Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "God's Reign Is Like," Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
God’s Reign Is Like
Our reading from Matthew today covers a lot of ground in a very short span of verses. I love Jesus’ parables, his unique way of storytelling that helps us understand God’s nature and God’s reign on earth and in eternity. And Jesus’ parables are collectively some of our favorite and most well-known of Jesus’ teachings: The Parable of the Good Samaritan, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Lost Sheep. But here, in these twelve verses, we cover five parables. And while we might be familiar with the first one - the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the others are not particularly well-known. When Jesus is done with his quick-paced teaching, he asks the disciples if they’ve understood what he’s said. And they say, “Yes.” And their one word response makes me laugh every time, because I’m a little suspicious of their answer. Sometimes it’s easier to just say we’ve understood something than to admit we need to go back and get a more detailed explanation. I, at least, will admit that I don’t find it easy to get these parables. If you feel the same way, maybe we can dig deeper into this text together today.
Parables are a specific type of teaching tool of Jesus. The word parable literally means to bring one thing alongside something else. A parable brings one thing parallel with another so they can be compared. The idea is that by bringing a more familiar thing alongside a perhaps less familiar thing, you’ll learn something about the less familiar thing by your understanding of the more familiar thing. Jesus’ parables are almost always about the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign, God’s way of things on earth and in eternity. Jesus wants us to know what things are like in the way that God operates. What is God’s reign, fully realized, come to fruition, like? Jesus explains using parables, bringing something that might seem beyond our understanding - God’s rule and reign and hoped-for way of things - alongside something his audience did understand very well: stories about agriculture, farming, everyday items and situations they had experience with. Of course, for us, for today’s hearers of Jesus’ parables, we don’t always know much about either thing Jesus is talking about! We’re trying to learn about the Kingdom of God, but we also have to learn about farming or agriculture or whatever other first-century practices Jesus mentions in his parable that don’t always translate directly into how we do things today thousands of years later. So, we have to work a bit harder to understand.
Jesus’ parables about God’s reign also serve to highlight how God’s reign is markedly different from the reign and rule of the human rulers the people were used to. Jesus’ first-century audience was living under occupation of the Roman Empire. They were ruled by the emperor and agents of the emperor who generally looked on them with disdain. They were heavily taxed. Their religious practices were sometimes curtailed and oppressed. They were afraid. And even their own leaders were sometimes working in collaboration with the Roman government. Corruption and greed and violence were all around. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, then, it sounds a sharp contrast to the kingdom, the empire of Rome. When we hear the parables, that’s another thing we listen for: how does this paint a picture that suggests that God’s ways are markedly different from the ways of the Roman Empire, than the corrupt ways of power-hungry human leadership? The parables paint an alternative, longed-for vision of the way things can be when we let God’s rule guide us fully.
So what do these parables tell us about how things are in God’s reign? What is God’s reign like? The first two and second two are pairs of sorts. First, Jesus tells us that God’s kin-dom is like a mustard seed - a very small seed that grows and grows and grows so that it becomes a tree big enough for birds to nest in the branches. Then, he says God’s kin-dom is like some yeast that woman mixes with flour until the dough is leavened. A little bit of yeast is enough to make enough dough rise to serve many people. Both parables have some measure of exaggeration - Jesus isn’t strictly factual in what he says. But that tells us something about his point. The very small grows into something very large. Remember, the parables tell us something about the kingdom of God, about God’s reign on earth, about how things are when they’re operating as God would have them be, now and in eternity. So God’s reign is like something that starts very small, and grows into something very large that provides a good benefit beyond itself. Pastor John Murray puts it like this: “The insignificant is overwhelmingly significant [in the kingdom of God.]” (2) I love how he puts that. In God’s way of things, God’s reign, what the world, what culture, what the powerful, what we have declared insignificant turns out to be overwhelmingly significant. The insignificant is overwhelmingly significant in the kin-dom of God. In God’s eyes, those who find themselves continually pushed to the margins, excluded, discarded, overlooked? Those who are repeatedly told they’ll amount to nothing? That they’re worth nothing? That they have nothing of value to contribute? In the kin-dom of God, they are overwhelmingly significant. And so we, God’s people, live more fully in the reign of God when we put at the center of our lives the same things, the same concerns, the same people God does. How are we putting those at the margins at the center of our lives?
The next two parables are about finding something that’s worth everything, and doing anything and everything to take hold of that thing that’s worth it all. First, Jesus says God’s kin-dom is like a treasure that’s hidden in a field, and, on finding it, someone goes and sells all they have in order to purchase the field. In the second, Jesus says that God’s reign is like a merchant who is looking for fine pearlts. And when the merchant finds one stand-out pearl of great value, they sell everything else just to have that one pearl. Again, the parables contain a measure of exaggeration - what merchant, for example, would sell everything to have one pearl, thus putting themselves out of business? - and the exaggeration helps us see Jesus’ point: the kin-dom of God is like a treasure, like a precious pearl. It is worth absolutely everything we’ve got. Compared to God’s reign, everything else dims. Nothing else is as valuable. Jesus wants us to know that the kin-dom of God that he’s here to talk about, that’s the “good news” that he brings, is worth our everything, worth our persistence, worth our struggles, worth changing our lives for, worth giving our heart and soul for. Worth everything.
