Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
31 He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”
33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. 46 When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, they pulled it to the shore, where they sat down and put the good fish together into containers. But the bad fish they threw away. 49 That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. The angels will go out and separate the evil people from the righteous people, 50 and will throw the evil ones into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.
51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
They said to him, “Yes.”
52 Then he said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.” (CEB)
The parables of Jesus don’t always make perfect sense, but they’re interesting. There are often several interpretations of each parable—most with merit, and some not so much. I’ve said before, they’re not straightforward.
The first two of the five parables in our text might point toward the humble beginnings of the kingdom: one man, Jesus, was born of a young, humble, virgin in a stable in Bethlehem turns out to be none other than God incarnate. The next two parables might deal with the great worth of the kingdom of Heaven. The fifth parable might be about judgment.
But they might have other meanings, too. In past sermons, I’ve mentioned how most people interpret the parables of Jesus as though they are about us, but I tend to believe that the Scriptures are telling stories about God, not necessarily us. It’s no surprise, then, that when we look at the parables more closely, things tend to get a little more complex, even difficult.
The first parable is full of exaggeration. A mustard seed is indeed very small, but it is not the smallest of seeds. Neither does it grow into a tree so large that flocks of birds can nest in its branches. Jesus was probably cracking himself up when he compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a lowly mustard bush. In Old Testament imagery, mighty kingdoms are compared to great and strong trees. The book of Daniel compares the kingdom of Babylon to a mighty tree standing majestically at the center of the earth, with its top reaching to heaven. “Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living things were fed” (Daniel 4:12 NRSV).
Great kingdoms are supposed to look like the mighty Cedars of Lebanon, towering Sequoias, great oaks, or grand beeches. Just imagine what the people listening to Jesus were thinking when they heard him say, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard bush…” They were probably thinking, Mustard bush? Mustard bush? Are you kidding? What kind of wimpy little kingdom is this dude preaching? What kind of kingdom is like a mustard bush?
But I think that’s exactly the point Jesus is trying to make. The kingdom does not come in the form we want it to, or expect it to. We don’t sing, “A Mighty Mustard Bush Is Our God,” we sing, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” We think that everything about God is supposed to be BIG, POWERFUL, STRONG, UNBENDABLE! But in this parable, Jesus hints to us that the Kingdom of heaven is breaking into our world in a disarming and, for many of us, a disenchanting sort of way. It isn’t what we expected. It isn’t what we wanted. It isn’t the way we think about God or imagine how God is supposed to act. No wonder so many Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, and it’s no wonder that so many people still reject Jesus. Most Jews expected the Messiah to be a conquering hero who would re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, but instead the world got Jesus: a guy who taught radical stuff like peace, love, nonviolence, generosity, acceptance, and praying for enemies. God does not act according to our paradigms and expectations. And that is what Jesus teaches us in this parable of the mustard seed.
The parable of the yeast has a similar twist to it. It might seem like little more than a cooking illustration, but it’s much more than that. In Jesus’ day, yeast was a popular symbol for corruption. In Matthew 16.6, Jesus says, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” He was warning the people to beware of their corruption. To say, “A little yeast leavens the whole loaf” is like saying, One bad apple spoils the barrel. For Jesus to say that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, is like describing it as a virus or rust: something insidious that works in hidden ways that we can’t see, at first, to corrupt what we thought was strong and healthy.
To emphasize that point, in the Greek text, the word used to describe what the woman in the parable does with the yeast is ἐνέκρυψεν [enekrupsen] which means “hid.” She didn’t innocently mix in yeast with the flour, she hid it! People don’t know what they’re getting when they eat this stuff any more than they know what they’re really getting into when they become a Christian. What’s more, her action of hiding the yeast in the three measures of flour is going to affect a lot of people. Three measures are equal to about 50 pounds of flour, which will make enough bread to feed 100 people.
If the kingdom of heaven is like yeast hidden in three measures of flour, it’s going to touch a lot of people and they won’t even know it until it’s too late. In this parable, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a hidden force working silently to “corrupt” the world from its evil disposition to good. The kingdom of heaven works kind of like the Dark Side of the Force, for those of us who are Star Wars fans. Not that it’s evil, but it works in secret and silence right under the eyes of the Jedi. It pervades the whole world, secretly infecting and affecting everyone who comes into contact with it. It’s the righteousness of God’s kingdom that sneaks in and corrupts the evil of the world into righteousness. When the kingdom’s covert work of fermentation is complete, the ordinary flour is transformed into the bread of life.
