Grace and peace to you, Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
We continue to explore Jesus’ parables about the kingdom this morning. These parables actually are found around the parable of the wheat and the weeds we read last week. Remember that parables are meant to be explored and wrestled with. They aren’t quick and easy answers, but they are a place for us to begin to have a conversation with God and listen for God’s vision for our lives.
Today, we hear a handful of parables, but I’m going to focus deeply on just one, so that, during this next week, you can follow my example and deeply explore these parables for yourselves. We’ll consider what the language meant for Jesus and the first listeners, acknowledge what we bring to the text, and listen for how we might see a reflection of its truth in our own lives.
Jesus teaches, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 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.” (Matthew 13:31b-32).
Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the language of “kingdom,” and here in this set of parables, we hear the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” This is a foreign language to us. These words conjure up images that are different for us than they would be for those who first heard them.
We’re used to hearing “heaven” as a place we hope to go when we die. Maybe with pearly gates, maybe filled with friends and family who have died, maybe just an unspeakable experience of joy.
In this text, I don’t think Jesus is primarily concerned with helping people visualize a place they will enter after death. Jesus opens his ministry in this Gospel with his first words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). For Jesus, this kingdom is at hand, Jesus is bringing it into the here and now.
Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” in this parable rather than “kingdom of God” as he writes in other places. For Matthew, these two phrases mean the same thing. They are more a reflection of Jewish religious custom rather than an attempt to clarify between two different kingdoms. The Jewish people avoided saying God’s name aloud as a way of respecting God’s holiness. To use “heaven” instead of “God” is to use a placeholder for the most holy name.
It might be most helpful to consider the phrase “kingdom of heaven” to mean “God’s scope of power, God’s reign, God’s sphere of influence, God’s culture.” Jesus is bringing to the present God’s reign through his ministry. God’s culture is transforming people who have been caught up with the world’s way of doing things. God’s scope of power is being set against the power of political empires.
Living in a country we celebrate as being free and safe, I’m not sure we have a similar enough situation to understand the feelings of those to whom Jesus spoke as they reacted to “kingdom” language. They lived under Roman rule, their own power and voice overruled by the wide-sweeping power of the empire that spans the Mediterranean. Their own kingdom, established by God, has been crushed by one empire after another, and the times in history during which it has been independent and peaceful are few and far between. Israel’s history is one of being divided and conquered. The Gospel of Matthew opens with the evils of kingdom represented by Herod the Great slaughtering the children in an attempt to kill Jesus before Jesus can threaten his kingdom, and closes with Jesus being crucified under a sign declaring this defeated one the “king of the Jews.”
Kingdom, as Jesus’ listeners have known it, is not a neutral or benevolent power. The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, stands in contrast to the kingdom under whose oppression the people lived. There is a new power that seeks to reign over their lives and shape their interactions: this is the power of God brought into their lives through Jesus.
The first parable we hear today is that of the mustard seed. The tiny mustard seed grows into a large shrub, so large it’s even called a tree. It’s so expansive that it is able to house the birds and their young.
This annual herb could get quite large, maybe sometimes reaching 5-6 feet tall, but not rivaling the great oaks or maples we might see in our yards. So why would Jesus use the word “tree?” Tree language was used as a symbol of a kingdom or empire. It’s another way to juxtapose the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the oppressive empire.
The reign of God is like the little seed that grows into the large tree. It’s unexpected: that something so tiny and seemingly powerless could grow so great and large.
We can feel like the kingdom of God is small in our world. Some of you have seen the power of Christianity and its hold in our culture become increasingly smaller. This has caused confusion and grief. This parable offers comfort by assuring us that even though expressions of God’s reign might seem powerless and insignificant right now, they will grow in time. One day, God’s reign will be complete, total, eternal.
The mustard tree is imaged as housing birds and their nests. I like the image that the kingdom has room enough to support life outside itself. In the Roman Empire, those who lived within its kingdom did not all have equal power. The majority of the Jewish people to whom Jesus spoke did not have access to political power or the rights accorded to Roman citizens. They did not find the Roman Empire hospitable, unlike the birds who found the mustard tree so hospitable that they moved in and raised their young among its branches. The kingdom of heaven stands in contrast with the kingdoms of the world, because there is room for all sorts of life to have a welcomed place in the kingdom of heaven.
