There’s something sneaky about the parables that Jesus presents in today’s text. In each parable (except perhaps the last), there seems to be some element of surprise or stealth. Here’s some of what I mean:
While most of us grew up reading the parable of the mustard seed somewhat simplistically that – “big things often have small beginnings” – the truth is that mustard plant was a weed. It was uncontrollable, invasive, undesirable. In fact, the mustard seed was the weed of choice for someone who wanted to sabotage a farmer. Once it gets into a field it was nearly impossible to get it back out. And yet the Kingdom of God is like this weed?
And then there’s the yeast that the woman mixes with the flour. This is so different from our cultural that it becomes easy for us to miss the sneakiness. You see, leaven in the biblical world was a sign of impurity, and kneading it into the flour irreparably tainted the loaves. One the people would have thought of as “good bread” suddenly receives a chemical reaction and is changed into something different. And yet the Kingdom of God is like the yeast being mixed in?
Or rushing out to buy a field because you know it is worth far more than the seller is aware. And while this could indeed be seen as a good business practice, it could also be considered dubious, if not dishonest. You can imagine the buyer even telling his friends afterward that he got a “steal of a deal” on that field!
And then there is a surprising joyfulness in the one who sells all to buy a precious pearl, though few around the buyer would likely have understood his actions.
This quick succession of provocative parables suggests two things to me: First, the Gospel of God’s coming kingdom is threatening before it is comforting, because it invites no half measures. Once the Gospel enters our lives we are forever changed by the Gospel. Just like you can’t take the mustard weed out of the field or the yeast from the dough, so too does the Gospel message forever changes who you are.
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. And 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. We are suddenly and urgently called and compelled through the Gospel to look at the world with fresh eyes—with new perspective both on what the world is today and what the world could be.
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. Wait, what was that pastor?! One more time… what Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God is is truly good news only to those who are not satisfied with life.
For those who are content, selling everything to possess a single pearl, no matter how valuable, seems… well… kinda crazy. Especially in our society where society tells us to spend our lives trying to build up finances to afford a comfortable retirement. How can anything be so precious as to give up everything else to possess it? How can anything be so valuable as to risk all that we have in just one basket? No sane person is going to reach retirement age and then put every cent of their life savings into the stock market let alone a single stock—financial advisors say we are to diversify funds to keep our finances safe. When we are satisfied with life, we want things to remain stable—largely unchanging. We want to enjoy what we have and happily live out the rest of our days.
And yet, 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. When we are dissatisfied with life we long for a change, long for something new and different to take hold and flip the world on its head. We’re more willing to take what little we have and gamble it on something new and different.
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 Paul says, appears foolish in the eyes of the world and so has little value to the self-contented, the self-made man or woman of the age, and 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.
This 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, what value is there really Jesus’ promises?
The Gospel, as Paul says, appears foolish in the eyes of the world and so has little value to the self-contented, the self-made man or woman of the age, and 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 Jesus’ promises are the best news we’ve heard and are worth sacrificing all to embrace.
These parables say a second thing as well: faith is about seeing – seeing something others do not, seeing something that the world does not acknowledge and perhaps does not want you to see – and because of that sight - we respond by persevering, acting differently, investing in a future at which others scoff. Faith, it turns out, is not about becoming more learned regarding theological dissertations, but it is about the whole-hearted embracing of a promise.
Faith, that is, is not about knowledge - but about trust, the kind of trust that leads you to act and speak differently, as if you’ve been invited into a secret that not everyone knows.
All of which leads me to think, that this week’s message may revolve around making a promise – that God’s disruptive, life changing, and ultimately life-giving kingdom is coming. Is that good news? Maybe. Is it challenging, disruptive, and at times even unnerving? Definitely.
It will take some patience, trust, and perseverance to await it, and when it comes it will likely not be what we expect and perhaps not what we even wanted.
But to those who recognize there is something more out there than the world has offered, to those who are willing to acknowledge the deep ache in their hearts for a sense of true if elusive joy, then it will come as more than we could have imagined and will invade, take over, and transform our lives. Even here, even now.
Indeed, perhaps what we do here on Sunday mornings is remind each other of God’s promises and point to places in our lives and the world where we catch glimpses of its presence.
We have all seen these glimpses in our world: the person who overcomes addiction or prejudice in order to cope with and change a challenging reality,
the kid who befriends the friendless,
the one who finds joy in sacrifice,
those who are stunningly generous,
the person who sees and stands with the marginalized,
those who in the face of illness or fear radiate confidence and offer courage to others,
the ones who use their power or popularity to uplift others rather than themselves.
These parables give us a chance to make the kingdom life and reality that Jesus preaches a tad more concrete by pointing us to those whose actions are perhaps inexplicable according to the logic of the world but in tune with the promises of the kingdom.
Most of you have heard of and perhaps even read "The Lion, The Which, and Wardrobe" by CS Lewis. There are 6 other books in the series. At the end of the series "The Last Battle" Lewis contrast the "new Narnia" with the "old Narnia." He writes:
It is hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia, as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it, if you think like this.
You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains.
And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking glass.
And as you turned away from the window, you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass.
And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different -- deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard, but very much want to know.
The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.
I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there, you will know what I mean.
CS Lewis, "The Last Battle"
The surprisingly sneaky thing about the Kingdom of God is that we can’t help but be changed by it. When we hear the promises of the kingdom we can’t help but be forever tainted with the purity of God’s righteousness. We can’t help but hear the good news for ourselves and ultimately for all of creation. We can’t help but see greater value in our own lives and ultimately in the lives beyond ourselves. Our neighbors on the other side of the tracks who once seemed strange and threatening can become deeper… more wonderful… filled with stories that you have never heard, but stories that you very much want to know.
The difference between the way we once saw the world and the way we might see the world is like that… it’s the difference of Christ crucified. It’s the difference of how that changes your perspective of the world. When you realize the depth of that sacrifice on the cross… when you realize the depth of the forgiveness given to you… you can not help but see things differently. I can’t describe it any better than that—but I trust that you know what I mean.