Sunday, July 24, 2011
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Weaving the Future
Seed-planting, fish-netting, bread-baking, pearl-hunting God, you shape us into living parables. Pray with your Spirit in us so that we may understand our experiences as healing metaphors, and become creative and abundant stewards of the environment you entrusted to our love. Amen.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: "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." He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.
"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. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
All readings for the Week
Genesis 29:15-28 with Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or
1 Kings 3:5-12 with Psalm 128 or Psalm 119:129-136
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
1. How do you think most of the people in our church pews hear these stories: do they take comfort, or offense?
2. How is this text good news for some, but perhaps not for others?
3. How do these images of Jesus conflict with our own images for God?
4. Where do you think the man's joy came from, when he found the treasure: from greed, or something else?
5. Do we, like the disciples, "understand" indeed what Jesus is saying, what the Stillspeaking God is saying today?
by Kate Huey
One of my favorite images from the Gospels is the little mustard seed in the parable that begins today's reading of several parables in a row, followed by Jesus' checking to make sure his disciples get what he's saying. (It's impressive how clueless the disciples are in the Gospel of Mark, but here, in Matthew's Gospel, they brightly say they understand "all" of what Jesus has said.) There's a range of interpretation of these parables (not surprising, since they are parables, after all), beginning with the almost sweet image of the little tiny seed that grows into (we imagine) a mighty tree, with birds nesting in its branches. The image alone seems straightforward and lovely, and, like the disciples, we can say, "Yes" if someone asks us if we understand: the kingdom of God (so easily identified with the church, of course) begins small, with Jesus and a tiny band of disciples, and grows into a vast, worldwide church. Even if it's not identified strictly with the church, the kingdom is something big and powerful and mysterious in its growth. Mysterious, like the process of leavening, when something very small creates a huge batch of bread (enough, in this reading, to feed one hundred people!). Ordinary, homey images, everyday people and activities, things of nature…these are the tools Jesus employs to try to convey how he experiences God, how he hopes we might experience God. And we find them beautiful and encouraging and hopeful, even if we've never laid eyes on a mustard seed or baked a loaf of bread. We can tell Jesus that we, too, "get" the idea, that we understand what he's talking about.
Consider that Jesus is saying these first two parables out in the open, outside a house, to a crowd, perhaps by the water but not in the heart of the city and certainly not in the sacred precincts of the Temple, the center of organized religion in his day and his culture. He doesn't talk about the Holy of Holies or the religious festivals or the clergy of his time when he tries to lead the people to deeper relationship with God. He tells stories, and he waxes poetic when he says what the kingdom of heaven "is like." Or, as Arland Hultgren writes, Jesus says that the kingdom isn't so much like the objects themselves (mustard seed, treasure, leaven) but more like the actual process of what happens in these little stories, the mysterious and powerful things that happen right beneath our eyes, even if our eyes can't seem to see what's happening.
Each parable provokes all sorts of questions about their sociological, psychological, and moral implications (Did the man steal the treasure? Are these stories from the peasant class something that urban folks would hear differently and, presumably, miss the point? Would the city dwellers know that one does not plant a weed like a mustard seed in one's garden?). Hultgren says, wisely, that it's "better to simply stay with the story." If we do simply stay with the story, we can't miss that phrase in the third parable (about finding the treasure) that almost jumps off the page: "in his joy." Jesus doesn't say, "in his greed," but "in his joy." We might safely assume that these three words are important to the meaning of the parable, and that the reign of God has much to do with joy.
Yes, there are scholars who strongly object to an emphasis on those three words that explain the behavior of the people in both "treasure" parables, doing something as rash as selling everything one owns (imagine selling your house, car, all your furniture--the works). The "thing" that the first person has found, accidentally, like the thing that the merchant finds quite intentionally, is worth everything, is worthy of the total commitment of everything we have and everything we are. Some writers describe the reign of God in the most comforting and personal of terms; Dianne Bergant says it "is the realization of knowing that we belong to God, that we are cherished and cared for, that we have been called to commit ourselves to the noblest values of the human heart. It is the prize that gives meaning to the present, and its fullest delight draws us into the future. It feeds our hungers; it satisfies our thirsts; it piques our curiosity….The reign of God is the fulfillment of our deepest desires and our fondest hopes…."
But most writers also bring us up short and direct our attention to less obvious meanings between the lines, and these only make the parables more powerful. We might see the mustard seed story as sweet, but the mustard tree (shrub, really) is, after all, a weed, and no one in their right mind would plant a wild, profusely growing weed in their garden. In fact, there were religious problems in doing so, says Richard Swanson: "Living a Jewish life means living a life that witnesses to the stable and orderly love of God in all things. Planting a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life."
A mustard tree/weed, then, is a humble image indeed for something as marvelous and transforming as the Reign of God. Perhaps the best illustration, quoted by Thomas Long, comes from David Garland's work, Reading Matthew: "Jesus' parable hints that the kingdom is breaking into the world in a disarming and, for many, disenchanting form. We do not sing, 'A mighty mustard bush is our God.'" Long is not the only writer who observes that the early hearers of this story might recall the mighty tree in more than one Old Testament story that symbolized the power of empires like Babylon (Daniel 4:12), practically matching Jesus' description word for word. And yet Jesus doesn't use "the cedars of Lebanon" to speak of God's reign; Long says he "probably has a twinkle in his eye as he plays on the popular image," and instead uses the very ordinary, very un-majestic mustard tree to make his point. We are constantly taken by surprise at the mysterious workings of God in our ordinary, everyday world.
