Exodus 3:1-4; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
You wait for one parable about the kingdom of heaven and five come along at once! This morning, we listen as Jesus uses mustard and merchants, fish and fields, plants and pearls to explain to his audience what God’s realm is like. And I wonder if they were – or we are – any the clearer! Jesus, of course, had the reputation for being a bit of a riddler – a prophet who spoke in pictures and poetry, who answered questions with further questions, whose very existence as God and human was a paradox – and so perhaps it should come as no surprise to us that his description of God’s kingdom is not one of detail and doctrine but rather a mysterious melange of metaphorical meditations.
And I wonder what you thought as you listened to Michael read them out. Perhaps one of the parables stood out for you. Perhaps the familiar comparisons washed over your head – mustard seed, treasure in field, pearl of great price – check. Perhaps you received fresh revelation about what God’s kingdom might be like. Perhaps you got distracted with that rather uncomfortable ending about separation, the fiery furnace, crying and gnashing your teeth. Or perhaps you were deciding what you were going to have for dessert at lunchtime. All the same would have happened when these words were first spoken, of course, just with fewer sticky toffee puddings on offer.
Well, when I read the lectionary gospel reading for today I confess to thinking “Can you please just slow it down Jesus?!” for just as I was beginning to get my head round one of these images and its potential meaning, another one, two, five come along! Perhaps, of course, that was part of Jesus’ technique – to hit the audience with a score of stories in the hope that one would stick or that the confusion caused might lead to greater discussion later on. Jesus’ way of preaching was often very different to that we’re accustomed to today…which might give us pause for thought another time but for this morning, I thought it might be interesting for us to dig a little deeper on one of these parables and just before I do – a quick reflection for those who might otherwise remain stuck in those words of fire and judgment…
Do you have a friend who is passionate, perhaps obsessive about some sport or band, hobby or even political issue – it could be something as frivolous as Coronation Street or as serious as the oppression of the Palestinians – and no matter what you’re talking about, they’re able to bring the conversation round to the same topic time and time again? You know the sort –
“Hi Phil, how’s it going?”
“Not bad Dave, you?”
“Can’t complain. And speaking of complaining Phil, I still can’t believe Warburton was sent off in that semi-final – the Irish ref didn’t have a clue what he was doing…”and there begins another tirade against the referee’s dubious decision…
We all have a friend who has a particular hobby horse and for the gospel writer Matthew, it’s fiery judgment. He writes about it more than all the other gospel writers put together. He’s that guy! And so when Jesus tells a few parables about God’s kingdom, it’s no surprise that Matthew finishes with one which warns of fiery judgment. The other gospel writers don’t include this story and when a similar one is written about in the Gospel of Thomas, one of the books about Jesus that didn’t make it into The Bible, there’s no such explanation. This isn’t to say that Jesus didn’t necessarily say these words or that we shouldn’t pay serious attention to language of judgment in the gospels, but for here and for now, I choose to follow a number of scholars who put these verses down to Matthew trying to be helpful and explaining Jesus’ sideways stories the best way he knows how.
One parable of the many which go without explanation and which we’re focusing on this morning is that of the treasure in the field. As parables go, it’s a pithy affair –
“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.”
Okay…so what have we got here…the kingdom of heaven is like the treasure hidden in a field. Let’s pause for a second. God’s kingdom is like treasure – okay…I think we can all go along with that – the kingdom of justice and joy and peace and love is like treasure – something valuable and life-changing that you might search for. So far so good. But then…hidden in a field? Why hidden in a field? Who did the hiding and why? If it was the owner of the field, then did they just forget about the treasure? And who were they hiding it from in the first place? Perhaps this is what Jesus wants us to reflect on here or perhaps we could go along with the interpretation that like the almost invisible to the eye mustard seed, hard to find pearl or hidden yeast…here, Jesus is saying that sometimes God’s kingdom can be glimpsed in places and people that the rest of the world would ignore. It’s found in the seed of a mustard weed and in the housework of a woman…found in social outcasts, abandoned council estates and forgotten fields.
So, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone discovered, then hid again and then sells all he has to buy that field. Okay…nice message. God’s kingdom is so precious, we must give all we have for it. Lovely. Except…well, what was the man doing digging around in someone else’s field in the first place? And how moral was it for him to buy the land without saying anything to the landowner? To many commentators, this man is little more than a thief! And once again we’re reminded of how Jesus’ stories that sound so nice and straightforward and comfortable to us were, in fact, scandalous and subversive to those who first heard them! How then, might we reframe or retell these stories so that they convey the same shock, meaning and invitation to discussion today?
Well, the curmudgeonly Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R S Thomas, gave it a go by conflating two of the parables and adding a brush of burning bush as we shall hear now from the man himself as he reads his poem ‘The Bright Field’…
For Thomas, his understanding of the parable, or parables, seems to be that we can get so distracted by the nonessentials of life that we do not notice the lit bush, the pearl of great price, the bright field beside us; that we can get so concerned about hurrying on to a receding future or hankering after an imagined past that we don’t notice the kingdom among us here and now.
That seems a pretty helpful slant on things to me. I know I can spend time indulging in memories of days gone by when God felt particularly close, life was easy and I had a full head of hair…or busying myself in great plans for the future, that I can fail to appreciate the wonder, the grace, the joy of the kingdom in the here and now. And, as churches, we can wax lyrical about the years when everyone was flocking to services, when hoards were willing to serve as elders and the junior church had two hundred members or thinking about tomorrow, investing much of our time, money and energy in projects that will yield fruit…and by that we mean bums on seats…in future years such that we miss, ignore or even deride the visions of the heavenly kingdom here and now. A kingdom that’s like a hidden treasure that turns a thief’s life upside down. A kingdom that’s like a tiny mustard seed which grows into a massive tree of shelter. A kingdom that’s strange, subversive, unexpected and unstoppable! A kingdom that’s wonderfully chaotic and chaotically wonderful, if you will.
For Matthew, the parables spoke of coming judgment. For R S Thomas, they spoke of the kingdom come. For both of them, Jesus’ sideways stories hinted at the hard to see truths of the heavenly kingdom – the radical realm that Jesus speaks of throughout Matthew’s gospel from his exodus out of the wilderness to the last supper with his friends; that mysterious kingdom that came near every time Jesus healed the sick, reached out to the outsider, forgave the sinner, cared for the vulnerable, gave his life for others and rose in glory. Jesus’ parables, then, are playful tales that invite us to question our assumptions, play with paradoxes, bathe in God’s grace and look for the divine in the world around us here and now. And if that’s true then I’m with those who say that the church’s work in every age is to form disciples who value the contemporary equivalents of weeds and yeast, thieves and merchants. I’m with those who say we need to retell the parables in a way that is true to our context today…
And so, the kingdom of heaven is like a rockstar whose wild lifestyle made him forget a gift given by his friend. Years later the reformed rocker remembered and he searched all he had until he found the now priceless painting!
Alice Cooper finds Warhol
artwork after decades
rolled up in storage
The kingdom of heaven is like a chest of gold in a ship. Afraid that the gold would get into enemy hands, the ship was deliberately sunk by its crew. The gold was lost but then found again, decades later, by a dedicated group of treasure hunters.
Wreck that ‘could contain £100m worth of Nazi gold’
found by British ship
The kingdom of heaven is like a fractious council meeting which leads to the building of a troubled youth hostel in the posh part of town.
The kingdom of heaven is like worm poo which produces rich compost, good vegetables and full stomachs.
They who have ears, let them hear! Amen.