Monday, February 18, 2019

Parabola—a sermon on the parables of Matthew 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Matthew 13.1-9, 24-35, 44-46 (NIV)
17 February 2019, NL1-24

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.
‘The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”
‘“An enemy did this,” he replied.
‘The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”
‘“No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: first collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’
He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.’
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
‘I will open my mouth in parables,
    I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Many of Jesus’ most memorable teachings came in the form of parables—stories that are mostly about everyday life but offer some insight into what the kingdom of God is like, or how we can participate in God’s kingdom even now. Jesus was a master storyteller, as he connected the reality people knew with the one God is continually making known. Sometimes we fall into reading his parables as allegories, where each element of the story stands for something else. The difficulty with that is that you need a key to understand it, and the people who heard Jesus’ stories for the first time had no such key, yet they seemed to find meaning in these teachings, so it must be possible to read them in a variety of ways. The beauty of a parable is that it will reveal different meanings from different angles. The root of the word “parable” is the same as the root of “parabola”—for those of you whose geometry skills are a bit out of date, a parabola can be pictured as a U shaped cross section of a cone, parallel to one side. It is, essentially, a bounded space around a point, but the U shape never touches the point, it simply rotates around it. 

Similarly, a parable is like the space around a point. It doesn’t touch the point exactly, doesn’t always make an obvious connection, doesn’t make an explicit tag line of moral teaching at the end, but rather rotates around the point so that we can see it in a new way.

The parables in today’s reading are a great example of Jesus taking everyday life and helping people see the kingdom of God already in our midst. He uses normal things—seeds, weeds, gardens, food—and also imagination-catching things—like hidden treasure and great beauty—to offer a different vision of the way the world can be.

In the first of today’s parables, Jesus tells the story of a farmer who is terrible at his job and wastes seed by throwing it everywhere without preparing the ground first. We might consider it a reminder that actually the seed never goes to waste...after all, the birds that eat the seed off the path need food too, and even the flower that grows in the middle of a crack in the pavement might brighten someone’s day, and perhaps the plant growing and dying amongst the thorns will decompose and help nurture the soil. We’re meant to share the good news without deciding ahead of time what soil is good enough, and trust that the seed will serve its purpose, whatever that might be.

In the second parable, we have another master gardener who doesn’t trust his labourers...he sows good seed, but then weeds are sown alongside. The weed in this case is called Darnel, or False looks just like wheat until it’s nearly harvest time. Then the real wheat has ears that are full and heavy and begin to bend the stalk, while darnel stands up straight and tall. But all the time it’s been growing silently alongside the wheat, the roots have become entwined, and it’s impossible to pull one without the other. When the workers ask if they should pull out the weeds, he tells them an unequivocal no. They are not qualified to do that work. We, the workers in God’s good creation, are not the harvesters. We don’t get to make decisions about who stays and who goes in God’s kingdom. And when we try to weed out some, it’s likely we’ll damage others. Instead, the master gardener tells his workers to tend the whole field. Water it, fertilise it, take care of it. Regardless of our feelings about the people we share our field with, our job is only to nurture the life of the whole garden together. The harvester will manage the weeds in his own time.

We’ve heard about the mustard seed and how it provides extravagantly for all, even those who might be a bit of a pest around the garden. 

The two parables at the end of the reading feel different—they fit the extravagant theme, but they don’t seem quite as accessible to everyday people. The buried treasure is something we all may daydream about, but it’s hardly a worthy use of time to look for it. Yet when it is discovered, it’s worth rearranging our whole lives for. The pearl merchant is far outside the experience of 99% of Jesus’ listeners at the time, and probably still today. It’s a strange story in which a man finds something he didn’t realise he was looking for, and not only gives up all his possessions but also his identity—no longer is he a merchant, buying goods for the purpose of selling them to others. His life and his understanding of himself is changed because he came across something more valuable than he could have imagined. This is a perfect example of why parables are not allegories—because often we think the pearl must equate to the gospel, or to Jesus, or to salvation. But none of those are things you can possess, as the man possesses the pearl. Rather the story shows us someone who re-orients their life and identity, who has a change of heart and mind—which is what is asked of those of us who would walk the Kingdom Way.

Right in the middle of the reading today is my favourite of these parables. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in about three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. 

Let’s talk about yeast. Nowadays it’s a nice little powder that comes in a tin and we measure it out. But the yeast, or leavening, that Jesus would have known is what we today would call sourdough starter. It’s weird looking and smells a It has to be taken care of regularly, and it has to be used or else it gets out of hand. At its most basic, it’s something that is fermenting and decomposing right before our eyes.

And in the story, the woman hides this lump of starter in a massive quantity of flour. Some translations say “mixed” but the Greek is actually very clear, it says enkrypto...which means exactly what it sounds like. She hid it. In somewhere around 30 kilos of flour. And the yeast did what yeast does...expanded and worked its way through until all of the flour was leavened. Not one handful would be left untouched.

If we were to assume the woman did the usual things next—kneading, shaping, and baking—then she would have somewhere around 60-80 full size loaves of bread. Like our modern-sized loaves, meaning it was likely closer to 100 loaves then. In a time when most baking took place at a communal oven, where women gathered and took turns putting things in and out of the oven while watching children and talking amongst themselves, this is an unthinkable amount of food. Even if she were capable of preparing that much dough, she would have monopolised the oven for days, baking enough for her whole town to have bread.

Can you picture the neighbours, as loaf after loaf goes into the oven, and comes out to be passed around? Not a one of them would have to bake for days. Everyone would have their daily bread, without effort and without price, as Isaiah 55 says. All because of this woman who hid her fermenting sourdough starter in her entire stock of flour. 

Jesus says this is what the kingdom of God is like.

Nothing is hidden except to be revealed*...and here indeed is the kingdom revealed, in that bubbly decomposing blob that rises and infects and lightens and grows, until the entire village has enough to eat and share. Abundant bread of life for everyone, without thought to whether they deserved it or earned it or paid for it or were ready for it. Just as a city on a hill cannot be hid, just as Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, this parable reveals God’s kingdom way: a way that surprises us with enough for all.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in about three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

May it be so. Amen.

*With thanks to Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories of Jesus for reminding me of this connection.

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