The parable of the yeast is a story about how God works. John Wesley called it prevenient grace: the kind of grace that works on us and in us before we even know it. Suddenly we realize that God has been working in our lives from the beginning. There has never been a time when the kingdom of heaven wasn’t working on us, breaking into our lives in covert and sometimes imperceptible ways. That’s how much God loves us!
Then we come to the parables of the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great value. And I think they are less about us and every bit about God. They can suggest just how far God is willing to go in order to possess us. In God’s eyes, we are the treasure hidden in a field, we are the pearl of great value for which God was searching; and God has given everything, even his own Son, to make us God’s own possession. We have been bought with the very blood of Jesus Christ. And it might just surprise us that God sees so much value in us, that God could see a treasure or a precious pearl in something so despicable and wretched as us. But that is how God sees us. We were lost treasure, and God found us. We were a priceless pearl for which God had been searching, and we have been found. We are God’s priceless treasures, and God has sold everything to buy us, to come close to us, to be God with us, and to make us God’s very own possession. Think about that for a minute. God’s love of us is incalculable and amazing.
Then, there’s the parable of the net. It’s as much about the kind of evangelism the church ought to be doing as it is about judgment. It tells the church what kind of evangelism we ought to be doing because it primarily tells us what kind of evangelism God has been doing. We sometimes forget that salvation is about God, not us. God has adopted an open and uninhibited approach to evangelism. “The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” When a fisherman casts a net into the sea he or she doesn’t know what kind of fish they’re going to catch. The net could be filled with any kind of fish: meaty fish, bony fish, good fish, bad fish, bottom feeders, top feeders, whatever—they’re all gathered up in the net. No fisherman hesitates to cast the net because they’re afraid of catching the wrong kind of fish. They cast the net deep and wide and haul everything in. The sorting of the good and bad fish will take place later.
So it is with the kingdom; so it ought to be with the church. God’s net is cast deep and wide in order to bring in an abundance. Regarding this parable, Will Willimon wrote: “A dragnet is hauled into the boat full of creatures both good and bad. Should the catch be sorted? No. The Master is more impressed with the size of the haul than with the quality of the harvest. One day, not today, it will all be sorted” (Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 36).
Our church doors are open to all. Our church programs are open to all. Our net ought to be cast deep and wide. Sometimes the church gets people who are deeply serious about the things of God. Sometimes the church gets people who are looking for a pretty sanctuary in which to get married. Sometimes we get people who don’t have anything better to do on a Sunday morning. Sometimes people show up because they are hungry to do righteousness. Some people show up because their spouse said they were coming whether they like it or not. The life of God’s people is wonderfully nondiscriminatory. Everybody is welcome to come along for the ride and, hopefully, each of us is encouraged to grow in our faith in God, deepen our love of God, and expand our love and care for other people along the way.
The job of sifting and separating the righteous from the evil, the serious from the frivolous, the authentic from the fraudulent, is left to the angels on another day. The job of sorting—of judgment—is not left to us. In the meantime, the grace of God flows freely and hopefully because, who knows whether the fish that any one of us might have hastily thrown back after little more than a quick glance will, in time, turn out to be the best catch of the day? That is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that salvation is God’s story, not our story. God is the main character, not us. And that’s a good thing! If it were our story, we’d look at all those fish and start sorting right away. We’d start tossing what we would judge to be “bad fish” back. Whereas God might see a bad fish and say, let’s keep this one and see if it doesn’t grow into a whopper. No story of any saint ever had a perfect beginning. We too are fish, after all. God is the fisherman. We’re just a part of the haul brought in by the net. And thank God the net of the kingdom has been cast so deep and so wide. If God’s net wasn’t big enough to catch the whole world, some of us who are sitting here might have been left out. This parable, like all parables, is about God, not us.
After teaching all these parables, Jesus asks his disciples a simple question, “Have you understood all this?” And they answer, “Yes.” The true disciples of Jesus Christ are like scribes who have been trained for the kingdom of heaven.
That kingdom—God’s kingdom—is like a mustard seed sown in a field that doesn’t always come the way we expect it to come, or look the way we expect it to look.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast hidden in flour that works in our lives and throughout the world in ways we don’t realize or readily see.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, like a merchant in search of fine pearls where God searches for us and sees in us immeasurable value: a value so great that God has risked all and given all just to possess us as God’s own.
The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea in that the kingdom is open to anyone and everyone regardless of how others might judge them because judgment isn’t our job, it’s the job of the angels on another day.
These things are what the kingdom of heaven is like, and we—as the church—are scribes in training for this kingdom: a kingdom that might not be exactly what we expect precisely because it’s more than we could ever imagine.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!