Weekly Seed: For Righteousness

Sunday, July 30, 2023
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost | Year A

Focus Theme:
For Righteousness

Focus Prayer:
Righteous God, we seek your kindom on earth as in heaven. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 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.”
33 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.”
44 “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.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 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 this Sunday:
Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128 • 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136 • Romans 8:26-39 • Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Focus Questions:
What do you imagine the kindom of God to be like?
What do you seek from the kindom?
How do you train for the kindom?
How do you define righteousness?
How do you cast the net for righteousness?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

In the gospel according to Matthew, the evangelist emphasizes the reign of God and the coming realm of God. They capture this throughout each section of the narrative and every literary form they employ. Jesus’ actions and teaching provide demonstration, explanation, and illustration of the kindom of God (kingdom of heaven). In this passage, there are a series of similes that describe the kindom using familiar experiences and references. Given the significant number of disciples who were formerly fishermen, perhaps the most profound imagery is that of casting a net. Yet, each reference shares a different aspect of the character, nature, development, and composition of the kindom in order to provide a more fulsome understanding of the reign and realm of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew’s original audience hears these words decades following Jesus’ original audience. The vision of a world transformed presented by Jesus has not been fully realized even if they experience moments of it in community. Persecution and doctrinal drift have impacted followers of the way. They need a reset of encouragement and realignment as they strive to live in the world and spread the kindom through it. The analogy of a mustard seed is particularly appropriate if seemingly improbable:

The parable offers another reason that some/many do not respond positively. They fail to recognize a “now but not yet” dynamic. God’s empire is present in part but not yet fully. The mustard seed (13:31–32) offers a further explanation, namely, the strange and mysterious nature of the reign’s present manifestation. The mustard seed denotes invisibility (is anything happening under the ground?), contrast (small seed, big shrub), continuity or inevitability (the seed becomes a shrub), and growth (it takes time). These features describe the present state yet also the future goal of God’s work, explaining why some/many fail to see it, but assuring disciples of God’s work.

Transformation may be instant, but that movement is miraculous. The miracles so prevalent in Matthew’s account serve as a demonstration of the kindom not a predictor of how it will come to be realized. None of the analogies found in this passage suggest that the kindom will suddenly materialize without effort and time. Even the treasure that is discovered takes work to possess. The coming of the realm and reign of God is a process engaging intention and care, nurture and work, dedication and patience. For Matthew’s audience, it was reassurance that their effort and commitment was not wasted and would manifest results even if their progress was not visible.

There follow two parables that assure the hearer that the reign of God—though imperceptible now— is very real. These parables are in sharp contrast to visions of the reign of God as coming in a cataclysmic event, revealed all at once in a blaze of glory. The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven together convey the inconsequential and inconspicuous character of the reign of God in its approach. What is now small, like the tiny mustard seed, and what is now hidden, like yeast in the dough, will become visible and great. A process has begun that will achieve God’s purposes gradually, “like the slow growth of a plant or the steady leavening of a loaf.”9 A patient, expectant waiting is called for. Followers of Jesus are not to become discouraged because they do not yet see the fullness of God’s reign. They are assured by these parables that it is growing in their midst even now and will surely come in a fullness that is great beyond all expectations. -Anna Case Winters

The kindom does not just happen; it’s created and cultivated. Our world is not so different from the Matthean worldview that we do not also need encouragement and assurance that the kindom is still here and still coming. It takes time, nourishing, and the right environment as the mustard seed analogy reminds us. It also needs activating agents just as bread needs yeast, or some leavening element, to reach its potential.

God’s reign, like yeast or leaven, works over time, in a hidden manner, yet its transforming work continues inexorably. A further section (13:44–50) presents three final parables. In the parable of hidden treasure, the focus moves from a contrast of small beginnings and cosmic completion to a person’s encounter with the empire. Searching, joy, setting aside all else, commitment, and disruption of priorities mark the encounter, and confirm its great value. The pearl offers a similar experience. The repetition underscores the point (13:45–46). The parable of the fishnet rehearses emphases from the weeds and the wheat. Evil coexists with God’s empire, as do negative and positive responses until the final division and God’s triumph (13:47–48). -Warren Carter

The kindom is not curated or constrained. When you cast a net to catch fish, you pick up whatever is in the path of that net. You may go to a particular area known for the type of fish you seek. You may understand the migration patterns, seasonal movements, and other factors that increase the probability of a large catch. No matter how skilled a fisherperson you may be, when you cast a net, you will catch more than your target. Some will be treasures that exceed your expectations; others will be disappointments that you would naturally throw back into the water. Even in this analogy, Jesus upends conventional thinking and practice.

It’s not our role to determine the worth and value of the catch. Our job is to cast the net. The shifting comes later and is beyond our authority or responsibility. Matthew encouraged his audience of insiders to move beyond their community to spread and be the good news outside of their boundaries and identity affiliations. In our current climate of both increased access and entrenched silos, this admonition holds renewed relevance. The kindom is for friend and foe, marginalized and privileged, oppressed and oppressor. All need liberation from empire and systems of evil that create barriers, dismantle bridges, and separate the beloved of God into enemy camps.

The goal of the kindom is righteousness. Earlier in Matthew 6:33, Jesus says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The kindom and righteousness are connected, tethered together in such a way that one cannot be manifested without the other. When we cast our net for the kindom, we cast it for righteousness.

We cast our net for righteousness, we cast it for those Jesus describes in the Beatitudes–the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. We cast our net for those in need of healing like the person with the skin disease, the centurion’s servant, and Peter’s mother-in-law. When we cast the net, we extend the call of Jesus to enter into the reign and realm of God like Jesus called the first disciples even knowing one would eventually be thrown out.

Casting our net for righteousness is our faithful response to the One who caught us in a web of love from the endless depths of Living Water.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Later stages of Israelite history also show that God is particularly concerned about the oppressed within the community of Israel. The rise of Old Testament prophecy is due primarily to the lack of justice within that community. The prophets of Israel are prophets of social justice, reminding the people that Yahweh is the author of justice. It is important to note in this connection that the righteousness of God is not an abstract quality in the being of God, as with Greek philosophy. It is rather God’s active involvement in history, making right what human beings have made wrong. The consistent theme in Israelite prophecy is Yahweh’s concern for the lack of social, economic, and political justice for those who are poor and unwanted in society. Yahweh, according to Hebrew prophecy, will not tolerate injustice against the poor; God will vindicate the poor. Again, God is revealed as the God of liberation for the oppressed.
—James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

For further reflection
“If you don’t have a righteous objective, eventually you will suffer. When you do the right thing for the right reason, the right result awaits.” ― Chin-Ning Chu”
“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” ― Martin Luther
“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.” ― Neil Gaiman

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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