Texts: Psalm 105: 1-11, 42
Matthew 13: 31-33; 44-52
By: David D. McDonald
July 26, 2020
NRSV Psalm 105:1-11, 42
1O give thanks to the LORD, call on his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples.
2Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wonderful works.
3Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
4Seek the LORD and his strength;
seek his presence continually.
5Remember the wonderful works he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered,
6O offspring of his servant Abraham,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
7He is the LORD our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.
8He is mindful of his covenant for ever,
of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
9the covenant that he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac,
10which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
11saying, "To you I will give the land of Canaan
as your portion for an inheritance."
42 For he remembered his holy promise,
and Abraham, his servant.
NRSV MATTHEW 13:31-33; 44-52
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 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.”
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.”
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.
45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 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.”
Willimon tells the following story about a congregation he served:
“I am proud of the faithfulness of your little group,” I said to the women who had, through thick and thin, kept our church’s Clothes Closet functioning for those in need in our community. These six Christians had wrought a remarkable achievement.
“We are not a little group!” Agnes North said to me in a hurt, obviously offended tone. Why had I slipped in that offensive little word “little,” even if it was true?
We live in a culture in which “small” is synonymous with “insignificant.” I noted that the little candy bar I ate yesterday was not labeled “small” it was called “fun size.” The one I ate before that wasn’t called “small” either; it was “bite size.” You can’t buy a “small” coffee at the coffee shop. It’s called “tall.” If something is small, then you must euphemize it into some word that doesn’t say “small.” For us, bigger is always better.
Jesus says in this Sunday’s parable that the kingdom of heaven, that which he is bringing near to us, that which he is calling people to join, is an entity that is small – very, very small, as small as a tiny mustard seed. What does it mean for Jesus to point to the smallness of the kingdom?” (P.R., 7/27/14)
Things seem to start small with Jesus. Maybe we have the wrong impression about size. Short people sometimes have large accomplishments. My father-in-law was only 5’ 5” but he was an accomplished mechanical engineer who had produced some 7 patents for DuPont. He may have been short in statue, but he had a way to solve most problems. He liked challenges.
Consider today’s lesson from the parables of Jesus. This band of disciples had the odds against them. Everybody seemed to hate them. The parables were recorded so that those who had not known Jesus might catch a glimpse of the vision that he held out before his disciples. Jesus made use of parables to paint the picture of what life was like when it was fully and truly lived in the presence of God. If God is really in control of the universe, if God deeply and completely loves His creation, if God is trustworthy and righteous altogether, and lives up to His covenant promises; then life is lived in a magnificent Kingdom and its problems are solvable with Jesus in the boat.
In this morning’s passage we have fascinating pictures of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is like a mustard seed says Jesus. Scholars have long debated exactly what plant or shrub it is to which Jesus refers. It is quite possible to become so preoccupied with mustard that we forget the story.
1. First, the plant begins from humble beginnings. To look at the seed is not to see its future size. Time must past before it is grown.
2. Secondly, the growth itself depends upon the grace of God. The seed must germinate in fertile soil and rain and sunshine must visit this plant in necessary proportions before it is grown. Those ultimately depend upon God.
3. Thirdly, the plant itself occupies a place in the kingdom that benefits birds of the kingdom that come and build their nests in its branches so that they may raise their young. The Kingdom exists to fulfill the purposes of God. Those purposes are many and wonderful. Often we catch glimpses of those purposes, but some of those purposes may well be hidden from our sight and only by God’s grace will they be revealed. In our time we have just begun to realize how interdependent all creation is. The forests, the glaciers, the health of even small creatures like frogs in our lakes, all tell of the planet’s health. We disregard creation at our peril. In the words of a favorite hymn of mine:
“This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought Of
rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.”
When my daughter Christy and Abraham lived in Elizabeth City they had a kayak on the Pasquatank River. One day I took Elizabeth paddling. Leaving the tributary behind their home we entered the main body of water through a series of pilings that mark the entrance. On top of one of these pilings was a large Osprey’s nest. As we were passing by one of these, I noticed three youngsters bobbing their heads up and down in the nest. Nearby, Mama took to flight and landed on the nest with her great wings outspread and her enormous talons wide open, gracefully covering her young in magnificent plumage. Not a feather from her young could be seen. They were safely sheltered under her wings.
In the covenant promises that God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and numerous generations that followed, God promised to make of Israel a great nation. He would protect from all harm, shepherding them to green pastures and sheltering them under his wings. They would be blessed, but God also declared that they would be a blessing to the world.
In this morning’s passage the parable of the mustard seed is followed and must be seen in conjunction with the parable of the leaven. Several things are striking about this parable. In much Jewish literature, leaven was understood as undesirable. Placing it in the dough would make the dough useless. For example, there was the feast of the unleavened bread. At Passover the bread used to celebrate the feast, in the ancient tradition of Moses and the people of Israel, could not be leavened because on that first Passover when the angel of death swept through Egypt and Israel was spared, the families ate their evening meal with unleavened bread. So, Jesus has chosen a new image to be overlaid upon an ancient tradition. In doing so, Jesus seems to be appealing to yet an even older tradition. Recall that in Genesis 18:6, Abraham and Sarah are visited by three angels – messengers from God - Abraham tells Sarah to go and take three measures of flour and make cakes and prepare a calf for their guests. The image is one of a great feast. In many ways that image seems to fit the context of this parable that Jesus tells. The lady of this parable is taking three measures of flour and adding leaven. Now three measures of flour is about 50 pounds. The bread she is preparing according to some of the commentaries I consulted, could easily have fed 100-150 people. The feast is grand more like a wedding feast or the feast for the coronation of a king. In other words, to be in the kingdom is to be a guest at the Lord’s bountiful table.