Taken by surprise, but often offended, too, the scholars suggest. Jesus' audience would have considered leaven unclean and corrupting, Bernard Brandon Scott observes, and "the Bible told them so," since the scriptures often used "unleavened" as a metaphor for the Holy. In a culture like ours where leavened bread is common and even popular, we don't hear the story the same way, and we miss the offense and perhaps the power of what Jesus is saying. (In fact, our considerable efforts to avoid offense in the life of the church and in its ministry run the risk of neutralizing the gospel that Jesus embodied. If he didn't "give offense," would he have been crucified by the powers that be, with the crowd shouting its approval?) Leaven, then, was a symbol of moral corruption, like the one rotten apple in the barrel, and the New Testament itself embraces this negative view toward it (see Mark 8:15, Matthew 16:12, and Luke 12:1).
In fact, Bernard Brandon Scott provides an almost jarring perspective on these stories. His keen concern is to read the parables from the underside of society, where women lived, and the poor, and the outcast ("theology from below," it's also called). Where they lived was underneath the Empire, and underneath organized religion and the burdens it can impose (in every age, including our own). In a patriarchal culture, how can a woman, of all people, illustrate matters of God? Under the heel of the Roman Empire, how did one dare speak of the reign, the empire--the "basileia"--of God? The Roman Empire was not a nice place for the people of Israel to be in the first century, as Scott writes: The "Pax Romana…was pax only if you were Romana, otherwise it was oppressio, oppression." Perhaps Jesus used such language and such images to offer an "alternative" to that way of life, to offer a word of hope and possibility: "For all those who are leaven in their society, this parable assures them that the empire of God is like them. In Jesus' society this was a large majority of people," whether they were unable to fulfill the demands of their religion or barely able even to survive, or pushed to the margins of their society. Scott says that this "leaven" consisted not of a minority at the bottom but a majority, "at least 80% of the population of first century Palestine who lived a subsistence existence." Who are "those who are leaven" in our society, and even in our churches today?
Imagine What's Possible
Scott speaks persuasively and movingly of the "default world" that we live in, and the "counter-reality" that just a glimpse of the reign of God offers, that "says things do not have to be this way." The parable offers "hope and hope has power." One is reminded of the theme of the United Church of Christ's General Synod held in Tampa earlier this month, "Imagine What's Possible." Certainly a different God is revealed in these stories, different from the one encased in religious practice and prejudice that contradicts just what Jesus was saying. Perhaps God's "empire" is, as Scott writes, "more pervasive than dominant…like a pungent weed that takes over everything and in which the birds of the air can nest [and] bears little if any resemblance to the mighty, majestic, and noble symbol of empire of Israel or Caesar." What can make these parables offensive in every age is the challenge they offer: in the first two, our expectations and comfort zones are disrupted, and what we have considered "unclean" is somehow related to the reign of God: shocking! In fact, Scott finds in our discomfort an explanation of our tradition's long domestication of these parables so that we read them in a "non-threatening, actually reassuring way--from a little beginning comes a great end" and miss the offense provided by "unclean" elements such as leaven and unwelcome weeds.
Offering possibility and promise of something better
And yet we read these parables from the same New Testament in which Jesus outrages the religiously observant when he eats with sinners and hangs out with outcasts, including peasants and women (whether they bake or not). Within his own tradition--and Scott affirms that Jesus remains "firmly attached to Judaism and is engaged in an argument within Judaism." Jesus preached good news of a God who loves and accepts God's own children and keeps company with those on the margins. Within the life of our churches (and the society they influence, for better or worse), we might offer that same "glimpse," as Scott calls it, that possibility and promise, and see what might unfold right before our eyes, if we indeed have eyes to see it.
I always find it helpful to turn to Barbara Brown Taylor's preaching on a text like this one. In The Seeds of Heaven, she writes evocatively about the power of parables: "How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?" Perhaps we do best if use the most ordinary things, as Jesus did, and "[trust] each other to make the connections….We cannot say what it is, exactly, but we can say what it is like, and most of us get the message…." And Taylor's most keen observation is about the "hiddenness" of the reign of God in these stories, all of them, and what that hiddenness may teach us about our own seeking: that in the most ordinary, everyday things and experiences are "signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullness of our days….[it is possible] that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives…."
A family of choice
The people bear burdens not always visible and not always strictly economic; for example, when Bernard Brandon Scott speaks of a "chosen family," he evokes the experience of many gay and lesbian people who find themselves without family or friends until they are led to a new community of acceptance and grace, a "family of choice." Is the church such a community?
For a preaching version of this reflection (with book titles), please go to www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
For Further Reflection
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.
Charles Schulz, 20th century
I cannot fail to be thrilled every time I read the things that Jesus said, and I am more and more convinced of the necessity of following him. What Jesus means to me is this: In him we are able to see God, and to understand [God’s] feelings toward us.
Augustine of Hippo, 5th century
Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book, the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead God set before your eyes the things that God had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?
All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.
Emily Dickinson, 19th century
To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.
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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.