Jesus clearly wants us to get what he’s talking about. There’s an urgency in his tone: “God’s reign is like this. It’s like this. It’s like this.” He’ll give us parable after parable until it sinks in. So what do we take aways from all these little stories, these vignettes? What seems small has enormous impact - the insignificant is overwhelmingly significant, and the margins are brought to the center in the reign of God, not just in eternity, but now too, as much as we let God’s way be our way. And this vision that Jesus describes is worth our everything, and nothing else matters if we can realize, embody, live into the world Jesus is describing. And until we can? We keep seeking after it, working for it. Working for a world that matches Jesus’ outrageous descriptions.
Maybe you, like I did recently, took the opportunity to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s beautiful musical Hamilton, about Alexander Hamilton and the founding of the United States, when it was released on Disney+ this summer. I’d tried to listen to the music when Hamilton first was becoming popular, but I realized I needed to see the show on stage to really get into it, and I didn’t see that happening anytime soon, as tickets were so expensive. But I’m so glad I got to watch it now, and I can’t get the music out of my head. I particularly love the number called “Satisfied,” sung by the sister-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler. Angelica talks about never being satisfied with her life. As a woman in patriarchal society, she feels stuck in her role, trying to do what’s right by her family, even at the expense of her own personal happiness. She laments that she will never really feel satisfied in life.
I think many of us want to be satisfied, content with our lives. And we see that as a good thing. If we never feel like we have enough, or never feel like we can deeply enjoy life, or we’re always unhappy with our lives, never satisfied, isn’t that sad? Doesn’t that reflect a kind of ingratitude for the blessings of life we’ve received? And yet, on the other hand, being content when we shouldn’t be happy with how things are can be a problem. You’ve probably heard the expression, “Jesus comes to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If there is injustice and oppression in the world, how comfortable and satisfied should we be, exactly? Until God’s justice, God’s reign sets things to right, how can we be settled? Until the insignificant becomes significant to us as it is to God, until last becomes first and first becomes last, how can we be satisfied with the way of the world? What price can we put on bringing God’s vision for earth to fruition? Isn’t it worth everything? Can we settle for anything less?
Pastor Teressa and I had the pleasure of hearing preacher and theologian David Lose preach and lecture at the Festival of Homiletics a few years ago, and I always find his take on the scriptures inspiring. Writing on our text for today he says, “The Gospel makes a claim on your whole life, not just part. It invades your whole world and reality and can’t be contained only to your spiritual, Sunday self. Not only that, but it taints the reality we’ve grown to accept, challenges the views we’ve lived by, and again and again calls into question assumptions that have guided much of our lives in the world. All of which means that the Gospel of the kingdom that Jesus proclaims and lives is truly good news only to those who are not finally satisfied with what this life has to offer … to those who are dissatisfied – with the status quo, with what they have been able to secure on their own, with the values, stereotypes, or prejudices of the culture – then Jesus’ Gospel, while still disruptive and even upsetting, nevertheless feels true, real, and something worth buying at any cost.
“Which is perhaps why the church has always grown most quickly in those places where life is most fragile, if not threatened. When you can set yourself up with the comforts of the world and fortify the illusion that you are master of the universe, of what value are Jesus’ promises? The Gospel, as [the apostle] Paul says, appears foolish in the eyes of the world and so has little value to the self-contented, the self-made [person] … the powerful. But to those who are perishing – whether by illness or disappointment or poverty or dissatisfaction with the inequities of the world or spiritual discontent – Jesus’ promises are still good news, indeed the best news we’ve heard and worth sacrificing all to embrace.” (1)
I do want to be content - but I want to be content not because I’ve tuned out the cries for injustice around me so that I can be unbothered. I’m seeking the kind of contentment that comes from letting the message of Jesus work through my whole life, bit by bit, until I’m entirely transformed, like yeast setting dough to rise. I’m seeking the kind of contentment that comes from knowing that I’ve found this treasure, this pearl of great value, this kin-dom of God that can be our way of things not just in some by and by, but our way on earth, right here and now. Claiming that treasure, that vision, is worth my everything, worth giving my whole self to God for. Only then, only when we do, I think, will we be satisfied, content, joyful like the person who just claimed the treasure in the field.
The beautiful thing about Jesus’ parables, his stories to help us imagine what God’s reign on earth is like, is that they invite us to create and dream right alongside Jesus. What do you think it would be like if God’s ways were our ways on earth? What would change from how things are now, in order for us to have right relationships with God and each other? What would our communities be like? Can you imagine? Sometimes it’s hard to picture something so wonderful. But Jesus will help us, tell us yet another story, until we can see it too. And once we see it? Let’s give our all to building God’s kin-dom on earth. Amen.
(1) Murray, John, “Parable of the Mustard Seed,” Eastern Mennonite University, Feb 20 215. https://emu.edu/now/podcast/category/chapel/parables/. Phrases reordered for clarity.
(2) David Lose, “Pentecost 8 A, Parabolic Promises,” In the Meantime,