Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Parables You Only Think You Know

1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a

The kingdom of heaven exists wherever God is King.
You have been waiting for God, Jesus said, while God has been 
waiting for you. No wonder nothing is happening. You want God’s 
intervention, he said, while God wants your collaboration. God’s 
kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and 
thereby establish it.1
 —John Dominic Crossan

Establishing God’s kingdom is always a work in progress and it requires the ongoing discernment of God’s people. In our first reading today, Solomon, an earthly king, asked God for wisdom to govern the people. Governing is not easy. 

There are good ideas, great ideas, ideas that look good at the time, ideas that are self-serving, ideas that serve some by exploiting others, ideas based on good research, ideas based on noble ideals, ideas firmly grounded in history, ideas that are new and unconventional. If it were easy to tell a good idea from an evil idea, we wouldn’t make mistakes. What turns out to be evil, often looks good at the beginning. If it’s hard to tell good from evil (remember the parable of the weeds sown among the seeds), how much harder is it to tell good from adequate, but flawed? The ability to discern wisely is an absolutely essential skill for people of God. It is a gift we should all ask from God, and a skill we should develop in community.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells a few seemingly simple parables about the kingdom of God. I learned what they meant as a child in Sunday school. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” I had a mustard seed bracelet as a child to remind me of how tiny faith can grow big like a tree—big enough for the birds to build their nests. Except, if I were a farmer, why would I want a tree to grow in the middle of my field where birds could build their nests? Wouldn’t they eat the seed that I planted and the grain or fruit I grew? Jesus just told about seed being lost to birds because it fell on a path. How many scarecrows would I need to keep the hungry birds from eating my crop? Hmmm. . . .why would a farmer plant a mustard seed in the middle of his field? In fact, mustard is only supposed to grow to be the size of a shrub—how on earth did it become a tree big enough to house birds and their nests? 

While the farmers are scratching their beards and shaking their heads, Jesus tells a parable for the women. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was leavened.” Did you think three cups? Me too! But three measures is almost ten gallons of flour—enough to make over 100 loaves of bread—enough to feed a small village. Jesus says that the woman hid the yeast in the flour—the original text says “hid” not “mixed.” She hid yeast in three measures of flour. The women’s minds are spinning. Three measures—hidden yeast! Every year at Passover these women threw out their yeast as a symbol for sin. They swept their houses and even dusted with feathers to make sure all the yeast was gone so that their homes could be pure and “sinless” for Passover. Another time Jesus warned the disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.” Hmmm. . . .hidden yeast that somehow spreads through ten gallons of flour, enough for a whole village.

Ready for another parable? “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.” Think about this one. A man finds a wonderful treasure. It’s his! But to keep it from being stolen (or perhaps claimed by its rightful owner), he buries it in a field that belongs to someone else, then sells everything he has and buys the field in which he has buried his treasure. Is this so that he can claim that the treasure legitimately belongs to him? I think I’ve seen 
this plot in a number of crime dramas. 

“Again,” Jesus says, “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.” Finally, a straightforward parable. At least I think it is. Here’s what I’ve discovered about this story in my own life. The call to ministry is my pearl of great price—oh, yes, seminary costs many thousands of dollars. So we sold our house, borrowed even more than would look reasonable or even sane, and now I am an ordained minister. But remember in the parable, the man is a merchant—a person who buys and sells. He only owned the pearl to pass it on to someone else. 

All his means of living had been spent in the procurement. Without selling it, he would starve. The pearl is to be passed on. Ministry involves sharing the love of God, not keeping the love of God.

One more parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” The original Greek says that the good fish are put into baskets, but the rotten fish are thrown out—not bad fish, not dead fish, but rotten fish. At the end of the age, the angels will separate the righteous from the rotten. Not now. At the end of the age. Not your job to judge, the angels will do that. You’d think we could tell good fish from rotten fish. Jesus says that’s not our job, even when it looks like a no brainer.

Then Jesus says, “Have you understood all this?” And the disciples answered, “Yes.” Who are they kidding? They didn’t understand the easy parable of the sower and the seeds. I wonder how Solomon would have fared with these parables. How are you doing with them? Have I thoroughly confused you? My take—and remember good discernment belongs in the community so that all our prayerful consideration can be combined as we listen for the Spirit together—my take is this:

~ In the community of the people of God, sometimes the condiment, something meant only as flavoring, can take over and become the whole meal. Some minutia of meaning can overshadow the gospel and attract those who make their home in the church and use it to meet their own needs, gobbling up the seeds of good news before they can sprout and grow and produce a good harvest. 
~ In the community of the beloved, some bit of gossip, or dissention, or some small bit of self-righteousness can spread through the whole community until the whole community is puffed up. The laws can be increased with interpretation upon interpretation until no one can feel safe in God’s love. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.
~ In the community of the beloved, someone may take the glorious good news of God’s radical love and claim the right to interpret it as they choose—to set the rules for acceptance into the community, to determine what is good and what is evil, what is pure and what is defiled, who is in and who is out, who is a prophet and teacher and who is a blasphemer.
~ In the community of the beloved, the great treasure will cost all that you have, and it won’t belong to you. It must be shared and not hoarded.
~ In the community of the beloved, everyone is caught, and only God or God’s angels decide if anyone doesn’t belong—and that won’t be until the end of the age. So for now, everyone belongs in the net. Everyone. Do you understand?

Let the conversation begin, and may we pray for wisdom to learn to discern together wisely. 

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