Parables lend themselves to many different interpretations. Through them, God offers comfort as well as challenge. From our perspective, in which being a part of Christian community is a good thing, something that has recently been seen as the duty of a good citizen, we miss out on one aspect of the parable. This is the difficulty of being a part of God’s kingdom.
Perhaps Jesus’ listeners would not hear the image of the mustard seed’s great growth as a positive thing. A mustard plant that overgrows its boundary, crowds out other plants, and harbors precious seed and crop- eating birds is not a positive symbol. Farmers here who have watched their corn seed being eaten by a hungry crane might relate to the birds and the mustard plant enticing them to come and stay as a negative image. This is something unwelcome and discomforting about the image of the overgrowing, crowding out, pest-harboring mustard seed turned tree.
The challenge for us might be to hear that the kingdom of heaven can encroach upon our lives, pushing aside our priorities and desires, harboring creatures we do not welcome. God’s kingdom is entering our lives right now. This isn’t a safe vision of future heaven after we’ve lived our lives the way we want. This is about God laying claim to your daily calendar, your checkbook, your social media feed, your ambitions, your family, and your church.
Is there someone in your life you’ve seen live under God’s culture and so make life-choices that don’t match the goals of our modern, individualistic culture?
I think of some of my fellow students are seminary, especially those who were second-career, uprooting their family, leaving behind well-paying jobs, all because they felt God calling them to a particular ministry. You might think of people in your own lives, who have spent their free time with those who are lonely or sick, or caring for creation, or advocating with those in need. It might be you who others picture, giving up your Sunday morning to be here at church, putting your hard-earned money into the offering plate, and making other choices more reflective of God’s kingdom than a self-centered kingdom.
If the unruly plant of the kingdom isn’t unsettling enough, remember the company it attracts! Loud, chirping, messy birds who set up their homes like squatters and don’t seem likely to be going anywhere. Who might God be putting in our lives? Who might God be preparing us to welcome into our communities? God’s claim on the make-up of our social circles can lead us into communities with all sorts of people.
Put this way, I think we might be wary of this flourishing mustard plant that, at first, seemed so small and non-threatening. God’s power can grow surprisingly, taking over our lives, and leading us into greater service and hospitality.
Whether we welcome it with joy, or are hesitant because of its claims, Jesus has brought the kingdom of God into our world, our lives. Sometimes the power of God seems small like a mustard seed. At other times, we feel God calling us to actions that push aside our life-plans. Like a snake shedding its skin, we can chafe with our holding on to the worldly ways of life rubbing against the kingdom life God is growing in us.
Jesus is walking with us towards this transformation. We look forward to that day when God will fully establish God’s kingdom. As we wait for that day, may your hesitancy be eased and your joy grow complete.
Filed under: Sermons
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
We’re in the midst of the parables recorded by Matthew. Jesus speaks many puzzling images as he expresses God’s kingdom and God’s priorities. These are often so puzzling, so different than human expectations, that Jesus explains them to his select disciples. We can find ourselves wishing for even more explanation as we try to listen for Jesus’ message for our lives.
Jesus declares that today’s parable, sometimes referred to as the parable of the wheat and the tares, or the wheat and the weeds, is meant to bring listeners into a greater understanding of the kingdom. In so doing, Jesus uncovers our incorrect understanding. These words convict us, in our sin of wanting to judge and gate the community of God.
Parables are difficult beasts to wrangle into clear teachings. We are a people who want black and white answers, easy to follow instructions, and clear boundaries. But parables offer the opposite. They invite us into deep wrestling as we enter into the image Jesus puts forward and question what it means for us.
If you’re listening closely, you might hear a disconnect between Jesus’ introduction and his explanation. Jesus begins by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…(24)” and then he goes on to explain, “the field is the world.(38)” Often we think of heaven and this world as being light years away from each other. Jesus invites us into thinking about this world, this life, as being God’s kingdom, under God’s reign.
The most comfortable way to understand this parable is to think of this world as God’s kingdom under construction. We know this life isn’t perfect, our world isn’t always good. Bad things happen to good people, and sometimes they are the result of bad people doing bad things and hurting the good people we love. Evil seems powerful, powerful enough to drag down good people and destroy their lives. Addiction and illness might be two ways we’ve seen this kind of evil at work. This parable offers us a framework to see this world as a battleground, in which God has sowed God’s good people, and in which the enemy has sowed evil people and evil powers. We look forward to the end when God will burn and punish everyone we despise and we and everyone we love will be transported to a bright and happy heavenly realm.
