Sermon on Matthew 13:31-33
You want the message of Jesus in a nutshell? Here it is then: “Flash! Good news just in! The time we’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived, the kingdom of God has drawn near, so near you can almost taste it; so re-think your life - where you’ve been, where you’re at, where you’re going - it’s bound to be backwards - and make a u-turn and follow Jesus into this whole new world that is dawning.” That’s it, that’s the gospel. Central to it, you can see, is the “kingdom of God”. But what’s that all about?
What Jesus meant by the “kingdom of God” is in some ways very clear, but in other ways it is very puzzling, despite almost two hundred years of the most intense scholarly research. What is clearest is what the kingdom of God is not. The term suggests the “reign”, “rule”, and “realm” of God as quite distinct from the human varieties, from the way our leaders lead and our communities function. It thus points to a radical reorientation of human authority and power, values and relationships. God will certainly not organise things the way Pilate and Caiaphas organise things, nor - to say the least - will he be at all concerned with the security of the Roman empire or the preservation of the Jewish temple. In first century Palestine God’s kingdom was definitely not going to align itself with the present kingdom of political lies and violence, or religious pomp and control. And the same goes today.
Again, the commonplace idea that the kingdom is some personal, inward, spiritual state - no, it’s for certain that for Jesus the kingdom is a social, indeed a political reality, referring (as we might say) to a whole new global order. Then again, however, if the kingdom is not just “within us”, neither is it an alternative society that we are somehow going to “build”. Jesus said that by living rightly people can enter the kingdom - and indeed the only thing Jesus ever asks of people is to live rightly; and Jesus said that we must wait for the kingdom, expect it, prepare for it, indeed practice it; but Jesus never said that we could do anything to bring it in. The coming of God’s kingdom is in God’s hands alone. That’s why its arrival is so certain.
But surely we can say more than that, can’t we? Above all, can’t we say what the kingdom of God is like? So that we can know what living “rightly” actually entails? That’s certainly what Jesus’ first hearers desperately wanted to know. So what did Jesus tell them? Well, above all, he told them stories, that’s what he told them. Which suggests that you can’t grasp the nature of the kingdom of God directly, you’ve got to approach it from an angle, sneak up on it, so to speak - or rather let it sneak up on you! - by coming at it through metaphors, through images and narratives, glimpsing it through the imagination. To quote the American poet Emily Dickinson:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise.
“Parables” is the word, and they are Jesus’ preferred method of teaching about the kingdom of God. Not, mind, just to reach the “uneducated” by using simple illustrations - the parables are much more than just illustrations, and they are directed as much to the educated as to the uneducated - but because parables go to the heart of the matter, teasing us to think about God and to respond to God in constantly new, different, and startling ways, as with provocative power they invite us to step inside and try out an alternative reality to the one dominated by wealth, power, mendacity, and vengeance in which we live, which the parables subvert. The parables are rather like jokes: they utterly fail if you have to explain them, you either “get it” or you don’t. Except that the parables are no joke, they’re a matter of life and death.
So take cover as I now take the Bible, carefully open it, light the fuse of two sticks of dynamite, and wait for the parables of the Mustard Seed and Yeast to explode in our midst.
First, the parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus says you take the smallest of seeds, you plant it, and it grows into this huge plant, so huge that birds can nest in its branches. Sounds pretty straightforward, picturing a process of growth along the lines of it takes a good malt whisky time to mature but the wait is worth it. Is that what Jesus is saying? Partly perhaps, except that to the oriental mind the image of seed and plant would have spoken more about contrast than process. More like our proverb about little acorns and mighty oaks then? Again, partly. But pay attention to the detail!
First, we’re talking, mustard, not mayonnaise, pungent, hot-stuff which can burn your mouth out if you’re not careful - so be careful. Mustard was also valued for its medicinal properties, but medicines are also poisons - so, again, be careful. But it’s also important to note that although mustard grows wild, you can improve its quality by transplanting it; but if you do - yet again - be careful, because mustard grows like a weed and, like a weed, it’s virtually impossible to manage, and before you know it, it’s taken over the whole garden.
And those birds - they may strike us as a charming touch, but they are probably crows, and therefore an ever-present threat to a successful crop. And that detail about them nesting in branches - it’s an exaggeration that adds, as it were, to the menace of the image - remember Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds? - because as tall as a mustard plant might grow, there is no way it could ever be big enough for crows to nest in it.
