You may have noticed that over the past couple of weeks our Gospel readings have come with the option of a long version…or a short version. In each instance, the long version encompasses a number of parables that are somehow related…and the short version focuses on only one. This section of Matthew’s gospel, chapter 13 from verse 1 through verse 52, is referred to as “The Day of Parables”, and contains seven or eight parables, depending on how they are grouped, that all have to do with Jesus’ teaching the concept of the Kingdom to the crowds, to the tighter circle of disciples and apostles, and to the scribes and Pharisees who were always with him, waiting for him to stumble.
This section of Matthew’s gospel appears right in the middle of what Matthew has to tell us. In a true sense, then, this is pivotal…this collection of connected parables presents a pivotal issue for Matthew, and for the community in which Matthew lived, and for us now; for the community in which we live, from our nuclear families, to our beautiful yet troubled world.
Jesus loves to teach us in parables. A parable uses a common everyday experience to teach us something on another level, and if we are able to understand the point, usually leaves us with a choice. For so many parables to be concentrated in so short a time, the point must be especially important, and the choice for us must be a crucial one.
Matthew’s community was a Jewish community that was questioning what it meant to be a Jew after the destruction of the Temple. Those who accepted Jesus’ teachings knew the answer to that question…but what of the others who didn’t or couldn’t accept Jesus; those who were still looking for a physical kingdom in their time? The problem for Matthew was much like the problem Jesus faced with the Jewish leaders during his entire public life and ministry: how could he convince them of the Truth, when the Truth wasn’t what the Jewish leaders were looking for? The scribes and Pharisees knew the Law, and would not deviate from their strict interpretation; and they listened and weighed everything Jesus said and did against their standard. So he spoke in parables…pointed little stories designed to change the way people think. In verse 35, just a short time before today’s reading, Matthew tells us, referring to Jesus’ use of parables “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.”
The people Jesus was talking too clearly were not going to understand what he was saying without some kind of diversion; without a parable. And in the brief space of a single chapter, we hear eight parables…eight…that teach us what the Kingdom is…and it’s not what we think. In the parable of the sower, the seed he sows is the word of the kingdom, and when it falls on fertile soil, it produces many times over. Next, we hear that the thorns and the wheat…the children of the kingdom and the children of evil…must grow together until harvest. Then, the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds producing the most robust of bushes. And again, the Kingdom is like a tiny amount of yeast in a huge amount of flour that when well worked, makes the whole batch rise.
Today we hear that the kingdom is like a hidden and unexpected treasure that causes the finder to sell all he has to buy the field where it lay hidden, and like a pearl of great value that is discovered after a long and arduous search that causes the merchant to leave everything else so he can possess it. And then, the kingdom is like a fishing net thrown into the sea to collect every type of fish, and when pulled ashore, the good fish are collected, and the undesirable are thrown away…not just thrown back into the sea…thrown away. Jesus pulls out all the stops, and gives the listeners parables based on what means the most to the people he was addressing: farming, baking bread, commerce, fishing…and with each simile, a different aspect of the Kingdom becomes a little more clear. Ultimately, what we learn is that the most important thing about the Kingdom is not what it is or isn’t…but what we do when we encounter it…when it encounters us. Do we accept it, or do we reject it? Do we embrace it, or do we push it aside? Maybe more importantly, do we allow it to embrace us?
Deacon Bill Whibbs