Monday, July 28, 2014
Matthew 13: Parables of the Reign of God
St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 13, has shown us, for the past two weeks, and again today, specifically how Jesus, through the use of simple parables, reveals the reality of God’s reign/rule/kingdom. The Collect, in fact, refers to God as “our ruler and guide”, helping us to “pass through things temporal” so that we don’t lose “things eternal”.
Parables, according to commentator Deidre Good, describe God's realm in ways that move hearers“to rethink priorities so as to make room for something outside human control yet within human potential.” Dr. Richard Pervo adds that “Parables would seek to lead us to perceive once again with the freshness of discovery the graciousness and surprise of the ordinary, the myriads of miracles erupting in our daily lives; would lead us to see these wonders and then urge us to find the presence of God’s reign in just such apparently prosaic routines. Look, our Lord says, for the advent of God in the ordinary, for appearances of the kingdom in people and deeds that seem no more important than mustard seeds and pieces of yeast.”
It might be helpful to backtrack a bit, in order to see where we are in Mt 13:
A. July 13 - Mt. 13:1-9; 18-23
In the Gospel two weeks ago, Matthew begins with Jesus going out from the safe haven of the house, and sitting by the sea, the realm of storms and uncertainty, so as to teach “the crowds”, “in parables”. He then recounts the Parable of the Sower (1-9), then skips eight verses to where Jesus explains the Sower Parable to the disciples (18-23) apart from “the crowd”. In those eight verses which the lectionary unfortunately skips, between the parable and explanation, Jesus says this:
“...the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the reign of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn -- and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
The disciples are the ones who’ve responded to Jesus words and actions for some time now. They’ve taken to heart Jesus’ words in Luke 17:20-21: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”
B. July 20 - Mt 13:24-30; 36-43
In last week’s Gospel, Matthew continues with the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares or Weeds (24-30), but the lectionary omits the next six verses, skipping over two other parables.
C. Today, July 27 - Mt 13:31-33; 44-52
Matthew’s Gospel today back tracks to those two skipped parables (31-33): those of the Mustard Seed and of the Woman Leavening Flour, and adds three other parables (44-52): those of the Hidden Treasure in the Field, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Net and the Fish.
The Mustard Seed
The first pair of parables, The Mustard Seed and The Woman Leavening Flour, are rather everyday, humdrum parables, dealing with common, mundane things: planting a field and baking bread. In the first, a man, in the peasant context of rural Galilee, does the outdoor, physical labor of sowing a tiny mustard seed, which matures into a sizeable bush. It’s not a tree, nor will it accommodate nesting birds, which may allude to the Old Testament emphasis on the universal reach of God's kingdom. Nevertheless, poetically, Matthew states that it “becomes a tree”, perhaps hearkening back to the prophet Ezekiel’s vision (17:22-24) of God restoring the people, and symbolized in what Ezekiel calls a “noble cedar” in whose branches “every kind of bird will live...winged creatures of every kind”. The mustard bush isn’t even an perennial plant, only an annual. In the same way, God’s reign doesn’t strike most of us as much at first, except for every now and then when the risen presence of Jesus, all of a sudden, breaks into our lives through other people and events. It appears in those quickening moments, stirrings of love, fleeting flashes which you and I experience from time to time: in nature; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children and young people; in helping others, and even in experiencing death, our own or that of others. The intuition, the hint, of what the reign of God is like is so real at these times that it’s almost palpable. Jesus’ message, according to Matthew, suggests that God’s reign grows from tiny beginnings to worldwide size.
There’s also a slightly subversive element to the parable, as Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (published around 78 AD), notes: "mustard…,” he says, “is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild...but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed, when it falls, germinates at once."
The Woman Leavening Flour
The other of the first two parables contrasts the man sowing in the field with a woman, a homemaker. Jesus, says Joel Green, "asks people -- male or female, privileged or peasant, it does not matter -- to enter the domain of a first-century woman and household cook in order to gain perspective on the domain of God." Here she is, starting to mix yeast with flour, actually hiding it, in a peck and a half of flour, about 12 quarts. The King James Version says “hid” which is also the meaning of “mix” = enkrypto, in Greek. The leaven permeates the flour, so that the dough rises into a large loaf. The mysterious substance that makes bread rise is akin to the hidden, pervasive character of God’s reign. Also, the large quantity of flour hints at a planned festive occasion, since the bread produced will obviously be more than for just one family. It’s hard to miss the implication of the powerful growth of God’s kingdom from small beginnings. The final outcome is inevitable once the natural process of leavening has begun.
