The first of this talk is presented in a Godly Play setting with a gold box and the building up of the display board shown in the picture below:
This box is gold and looks valuable. I wonder if there is a parable inside? Look. The box has a lid. Parables have lids too. Sometimes, even if you are ready, you cannot enter the parable. The lid is like a door. Sometimes it is closed. If that happens, don’t be discouraged. Come back to the parable again and again. One day it will open for you.
The box looks like a present. Parables are presents. They were given to you before you were born.
Let’s look inside to see if there is a parable in the box. Hmm - I wonder what this could be. It is certainly yellow. A lemon? A sun? I wonder.
There was once someone who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people followed him. As they followed him, they heard him speaking about a kingdom, but it was not like the kingdom they lived in. It was not like any kingdom they had ever visited. It was not even like any kingdom anyone had ever heard of.
They couldn’t help it. They had to ask him. What is the kingdom of heaven like? One time when they asked him that he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like when a person took the tiniest of all the seeds, a grain of mustard seed, a seed so small that if I had one on my finger you would not be able to see it.”
The person pressed the tiny seed in the ground and it began ... to grow.” The shrub grew up into a big shrub, and the birds of the air came ... and they made their nests there.”
Now I wonder.
I wonder if the person was surprised to see that tiny seed turn into a huge mustard plant.
I wonder if the birds were happy to find the tree.
I wonder if the person was happy to see the birds coming.
Now, what was the question Jesus was answering when he told this parable?
I wonder if he answered that question.
I wonder why Jesus spoke of a weed as being like the kingdom of heaven.
What I really wonder is what it was like when Jesus told these parables to crowds. Did the people sit silently, nodding and agreeing with everything Jesus said? I don’t think so. I think that the crowds to whom Jesus spoke interrupted him and asked questions and told him they didn’t get it and asked again and again for a story that they could really understand. They wanted a simple answer to a simple question. What is the kingdom of heaven really like?!!!
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells five different stories, trying to answer that very question. Let’s look at these parables briefly. We have the mustard seed, tucked down into the ground and growing into a shrub filled with birds. We have a woman kneading a tiny amount of yeast into enough flour to make 100 loaves of bread, which all rise beautifully. We have treasure hidden in a field, discovered by a joyful man who sells all he has so that he can buy that field. We have a merchant finding a great pearl, hidden amongst many. Lastly, we have a great net thrown out into the sea, catching many fish which are then sorted, good from bad, by the fishermen.
All of these stories seem simple and clear but I don’t see how they answer the question: What is the kingdom of heaven like? Perhaps the answer to that question is hidden inside these stories. Each story has something hidden in it: tiny seeds, yeast, treasure, pearls and good fish. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is also hidden - like the things in the parables. The objects are common: weeds, fields, yeast, fish. Could Jesus be saying that the kingdom of heaven is hiding in common objects, found all around us?
We could try to reduce these parables to simple explanations: The seed is faith which grows; the treasure is heaven; the fish are people, good and bad. But Jesus almost never explained himself. He told his parables, just like I did here and let them stand alone.
In our Wednesday Bible study, we spent over an hour actively discussing these five parables from Matthew. We had so many questions: “Isn’t mustard a weed? Jesus is saying that the kingdom of heaven is like a big weed? Why didn’t he talk about acorns which could grow into mighty oaks? Wait a minute, that man found the treasure, then hid it again, then bought the field, then what?” I think we were a bit confused.
You know what? These parables have confused generations of biblical scholars so we were in good company. I wonder if Jesus told parables with that very intention. After Wednesday’s Bible study, Jim commented on what a good, lively study we had. If the text had been simple and easy to understand we would have read it ... and been done with it. But these short, seemingly simple parables engaged us deeply as they must have engaged the people of Jesus’ time.
It’s fun to wrestle with these texts, with these parables. In doing so, we wrestle with our faith and God. We’ve been learning about Jacob in the past weeks in our Old Testament readings. He struggles a lot during his life until he eventually spends a whole night physically wrestling with God. He even throws his hip out! But he gets what he wants: God finally blesses him. Could it be that God prefers this active faith, this active engagement with him over blind obedience, blind faith? Maybe we can wrestle with God the way that Jacob did by studying his word.
I deeply enjoy attending our weekly Bible study and diving into these texts. I am so glad that there is no question that is too dumb to ask because I’m so full of dumb questions. We don’t sit quietly memorizing bible verses and just accepting whatever interpretation is handed us. We actively question and think and pray and wonder.
So, what is the kingdom of heaven like? It is like a tiny, insignificant mustard seed that grows into a big weed. That’s heaven! We are a tiny church, small and insignificant like a mustard seed. Small and insignificant, we still help the hungry in our community. We still help the old and infirm at the rest home, we support women in jail, we teach little children at community bible camp. Small and insignificant, we love each other and try to love the world. Small and insignificant, perhaps, like the mustard seed we are like the kingdom of heaven.