These first two parables in this passage focus upon the action of God and the wonder of His grace. The next two parables depict the response of two men who have come upon this great discovery. The first parable describes a man, a laborer, hard at work in the field. As he is working the land, he uncovers a great treasure. The discovery is so great that he determines that he will go and sell all that he has in order to obtain the field. The second parable describes a merchant, a man who has lived his life to obtain wealth by trade, discovering a pearl of incomparable worth. He is so struck by this pearl that his wealth is as nothing. Its beauty and magnificence are beyond value, but he must have it. So he counts all other things as worthless. Gives up all he has in order to obtain the pearl. Surely, the point of Jesus is that nothing can compare with life in the Kingdom. To live in the presence of God is worth all we have. There can be no other idols in the Kingdom. There is nothing more important then to live in the presence of God.
Moreover, in both there is a great culling. All worthless things are forsaken and discarded. All dangers are avoided.
Jesus compares the kingdom to a day’s fishing with a great net. The net surrounds and brings to shore all the fish that it enfolds. There are fish worthy to keep and there are worthless fish that can only be discarded. Only God knows the difference! The point seems to be that there is yet work to be done in the kingdom. The master still has need of faithful and trusted servants who will share the bountiful feast prepared in the kingdom and resist the temptation to keep all for themselves.
As I think on these parables I am reminded of the story of the feeding of the 5,000. The disciples caught a glimpse of the possibilities of the kingdom. They had lived a day in the presence of Christ who could take a few loaves and a few fish and feed the multitudes. In and of themselves, the disciples were incapable of accomplishing such a great feat. Yet, with the aid of a generous young boy willing to share his provisions, the wonder of the Lord’s presence was demonstrated.
1. We live in an awesome time in which those who would like a new kingdom to come into existence of their design have unleashed the evil of terrorism.
2. We live in a time when great treasure has been made and lost at the cost of trust and confidence in those who are working hard to build new dreams. Yet, the reality unfolding before us seems woefully underrated.
3. We live in a time of great sophistication, mass communication, and the building of empires.
The parables of Jesus remind us that though the kingdoms of men and women come and go, there is one kingdom whose master may be trusted and that kingdom surely exists. That Kingdom has existed since the dawn of creation when God shaped the universe by His design. In it he provided for all our needs. In it, God has gathered his disciples from east and west, north and south. He has gathered peoples of every race and nation to declare his praise. As one commentary has written:
“The parables speak of the final victory of the kingdom despite all appearances, and they challenge the church to respond to their message…” (NIB, Vol. VIII, p. 312)
The words of Jesus proclaim that God, His Father, has not forgotten the world He created. He loves it still. The words of Jesus declare that the values of truth, honesty, kindness, humbleness, and love are not just words, but principles upon which seekers of the Kingdom still live. The words of Jesus still call men and women to come and follow. His kingdom comes and will surely dwell on earth as in heaven. When we gather as the people of God in worship and pray to be united in His presence in the Kingdom we are living by faith that the promises of scripture will find a way to come alive in the present and shape the future as God gives it power to do. Sometimes that word makes us comfortable and happy. At other times it confronts us with our weaknesses and inadequacies.
The Rev. Jimmy Hawkins told the following story at a presbytery meeting. It seems that a visitor to the congregation had become more involved and decided to join the choir. Several weeks went by and the new choir member continued to come faithfully and make a joyful noise. The only problem was that the noise resounded more like a honking goose then sacred music. The choir director tried placing this new chorister between various members of the choir to no avail. In desperation she solicited the aid of the pastor and asked him to solve the problem or else the choir would disband and sit down with the congregation.
The pastor made an appointment with the chorister and gently approached the subject. I’m so glad your worshipping with us. It is gratifying to have you share your gifts with us. But..But ..Well, frankly the choir director says that you can’t sing and wants you to quit the choir and use your talents somewhere else.
Well, pastor, I’ve heard 50 people say you can’t preach and that doesn’t seem to be stopping you!
What do we do when our treasure seems to be tarnished in the eyes of others? Should the Presbyterian Church quit being Presbyterian because we have a hard time attracting others to our beloved Reformed tradition? Should we offer what society wants to hear so that we may receive applause and accolades? The scriptures often challenge our values and our way of life. Even so, there are great pearls of wisdom in our Lord’s parables.
In the words of William Willimon:
“Every Sunday, when the congregation gathers, we are busy bringing treasure out of the ancient texts that we have received. But we are at the same time living in the light of Easter, where God defeated death and decay and rose to us as unexpected newness. We are living in the time after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended and disrupted everything with its power. From out of the old, in conversation with the new, our faith is formed.”