A Provocation: Eighth Sunday After Pentecost: July 30, 2017: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
13:31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;

13:32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

13:33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

13:45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;

13:46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

13:47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;

13:48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

13:49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous

13:50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13:51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”

13:52 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.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus insist on telling stories?
  • Why do these stories offer life and death, acceptance and rejection, at the same time to the same people?
  • No, really, WHY?

Some Longer Reflections:

Just for clarity: no mustard on earth becomes a tree.  Mustard is an annual plant, a forb, if you are being particular.  In some few cases and places it grows very large, but it is never mistaken for a tree.  The storyteller here is emphasizing the expansive (even explosive) growth of this plant.  As my father, the Vocational Agriculture teacher, used to say, “It is impossible to have a little mustard in a field.”

Just for clarity: it is not yeast (at least not Red Star packaged yeast), but leaven that is being talked about here.  Leaven was understood to be a mystery.  In particular, it was a mystery belonging to women, since women baked bread in many ancient cultures, and men were amazed at (and ignorant of) how they made bread rise.

That means that the Reign of God is, in these two parables, likened to growing, living things, one of which is explicitly the purview of women.

And, just for the sake of clarity and complication, both of these images are images of corruption.

Mustard was not planted by Jewish farmers in the ancient world.  It was religiously illegal to do so, and not because of “silly religious superstitions.”  A main point of Torah observance, then and now, is to provide an image of the orderly way God loves the world, an image that becomes more necessary the crazier the world becomes.  Mustard destroys order and grows out of control.  Jews cooked with mustard, but they did not plant it in the ancient world because of the importance of offering exhausted pagans the hope that love and order and rationality were still possible, no matter how wild and uncontrollable the world has become.

And yeast is the same.  Throughout biblical narrative, yeast is consistently understood as a metaphor for corruption.  That is one reason that all leaven bread is removed from Jewish houses in preparation for Passover.  That is the reason that Jesus tells the disciples to “beware the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees.”  The storyteller makes the disciples misunderstand that statement as a reference to actual bread, but this is just a joke at the expense of the disciples.  The real point, as every audience would have known, was that even faithful efforts at purity can become a kind of corruption.  When religious observance goes sour, it turns people into nasty legalists.  Jesus was NOT charging that all attempts at Torah observance are sinful and self-centered.  Jesus is saying that even good-hearted faithfulness can go sour, and when it does it can even make a good person into a rat.  When a Pharisee goes sour, the result is a rigid religious rat.

In the ancient world, in fact, the image of the way leaven works to transform bread dough is a common cliché: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” people would say, meaning exactly what we mean when we say, “One bad apple….”

So, the Reign of God is like a bad apple?

That is exactly what Jesus just said.

If you have ever been the target of aggressive “evangelism” you probably already agree with Jesus.  People who begin by assuming that you need to become a whole lot more like them before God will love you are already beginning to rot, says Jesus.

That’s easy.

Too easy.

I think Jesus works with a sharper knife than that.

Even our best theology carries in it its own form of corruption:

  • The notion of a messiah offers hope by refusing to justify common abuses of power.  But it also threatens to bless violent revolution.
  • The notion that God created the world and all its workings to be good, exceedingly good, teaches us to trust life to carry solutions to even the deepest problems hidden in its depths.  But it also trains people to practice quiet submission when vigorous protest is necessary.

The list goes on.  The parable requires us to learn to analyze every promise until we see the problem lying latent in it.  The parable also trains us to believe that every problem carries a promise in its depths.

 

“Have you understood all this?,” asks Jesus.  The disciples responded in chorus: “Yes,” they said.

I am not so sure of my understanding.

 

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