Trinity 7: It’s all in the metaphor

It’s all in the metaphor.

Matthew 13.31-33,44-52

It’s all in the metaphor. Amen.

Stories are a wonderful way of telling a truth that is easily understood and readily stored in our memory. Cast your minds back to the stories of your childhood. The boy, who cried wolf, it’s a warning never to play games with truth, especially where safety is concerned. Red Riding Hood, teaches us to be cautious and not to blindly trust strangers.

As we discovered just two weeks ago, the parables that Jesus told were all about the Kingdom of God and about God’s character. Jesus used what was familiar to make a point. So in the first of these five new parables, the kingdom is compared to a mustard seed that, when sown, grows into a large tree in whose branches birds come to nest. I use mustard seeds a lot when I make curry, it really is a very small seed. The image of the mustard seed highlights at first its smallness and invisibility when its sown.

The picture then grows and expands to include its inevitable growth and flourishing, its eventual huge span that contrasts with its tiny beginning, and then its hospitable branches that become a home for nesting birds.

How does this picture help us to understand God’s work as Jesus establishes the Kingdom of God? First is the promise that the heavenly empire is present, here and now, though the small seed once sown suggests its presence is small and as yet invisible. The smallness anticipates the subsequent large tree, the action of Jesus.

Though the Gospel story describes him doing many works of preaching and healings that manifest God’s kingdom, there is only so much one person can do. His work, for the most part, is confined to Galilee and for a limited period of time. Some people, notably Rome and its allied leaders, do not seem to embrace his ministry and do not discern anything of God’s purposes in him, preferring to think of him as an agent of the devil. To some, God’s kingdom or saving presence is as invisible as the seed.

The parable assures us that God’s kingdom is nevertheless at work and that it grows inevitably to become a bush and then a tree, large enough for nesting birds. There is a contrast between small beginnings and a large conclusion. To those who think God is absent from the world or ineffective or impotent, the parable involves a different vision of God’s present activity and his endgame.

It encourages those of us who are discouraged by the apparent unchanging destructiveness of human nature. It offers an answer for those of us confused by the overwhelming suffering of our lives and world to which God appears so often to be indifferent. It suggests to those who ask the age-old question of lament, “how long, O God, how long?” that the question is not rhetorical.

Stories of trees in the Old Testament often concerned power and rule. Prophets used images of trees to announce God’s power and rule over the imperial powers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. The mustard tree then depicts God’s kingdom ready to rule over everything in a way that promises justice and life rather than oppression.

The nesting birds point to the same vision. The “birds of heaven” symbolize the people of the nations who have lived under oppression both in Babylon and now under Rome. In this mustard seed they find welcome and hospitality that supports life rather than destroys it.

The second parable about the yeast a woman mixes with flour to leaven the whole batch makes a similar point. The yeast, relative to the large amount of flour, is only a tiny part in the mix. Yet its small presence has a big effect. The woman literally “hides” the yeast in the flour. It appeared to be invisible but in fact mysteriously and inevitably performed its raising work. By means of a time-consuming process, all of the flour “was leavened.” Indicating God’s transforming work in the world.

The third and fourth parables, the treasure hidden in a field and the very valuable pearl, continue the same theme. The relative smallness of the kingdom here on earth continues. It involves treasure hidden in a much larger field, or even of just one perfect pearl.

In these parables there is a continued emphasis of hiddenness. The treasure is hidden in the field while the pearl is also unseen. Repetition serves to reinforce the importance of these examples.

But new emphases emerge, particularly the interplay of searching, finding, celebrating, and selling all in order to possess something of great value; the person who finds the treasure joyfully sells all he owns to buy the field; the merchant sold everything to buy the pearl. Both discoveries disrupt normal everyday life and its usual priorities; they demand risk and sacrifice. In these actions, the power of both, now found, is seen to be at work. The treasure and pearl reshape their finders’ lives. So for us to join in and be possessed by the kingdom of heaven it has to be worth everything.

The final parable of Matthew’s chapter turns from farming and trading to fishing, to demonstrate the founding of God’s reign and its victory over evil. The scope of God’s empire is universal, fish of every kind, people of every kind. Judgment at the end of the age separates the evil and the righteous who coexist up to this point, even including within the church. The scenario reminds us how important it is to “do the will of my Father in Heaven”.

Unlike the story of the Sower, Jesus did not offer an explanation of these later parables. It seems we are left to ponder for ourselves and to come up with a logical answer. God and his kingdom are the most precious gift we may ever be offered, but they do not come cheap.

Hear God’s love for you, become something new, become part of God’s story. Let the Word of God grow in you. Let all who have ears, listen! Amen.

The Rev'd Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 26/07/2020