If you’re familiar with Jesus at all, you know that he liked to speak in parables — stories that are compelling in and of themselves but that also point to realities that are deeper and greater than the story. Our gospel reading gives us four very short parables, so I’m going to walk us through those parables one by one. They are about similar ideas but also have some nuances that are worth our attention. After we’ve waded through the parables we’ll give some attention to how these might help shape how we view our lives, both as individuals but also as a church. Let’s get to it!
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” Someone planted this small seed in his field. Over time it went from seed to full-grown plant, large enough that birds would make nests in its branches. It seems odd to compare something so grand — the kingdom of heaven — to an insignificant seed, but that’s what Jesus does. He’s actually talking about a plant we know as black mustard — brassica negra. It’s native to Jesus’ area. This small seed can produce a plant that’s upwards of 12 feet tall. From unnoticed to obvious.
Its description actually reminds me of pokeweed. I’d never noticed them until I moved here. One day, it seems there’s no plant. The next, there’s a four-foot tall plant with a thick purple stem invading my yard. They’re kind of fun to uproot; it makes me feel like I’ve really accomplished something!
So, why would Jesus compare the God’s reign to the mustard seed? Because sometimes it’s really hard for us to see God at work in the world. We don’t notice it. And when we don’t notice God at work, it’s easy to assume that God is not at work. This parable reminds us that God does make the insignificant into something significant over time. That’s the way the kingdom of heaven grows and works.
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” So…a baking lesson. There are some details we should notice, though. The word for “yeast” here really means leaven. The active dry yeast you keep in packets in your pantries wasn’t available in Jesus’ time. No Fleischmann’s for Jesus. Leaven was like sourdough starter. Leaven is a one-celled fungus that interacts with water and sugar, and when given warmth and darkness, it kicks off carbon dioxide, which causes bread to rise.
This woman isn’t just making a single loaf of bread. Three measures of flour is between 40 and 60 pounds of flour. She’s running a bakery and needs assistance from others to work this dough. What’s more, the word for “mix” is enkrupsen, which is related to the word we know as encrypt. She is hiding the leaven in the dough. Until the dough rises, the difference between dough with leaven and without it is imperceptible. But because this enterprising woman and her helpers hide the leaven in this giant mound of dough, the entire character of the bread has changed. The leaven is at work in unseen ways, but the end result is undeniable.
These first two parables are descriptions of the hidden power of God’s kingdom, of God’s work. We may not see it at first, but the end results are undeniable. Matthew writes his gospel to a church that feels insignificant and unseen. They are a mustard seed. They are leaven. Over time, what was imperceptible will become undeniable. That’s the nature of God’s work.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve largely avoided doing much on Facebook, but one of my favorite things about Facebook is the Memories feature. When I log on, it shows me a memory from that particular day several years earlier. I often find myself awed by how much life has changed from that memory until now. Ten years ago, my kids look so young in pictures, and now they have grown so much! That change is imperceptible as it’s happening, but one day it’s like, wham!, everything is different. Maybe if were composing parables, I’d do something like this: “The kingdom of heaven is like a picture of children left untended in a drawer for years, until one day a person cleaned out that drawer, saw the picture, and realized everything has grown.”
So, the first two parables are descriptions of the hidden power of the kingdom. but the second two reflect the responses of those who recognize the hidden power of the kingdom and how they assign ultimate value to it.
Jesus says, “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 he has and buys that field.”
Who among us hasn’t dug for buried treasure in our yards at one point in our lives? If you were here last week, you know Pastor Kristine brought a geode with her for the Children’s time. I told the Gathering Service last week that, once I knew geodes existed, I tried to dig some up in my yard. Never found one, but I’m not sure how many holes my mom let me dig before she said, “Enough!”
In this parable, the treasure is only known by the one who has found it. Everyone else just thinks this is an ordinary field, whose value is in its ability to produce a crop. But this person has found something special in the field, so much so that he sells all he has — joyfully, mind you! — to buy the field. Who sells everything they have joyfully? No one I know. I get nervous just buying a car, and that has never cost me all I own.
The point is this: When we finally perceive God’s work in the world, what is our response? The kingdom of heaven inspires commitment and even unreasonableness. Where does our ultimate concern lie? What, in life, is of ultimate value? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not where we are most prone to invest the resources of our lives.
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” So, a similar idea to the previous parable, although this time it is clear that this merchant is in the market for pearls, unlike the person who seems to have stumbled onto a hidden treasure in a field. In Jesus’ time, pearls were extremely valuable. According to Pliny the elder, pearls were of “topmost rank among all things of price.” Pearls would have come from the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean, so owning a pearl meant you had means. This merchant knows pearls so well that he is willing liquidate his entire inventory to purchase this one pearl. That’s how valuable this pearl is.
Over the course of his career as a merchant, this man has bought and sold fine pearls, and now, he’s encountered one that is worth trading everything he has for. That’s something of ultimate value.
So, we have two parables that point to the hiddenness of the kingdom of heaven, and we have two parables that assert that the value of this kingdom of heaven is so great that it’s worth taking everything a person has in order to get it. That’s really saying something significant.
Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish scholar of the New Testament, and she has a poignant observation about these parables. “Do we take stock of our priorities? What is our image of the kingdom? What, really, do we want? The parable consequently asks us if searching for pearls, searching for commodities or multiples or stuff, is worth pursuing. It is good to know that there may be something out there, beyond our imagination, that demands our recognition of its ultimate value.”
What do we want? It’s actually the same question Jesus asks the first people who want to follow him in John’s gospel. What are you looking for? That’s a question I think we can spend our lifetime seeking to answer. These parables tell us that we should be seeking first the kingdom of heaven, and in that seeking, everything else that we’re looking for will fall into line.
According to these parables, the kingdom of heaven is small but mighty. It acts and grows — often unseen — until one day we wake up and see it has influenced everything. It’s of such great value that when we finally do encounter it, we realize that it’s worth everything in order to get.
So, I’m wondering about you. I’m wondering about your life. What is hidden in you that is like leaven? What has God implanted in your heart that is growing behind the scenes that is ready to emerge? As a pastor, it has always troubled me that so many people feel like they don’t have enough gifts to serve or they don’t see anything special in their own lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. The kingdom of heaven has drawn near to you. God has gifted you with all you need to live fully and to love deeply. You may feel it’s as small as a mustard seed; you may be waiting for the leaven to breathe enough life into the dough of your life to rise up; but rest assured that God has given you everything you need to bring God’s love to bear in every sphere of influence of your life.
A piece of that comes down to our priorities. What are your priorities? Are they focused solely on you and your household, or do they take into account how God has called you into the kingdom of heaven?
So, I challenge each of us individually, but it’s also important to challenge us as a body, as the church. What is hidden in the DNA of First Pres that could grow into something mighty? What leaven has God been working into this church that will rise up into something that will feed all who encounter this church? And, what are our priorities? Have we found that hidden treasure and bought the field so that we can possess what is of ultimate value?
These are questions that are not applicable merely to this sermon and these parables. They matter to the very core of who we are individually and corporately. Seeking the answer to these questions will drive us forward in mission and vision. But it’s the seeking that matters. It’s the seeking that takes each of us. It’s the prayerful attention and the intentional offering that makes this happen. The kingdom of heaven is small but mighty.
Have you found it yet, and if you have found it, have you bought that field?