Pre-Sermon Ponderings: Parables of the Kingdom

If you are following the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday is Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. This passage consists of five brief parables that all begin with, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .”.

That’s right, five parables. So as I look toward preaching this Sunday, my first consideration is whether or not I should try to address the entire passage or just choose one of the parables to explore. It would not be difficult to do a sermon’s worth of exegesis on any one of the five parables. (I’ve posted a sermon I wrote on the parable of the leaven—Luke’s version—for anyone interested.) Choosing one parable would probably be the easiest route.

And yet I am fascinated by the combination of these five parables; by the way they bump up against each other, contradict each other, reinforce each other, and continually throw the readers/hearers off balance.

In the first two parables, the kingdom of heaven is compared to things that are common: a mustard seed and leaven.  Not only are mustard seeds and leaven common, but they would have been viewed in a negative light by Jesus’ original hearers. Mustard was basically a weed. Leaven was understood as a symbol of corruption (see Matthew 16:6). From a Jewish perspective, the Kingdom should be represented by a Cedar of Lebanon (see Psalm 92:12), not a mustard bush, which isn’t really a tree at all. And the leaven is what must be cleaned out of a house in preparation for the holy celebration of Passover.

The kingdom of heaven is a common, everyday nuisance.  If you have a yard or a kitchen, it’s around whether you want it there or not.

But wait. The kingdom of heaven is also like a treasure that is hidden in a field; it is like a pearl of great price. Unique, a once-in-a-lifetime find. And to acquire it, you must be willing to give up everything else. You must sell all that you have.

So the kingdom of heaven is rare and valuable. You will be lucky to find it and must be willing to give up everything you have to hold onto it.

Yet somehow, according to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is like all of these: the mustard seed, the leaven, the treasure, the pearl.

Towards the end of this passage, Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?”

And then comes one of the most astonishing sentences in scripture: “They said, ‘Yes’.”

I must admit that the disciples are a step (or a hundred) ahead of me. I do not understand all this. But I am intrigued by it.

And I pray the Holy Spirit will mold my fascination, my uncertainty, my searching, into a faithful sermon by Sunday morning.  Amen.

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