as people of faith.
The good news is that the kingdom of heaven is hidden in the ordinary stuff of life--at work infiltrating, permeating, and growing in unexpected and inevitable ways. The kingdom is incarnate within us and grows through us, if we trust God enough to fill us and use us.
Like the yeast, which was hidden at first, mixed invisibly into the flour, the insignificant suddenly becomes significant, bubbling and fermenting and expanding, as flat, passive grain can be transformed into fat, fresh, life-filled bread.
As we study the Bible and pray and worship together, we can come to understand these things about the Kingdom of Heaven and find our lives being changed, coming more into God’s reality and rule.
As disciples of Christ, we are called to make a difference in order for God’s kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven. Like the first disciples, we may find ourselves doing things like sharing all we have with others, caring for those who are marginalized, and working more boldly for God’s peace and justice in the world.
We can find encouragement in Jesus’ parables: Hang in there! God’s new reality is closer than you think, already hidden in our lives, even if we can’t always feel it or see it.
No matter what it might look like, God’s kingdom will prevail. In the face of conflict, we can claim God’s peace. In the face of illness, we look to God’s healing, in whatever form it may take. In the face of hate, we can proclaim love. We can live in hope, because the kingdom is coming. In God’s time, it will transform everything.
This is the Good News of the gospel.
` Thanks be to God!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
July 30, 2017
 C. H. Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom (Scribner, 1961).
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdman’s, 1990), p. 6.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 153. The scripture citation is Dan. 4:10-12.
 I am indebted to Tom Long for this insight, in Matthew, p. 154.