And so it boils down to us feeling good about being in the right camp, satisfied that those who’ve hurt us are getting what’s coming to them. We know who’s in and who’s out. We gain the comfort of envisioning just punishment on those who deserve it. We gain the power of looking into the eyes of the children of the evil one and saying, “you’re going to burn in hell forever for what you’ve done.”
That would be one of the most safe ways to understand this parable. Most safe for me, and you, and any who would believe themselves firmly among the children of the kingdom.
But I don’t think Jesus offers these parable to help us feel safe and self-assured. Jesus invites us to wrestle with the image. Parables shatter our assumptions and uncover our smallness in the face of God’s expansiveness.
I showed two pictures to the children this morning. A photo of wheat growing, still green, and a photo of a weed, the one Jesus might be inviting the crowd to imagine, green and growing in similar shape to the wheat. They really are quite similar during their growing period. So similar that we might imagine a field hand, trying to help the wheat grow by removing the weeds, could end up pulling out wheat instead. It is not until the time of the harvest that the wheat turns golden and the weed is visibly different. Only after a full growing period does the difference between wheat and weed become apparent.
The slaves of the householder, upon seeing the presence of weeds in the wheat field, are quick to question the householder about the purity of his seed and eager to pull up the weeds. These characters hold a mirror to us, showing us something in ourselves that needs to be more deeply examined.
We are often overly focused on the purity of the field, the purity of God’s kingdom and our communities. We are a people quick to point out who belongs and who does not belong. We have enjoyed the power of being the one to say, “I belong, but you do not.” We’ve been brought up to notice differences. I can still hear the song from the TV show Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just isn’t the same.” The problem is that we not only notice differences, we also enforce our decision of which one doesn’t belong.
The news of the week has especially brought this sin to my attention. The story of one group seeing themselves as belonging in the land, as being the good people who must destroy the evil seed, or at least contain it and keep it away from the good seed is being played all around our world. Israelis and Palestinians shoot rockets at each other. Ukranians are so involved in their own struggle that they see the enemy in a civilian plane. Angry voices rise in our own country as Central American refugee children seek a new life at our border.
But this sin doesn’t have to be so distant from our experience. This congregation might be envisioned as a field. The church is a reflection of the kingdom of God. We often want our congregations to be “perfect.” Maybe there’s someone among us you’ve thought we’d be better off without. We often want to weed, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to do. There’s a quote that has stuck with me, “If there ever was a perfect church community, it would cease to be perfect the moment I joined.” We can’t form perfect, pure communities. We live side by side with the sinners among us, just as in our own selves exist saint and sinner.
Jesus knows our tendency to want to rip up and root out. Through this parable, Jesus calls us to leave the job of identifying and dealing with the weeds up to God. Part of what I wrestle with in this parable is the explanation, when Jesus describes the image of angels harvesting the weeds and casting them into the fire, as “all causes of sin and all evildoers” are cast into a place of torment. It’s so easy to want to avoid this image, or explain it in a way that contributes to our self-centered thinking that celebrates our placement in a blessed place and the justified punishment of others through their placement in a suffering place. That would leave us in our sin of taking God’s role of judgement for ourselves. It would leave us in our sin of wanting to bar the gate of God’s kingdom against all those we believe don’t have proper citizenship.
This parable opens up the possibility that the kingdom of God is so wide that it includes even evil. We are living in that kingdom now, waiting for the goal on the horizon, waiting for the kingdom under construction to be completed, waiting for that moment when all things, all forces, will be dealt with. This parable alone doesn’t give us the clearest vision of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ actions show the clearest vision of the priorities of God the gardener. Jesus on the cross heard the taunts of the criminals, and yet he endured the cross so that even they would gain his righteousness. Jesus knows the face of evil. Jesus’ way to root out all causes of sin is to take all sin upon himself, dying on the cross. He transformed the end by breaking the power of sin and death and opening the gates of life to all.
Filed under: Sermons
>Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
I was at the YMCA late Tuesday afternoon. From my perch on an elliptical machine, I joined in with a handful of other exercisers, people sitting on their couches, crowds gathered at bars, and the lucky thousands at the stadium to watch what became USA’s final game at the World Cup.