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[a] 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.”
What is the kingdom of heaven like? When we hear the words “kingdom of heaven,” I expect that our first thoughts go to a non-earthly realm. We live on earth and God lives in heaven – “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed by your name.” The kingdom of heaven lies wherever God is present – even in our midst. But, it’s not easily spotted.
The realm of God, which Jesus uses parables to describe, runs counter to our preconceptions. We know what kingdoms and empires look like. They’re hierarchical, top-down, power-sucking entities. The people of ancient Israel went to Samuel and demanded a king, so they could be like everyone else. Samuel got them a king, and Saul acted like Samuel expected. He sucked the air out of the room. He drafted the people to pursue his military escapades. David would do the same. After all, David the king wasn’t the same person as David the shepherd. Power can corrupt even the person whose heart is said to be set on God. Even the best of kings struggled to keep the things of God in mind. There was always the need to expand the borders and defend them.
When Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, he had a lot of history to reckon with. And so, he told parables. He told parables that had a subversive bent to them. Matthew brings a number of them together in Matthew 13. We’ve already looked at the parable of the sower and the parable of the weeds. Now we’re invited to focus our attention on a series of relatively small parables.
There is the parable of the mustard seed. It is interesting – thinking back a week – that the mustard seed might be small, but when planted (intentionally or not) it produces a shrub that most people of that day would have considered a weed. It’s not something you want in your garden crowding out roses and tomatoes. And yet this weed that messes up the garden is a sign of God’s realm. When the kingdom of God draws near, it upsets things. That’s why we try to institutionalize it. Yes, church-folk like things to be done decently and in order (I prefer some orderliness). In America the church is the harbinger of the middle-class – it lifts up the value of being nice. Remember cleanliness is next to godliness! The kingdom of heaven, however, is like the mustard plant that takes root in the garden and is threatening to take over. It started small, but it’s growing fast.
Then there’s the yeast. The woman mixed it into her flour, so that the bread would rise. But yeast can be a problem at certain times of year. In fact, for Jews of that day yeast was a symbol of corruption. Just a little will leaven a loaf. This woman is playing with fire! But of course Jesus plays with fire as well. Paul got a reputation for doing much the same thing. Wherever the reign of God is present, things get changed and transformed. Consider the children at the border. They are a challenge to us living in the United States. They are the “least of these.” What should we be doing? More importantly, what are they saying to us on behalf of God?
Then there are two parables – one involving land and the other involving a pearl. Both speak to treasures that are desired. The question is, what are you willing to part with in order to obtain this treasure? It too is hidden. It might be buried in a field that doesn’t belong to you. Or it might be a small pearl, hidden in a jeweler’s drawer. Whatever it is, the treasure is waiting, but you have to act. So what are you willing to give up to obtain this blessing?
These parables are brief in scope. They are short on details. But they are rich in their message – the realm of God is not easily discerned. You have to be looking. You have to be aware that God is on the move.
Then there’s the final parable – the one about the fish catch. In many ways it’s a parallel to the parable of the weeds. The fishermen go out into the lake, bring in a haul of fish (who are hidden in the depths of the lake). When they bring in the catch, they separate the good from the bad (as opposed to the weeds, which are to be left in place). But again we’re not doing the sorting – that’s the job of the angels. I think we can see in this parable a reminder that we are not the power of the realm of God. We have our responsibilities, but we’re not the sorters (even if we’d like to have the job).
As we contemplate the realm of God, using this diverse collection of parables as fodder for our consideration, it is good to be reminded that the realm of God is not to be equated with structures of power, whether in church or in state. The traditional idea of an invisible church fits this understanding. Structures and clergy can be used by God to sow the seeds of the kingdom, but they’re not one and the same thing.
Do you understand Jesus’ message? Are you ready to go the distance when it comes to the realm of God? I’m not completely sure that I am ready. I like my orderliness. I like my comfort. And yet, I want to be part of what God is doing in the world. So what shall I do? What will you do to bring out the treasure?