Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46
July 24, 2011
My friend Ruth visited New York City a few years ago. As she was walking along a crowded street lined with tall buildings, she was startled to see a large flower garden. This was a garden unlike any she had seen before; the flowers were all carefully constructed from trash: discarded paper, pop cans, shards of glass, candy wrappers, plastic packaging. All the things most people want to get rid of–someone had transformed it into a beautiful garden.
It takes imagination to see the beautiful in the trash. It takes a willingness to look at something in a new way, a way that goes against the common wisdom.
It is just this type of imagination that Jesus invokes when he says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” It takes imagination to look at that tiny seed and envision a sprawling plant. But it’s more than that. More than jumping ahead to the future. Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom with a mustard seed calls on his hearers to see the mustard plant itself in a whole new way.
I know some of you have done some gardening, even some farming. So you might be able to appreciate the reaction that folks in the crowd likely had when Jesus spoke this parable. Just that morning, before they came to hear Jesus, they had bent over to pull up a few sprouting mustard plants from their garden. Let one mustard plant grow and pretty soon that stuff is all over your garden, all over your field; none of the good plants have a chance against mustard. Mustard plants were not so much cultivated as controlled. They were viewed by most as common weeds.
The kingdom of heaven is like a dandelion seedhead that a farmer blew out across her field. Soon the field was covered with hardy yellow flowers so that the bees of the air could come and drink their nectar.
I imagine many of the people listening to Jesus wondered what kind of a fool farmer would actually plant mustard. On purpose.
Maybe the same kind of fool who would mix leaven into three measures of flour. That’s fifty pounds, in case you are wondering. Ten five-pound bags. It would make about a hundred loaves of bread. Which is far more than any family could eat before it got moldy and wormy.
As if it weren’t bad enough that Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a weed, now the kingdom is like leaven. Leaven, which is impure, a contaminant, an accepted symbol of corruption.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells the crowd, is not what you expect. It is not about productivity and purity and common sense. The kingdom is about growth and messiness and joy. The kingdom is here and there and there, but you don’t see it, because you think it is just a weed, just an impurity, just a bunch of trash. To see the kingdom, you need a deeper spiritual imagination.
Tony Campolo, a Baptist professor and preacher, is someone who I believe has a vibrant spiritual imagination. He tells a story about being in Hawaii unable to sleep at 3:00 in the morning. So he goes out of his hotel and winds up in the only place he can find that is open–a greasy diner–where he munches on a donut and sips a cup of coffee. About 3:30 a loud, scantily clad group of women come in, prostitutes who have just finished their work for the night. Tony is anxious to leave the close quarters, but before he can pay and slip out the door, he overhears a conversation:
One of the women says, “You know, tomorrow’s my birthday.”
To which another replies, “So? Who cares? What, you want a party or something?”
The first says, “Of course not. I never had a birthday party before. Why should I want one now? I’m just saying it’s my birthday.”
So Tony doesn’t slip out. He sticks around, and once the women have left he talks to Harry, the guy at the counter:
“They come in here every night, same time?”
“That one, that one who has a birthday? She’s here every night?”
“Yeah,” says Harry. “That’s Agnes. She’s always here. Been coming here for years.”
And so the two men, along with Harry’s wife, make plans to throw Agnes a birthday party the next night.
Tony shows up about 2:30 with decorations and a sign: “Happy Birthday Agnes.” Harry and his wife have the cake ready. Word has gotten out, and by about 3:15, half of the hookers in Honolulu are in the diner. When Agnes comes in, they yell, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!”
And Agnes is stunned. Then Harry comes out with the cake, candles blazing, and Agnes looses it; she just stands there crying. She’s crying and the candles are burning and Harry tells her to stop crying and just blow out the candles, so she finally does. She blows out the candles, but she can’t bring herself to cut the cake, the only birthday cake she’s ever had. “Do you think I could take it home?” she asks. “I just live down the street. It would only take a few minutes. I’ll come right back.”
And off goes Agnes with her birthday cake, leaving Tony Campolo in a diner full of prostitutes. So he does what I suppose any good Baptist preacher would do, he offers to pray with them.
After the prayer, Harry turns to Tony and says, “You never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
Tony, in a moment of inspiration, replies, “The kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry looks Tony up and down and finally says, “No. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep. I’d join a church like that.”