We then shift in today’s Gospel to two more parables: that of The Hidden Treasure in the Field and The Pearl of Great Price. These parables also offer a contrast, this time, between a laborer and a merchant.
The Treasure Hidden in the Field
A laborer, tilling someone else’s field, just doing his job, hits a buried container, perhaps a jar or a box, with his plow. It wasn’t at all unusual, especially in times of war or disaster, for people to bury their precious treasure. Sometimes they didn’t or couldn’t reclaim it: perhaps they were killed, or maybe displaced or had moved. Maybe they simply forgot what and where they’d hid their stash.
Whatever the reason, the laborer is surprised and elated. He keeps it to himself, hides it, even as the woman hid the leaven in the flour. The hidden nature of the treasure may indicate that God’s kingdom "is not yet revealed to everyone." The man hurries to liquidate all that he has to secure the treasure. Matthew’s phrase, “sells all he has”, invites us to recall Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man in Chapter 19 (v. 21), to sell all that he has and to become a disciple.
The Treasure Hidden in the Field is a parable about discovery without seeking, and willingness to take action, whatever the cost. God’s kingdom is of great value. The good fortune reflected
in the "finding" reflects a "special gift, a privilege" and a source of joy, but also reflects a challenge to relinquish all in order to lay claim to the greater treasure one has found. (John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew)
The Pearl of Great Price
In the second of this parable duo, a parable about opportunity, we have a merchant whose business it is to travel around “in search of fine pearls”. Pearls were luxury items, associated with other valuables such as gold and precious stones. The pearl itself is a beautiful, single entity, formed through suffering in the heart of the oyster. Unlike precious stones which must be cut and polished to reveal their clarity and beauty, the pearl is perfect as it comes from the oyster.
In Matthew 7:6 Jesus acknowledges such quality when he warns hearers “not [to] throw your pearls before swine”. This merchant is actively seeking a quality product, always on the lookout, for not only pearls, but for that one best pearl, the “deal of a lifetime”, which he’ll recognize, and maybe others won’t. Eventually he finds it. He responds immediately and completely, sacrificing everything he has to get it. John Nolland says that Matthew shares the notions of "good fortune and demanding action in attaining the kingdom of heaven", but stresses the importance of "diligent seeking." Those who aren’t prepared to accept the kingdom of heaven at the price of staking their whole future on it are unworthy of the kingdom.
The Drawing in of the Cast Net
Finally, in the concluding verses (47-50) we have the Parable of the Net and the Fish. Fishing evokes the idea of searching, of mission. Matthew says the net is thrown into the sea and catches “fish of every kind”. The net is full and is all-inclusive. It’s taken ashore and the fish are separated: the “good”, into baskets; the “bad”, thrown out. Matthew says that in the reign of God "the angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous" in a similar way. It’s an evaluation, a judgment, according to standards of quality. God’s reign is a mixture of good and evil, even as the seed sown or the wheat with the weeds. When Jesus says (v. 48), “...when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad”, there’s a hearkening back to the opening verse of Matthew’s 13th chapter: “Jesus went out” and “got into a boat and sat there, while the crowd stood on the beach...”, perhaps an allusion to the earlier invitation of Jesus Mt 4: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (v. 19) This final parable suggests a time of decision.
There’s clearly a shift from everyday time to the end of time, to the final judgment. Goodness/rightness is equivalent to understanding. As Jesus asks his disciples: “Have you understood all this?” Evil is whatever violates trust on which relationships are built, whether with God or with our sisters and brothers in the kingdom.
Finally, Matthew summarizes it all in v. 52. He mentions the “scribe” = the writer/secretary/clerk/note-taker who “has been trained for the kingdom of heaven”. Such a person is like “the master of a household”, someone who knows how to manage, to take care of, things, to bring “out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” This speaks of a balanced person, one open to all of life, open to both the human and the divine, one able to take in and discern the good from the bad, one able to keep trust in relationship to God and to all who inhabit the reign of God.
In Matthew 13, Jesus has provided us with a description and formula by which you and I can see to it that “the kingdom/reign/rule of God is within you”. St. Paul clarifies our relationship in this “mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” He says, in today’s Epistle, “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness...that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words...We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to [God’s] purpose...If God is for us, who is against us? [God] who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will [God] not with him also give us everything else?...Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. ” (8:26; 28; 31-32; 35; 37-39)
“The reign of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom/reign/rule of God is within you.”