Sermon; 8 Pentecost/Proper 12A; Matt. 13:31-33, 44-54
For the past three Sundays we have been in Matthew 13 hearing what are known as kingdom parables. There are seven such parables in this chapter – the two longer ones from the previous two Sundays and the five shorter ones today. Whereas the longer parables have a story line and explanations tied to them, the five parables today come one right after another without explanations. The kingdom of heaven is like . . . The kingdom of heaven is like . . . The kingdom of heaven is like . . . The kingdom of heaven is like . . . The kingdom of heaven is like.
How does one describe the kingdom of heaven? How does one describe that holy place in a way that can be understood by mere mortals? John and Ezekiel both tried it and we often accuse them of smoking something funny. But seriously . . . how do you describe the otherworldly in worldly language?
What is the kingdom of heaven like? Well . . . it's like a noxious weed that takes over the land and it's like yeast that affects a whole batch of wheat. It's like an unexpected surprise. It's like the most valuable item you can find. It's like a dragnet looking to pull in people of every kind.
These short parables do a couple of things. First, they underscore the here and now. They don't proclaim what the kingdom will be like in its final form. They don't look ahead to a new, golden age of sugar and spice and everything nice. What they do is to tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like right here, right now. They tell us that the kingdom of heaven is invading the world and is changing the landscape. They tell us that not only is the kingdom of heaven imminent, but that it is here now.
The second thing these parables do is show us how subversive the kingdom of heaven is. They are subversive in the fact that the kingdom of heaven takes what we see as traditional roles, or proper behavior, or traditional values, or correct order, and subverts it and turns our idea of propriety on its head. In other words, the kingdom of heaven is not like a perfectly manicured lawn, or a church where only the men are in charge and only the right kinds of people are allowed in. The kingdom of heaven is much more expansive, inclusive, and penetrating than that.
Let me focus on the first two of these five kingdom parables from today. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone sows. Jesus says it is the smallest of seeds yet grows up to be the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree where all the birds come and nest. In point of fact, the mustard seed is neither the smallest of seeds, nor does it grow into a tree. So this parable may not be “factual,” but the truth of this parable is that, even though people see the kingdom as small and insignificant, it will grow into something so large that all people will come and make their homes in it.
If I were to retell this parable today, I might say that the kingdom of heaven is like a bamboo plant in that one stalk has the ability to take over a whole field, and become a large forest that offers shelter to animals of all kinds.
When Joelene and I were on vacation we walked by a house with a small bamboo grove. At the same time we both said, “Ooh, those poor people.” Because we once lived in a house with bamboo and that stuff went EVERYWHERE. It's like a noxious weed that grows really tall. This is the kingdom of heaven. It starts small and cute, but spreads wherever it gets a foothold, messing up our perfectly manicured yards. But the kingdom of heaven isn't a perfectly manicured yard with signs that say, “Keep Off the Grass.” The kingdom of heaven is a rich, dense forest offering food and shelter to all kinds of animals.
And then there's the parable of the yeast. 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. In today's world, we hear this parable and think, “Ooh, the kingdom of heaven is like a nice, warm loaf of newly baked bread. What could be better than that?”
But we fail to see how subversive this statement really is. First, let's take a look at the three measures. One source says that three measures comes to about fifty pounds of flour. And if I've read my table of dry measures correctly, three measures comes out to be almost ten bushels. That's a lot of flour. Not only is it a lot of flour, but this amount hearkens back to when Abraham met the three visitors by the oaks of Mamre and instructed Sarah to make cakes using three measures. The implication here is that this amount is suitable for a large party, maybe even a heavenly banquet.
So it's not simply a few loaves of bread, but a banquet where all are invited.
Another aspect about this parable is that yeast, or leaven, was often used in a negative light. Remember when Jesus said, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees?” Jesus is using a bad example in a good way.
Yeast in Jesus' day was like our bad apple. And even today Orthodox Jews will clean out their houses of all yeast at Passover time. That practice also carries over into our tradition of Shrove Tuesday, where we (supposedly) empty the house of all yeast, sugar, etc. Add to this that the holy bread, the bread of the temple and the bread of the Passover (not to mention our own Communion bread), was/is unleavened bread. So what Jesus is saying here is that the kingdom of heaven takes that which is bad and unholy, that which we consider wicked, and makes it a vital part of the kingdom of heaven.
Another aspect of this parable is that it is a woman who does the mixing. Women, remember, were ritually unclean members of society most of the the time. Women weren't considered second-class citizens, they were considered the property of men. That's not to say that they didn't carry a certain amount of power around the home, but when we are talking about the greater society in general, and the religious society in particular, to allow a woman to be a part of it is simply unheard of.
And yet, the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who mixes yeast with three measures of flour.
This is no sweet parable of mom baking fresh bread for the family. This is a parable that turns things upside down and inside out by saying that the kingdom of heaven welcomes those we consider outsiders, those we consider unclean, and those we consider sinners to a great heavenly banquet where there is food enough for all. The kingdom of heaven offers radical and inclusive hospitality to those we deem unworthy.
What is the kingdom of heaven like? The kingdom of heaven is more radical, more welcoming, and more inclusive than we can imagine. The kingdom of heaven will toss all our ideas of rightness and holiness and normalcy out the window. The kingdom of heaven will get into everything and transform everything in the here and now if we are willing to give up our preconceived notions of what the kingdom should look like in the first place.
The kingdom of heaven is here. Let us not try to contain it, but let us be open to its subversive growth. And maybe, just maybe, being open to the subversiveness of the kingdom of heaven will allow us to think about how we can do things in new and different ways.