Maybe that’s why Jesus drew such crowds. Because he told about a kingdom that people would actually want to be part of. A kingdom where weeds are allowed to invade a field just to provide shelter for a bunch of birds. A kingdom that turns fifty pounds of flour into enough bread for a neighborhood block party.
Jesus’ words startle the religious folks of his day. His disregard for the rules, the purity regulations, the authority structures, threaten the very basis of institutional religion. But for those who are less powerful, less wealthy, whose lives are more messy–for those in the crowd that gathered around Jesus that day, I can almost here them murmuring among themselves: “What’s this guy talking about? There’s no kingdom like that. If there was, I’d be part of it. Yep. I’d join a kingdom like that.”
Jesus often teaches in parables, brief stories that turn conventional religious wisdom on its head; stories that spark the spiritual imagination.
After Jesus tells the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, we have the parables of the buried treasure and the pearl of great price. What struck me early in the week when I first looked at this scripture passage is how different these two sets of parables seem. The common weed and leaven. The rare and valuable treasure and pearl. How can the kingdom be like all of these things?
At some point in my study and pondering, I realized that Jesus tells these two sets of parables to two different groups of people. The parables of the mustard seed and leaven are told to a large crowd that has gathered to hear Jesus. These are parable that will help the people see the kingdom of God around them–in the places they least expect.
And the second two parables–the treasure and the pearl–Jesus tells only to his disciples. To those who have already found him, who are already on the kingdom path of following him, he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
The kingdom is indeed full of joy. And to enter into that joy will require you to sell everything you own. To leave behind all of those things that you once thought would bring you joy. To pursue the kingdom means that you no longer pursue anything else.
I once heard that when the Wright brothers–Orville and Wilbur–were working on that first airplane, they would leave home in the morning with five sets of parts. Because that’s how many times they expected to crash before they came in for supper. Those guys wanted to build an airplane. That’s all they wanted to do, and they risked everything for it.
Jesus tells his followers, if you want, if you really really want the Kingdom, that has to be all you want. And you have to be willing to give up everything else you think you want to get it.
I’m not sure what the disciples thought of this. If they took Jesus seriously on this point or not. But we know, from our vantage point, that most of the people Jesus was talking to, most of those disciples who heard the parable of the buried treasure, would be dead within a few years because of their work for the kingdom.
Whatever those first disciples thought, we know that Jesus was not kidding. He was not exaggerating.
Jesus, though, didn’t just tell the parable of the buried treasure. He also told the story of the pearl of great price: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
This parable is usually lumped together with the one about buried treasure. After all, they end with almost exactly the same words: “He went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
But these parable do not say the same thing.
In the first parable, the kingdom of heaven is like the treasure that is found. We are called to give all we have for the treasure.
In the next parable, the kingdom of heaven is not like the pearl. The kingdom is like the merchant. Suddenly it is God and not us who is doing the searching. God who is longing and looking for that thing of greatest value.
And it is God who, upon finding the pearl, willingly gives up everything. Everything.
And Jesus, Jesus who is sitting there telling these parables, is the evidence of this truth. Jesus, the Word who though divine entered fully into humanity, giving up glory and power for the merest chance of a reconciled relationship with us. Jesus, who gives up his chance at religious respectability by having parties with hookers and eating with tax collectors and talking to women and touching lepers. Jesus, who knows he is moving closer and closer to his own violent death.
“He sold all that he had and bought it.” The two stories end the same way. But as a former English teacher I am obligated to remind you that the pronouns make all the difference. Who is he? What is it?
Yes, we are called to give up the life we think we want for the true life and joy of the Kingdom.
And yes, God has already sacrificed God’s very self so that we might be able to be with God, now and forever, in the kingdom of heaven.
May your imagination be sparked by the words of Jesus, that you might see, in a litter-strewn lot, the promise of a blooming flower garden; that you might see in the mustard seed, the dandelion puff, beauty and sanctuary; that you might create from the work of your daily tasks and the discomfort of uncomfortable situations, parties filled with joy and laughter. May the life of Christ fill your heart and open your eyes to the unexpected presence of the Kingdom around you and within you.