In the words of one New Testament scholar (John Dominic Crossan): “The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three, four, even more feet in height. It is that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attarct birds within cultivated areas, where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like. Like a pungent shrub with dangerous take-over properties” - and around which undesirables might gather. “It is a startling metaphor” - and further, “it would be interpreted quite differently by those, on the one hand, concerned about their fields, their crops, and their harvests, and by those, on the other, for whom fields, crops, and harvests were always the property of others.” So for the wealthy land owner and the absentee landlord, a quite threatening image, but for the poor and unemployed peasant farmer, ousted from even his small plot, now on the margins of society, an image as encouraging as it must have been amusingly outrageous.
And then there is the parable of the Yeast A woman takes some yeast, mixes it with flour, and the dough rises. It conjures up a scene right out of a Hovis advert - mum in the kitchen, little Johnny cycling home from school, the sweet smell of freshly baked bread wafting though the doorway - by gum, it’s lovely! So we like this parable. It makes us feel all warm and domestic and safe - just the way we like our religion. But not, I’m afraid, the religion of Jesus.
Again, the detail. This yeast is actually more accurately called leaven. Yeast is lovely. You get yeast in health food stores. It comes in those nice little packets. Leaven, however, is, in fact, rotten dough. Leaven is unpleasant, disgusting, leaven stinks. Leaven in Jesus’ day was considered so foul that it was deemed to be ritually unclean, and it was banned from use in the Temple. Indeed it had come to symbolise evil. And that woman doesn’t mix it in the flour, the Greek word is different, curious, it suggests that she actually hides the leaven in the flour. And look how much flour she uses - forty litres, half a hundredweight, enough to feed 150 people - a ridiculously enormous quantity! Something very odd, almost sinister, is going on here, as in the parable of the Mustard Seed. What is Jesus suggesting with this surrealistic image?
One thing we can be sure of is that Jesus is again setting out to shock his listeners on purpose. I mean, he says that the utterly holy - the kingdom of God - can only be understood if we compare it with the utterly unholy - loathsome leaven. Follow me, he seems to be saying, and you’ll catch a whiff of something that will put you off Welsh cakes or Grandma’s apple pie for good. So put away any ideas that, in the world, proclaiming the kingdom of God will have about it the sweet smell of success. Indeed, don’t be surprised if it actually puts people off and there is little to show for it. Remember, that woman hides the leaven, like a thief hiding the loot. Quiety, secretly, stealthily, subversively, the kingdom of Got rots away from within any expectations we may have of respectability, success, glory. The gospel will indeed effect great things - that forty litres of flour - but in ways that we can hardly anticipate and that will surely amaze and confound us. And observe that the central character in the parable is a woman, someone from the margins of society, outside the normal structures of power and influence, so yet another motif to scandalise the hearers of Jesus.
So our two parables. Hardly, you’ll agree, bedtime stories for children. Not all about comfy-cosy rural and domestic scenes. In fact, pretty disturbing images, almost Kafkaesque, upsetting our preconceived notions about God. Here we see that the parables of the kingdom are “subversive speech” (William R. Herzog II). Here we see that the kingdom is strong, sharp stuff like mustard, and powerful, putrid stuff like leaven. Here we see that the kingdom is not only not in our control but has a way of getting completely out of control, and that it spreads not through mighty campaigns and crusades but, like a contagion, in hidden, seditious ways. Here we see that the kingdom belongs to people at the edge, poor people, disenfranchised people, invisible people, and that the kingdom comes to us precisely through the odd, the strange, the unexpected other; and, conversely, that it undermines and overturns the self-serving interests of ruling elites. And here we see that the kingdom can only be imagined - and re-imagined - not in spite of, but because of, small and trivial beginnings that will yet transform the world in unusual and unlikely but in fact quite natural and, if disruptive, certainly nonviolent ways.
Do we get it? If we do, we will not just think about what Jesus says but act upon what Jesus says. For the parables aren’t just information, and though they don’t provide us with detailed instructions, they do give us a sense of direction and incite us to get a move on - again, not to build the kingdom, but to practice the kingdom in improvised parables of our own, embodied in our daily living. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like this …”, to which we are called to reply, “You mean like this …?”, as we and our communities become the soil for mustard and the dough for leaven through which God begins through little people to do big, very big, things.