Having, in previous weeks, pulled out the parables of the sower/soils and of the weeds, together with their interpretations, from the collection of ‘kingdom of heaven’ parables in Matt 13, the lectionary for Trinity 7 in Year A now mops up the remaining, mostly short, parables about the kingdom to complete our reading of the chapter. (It is difficult to see how one might organise the texts for preaching in any other way, since you could not postpone the explanation of a parable for the week after its telling—but there is still a very strange effect in unweaving what Matthew has weaved together.)
The selection by the lectionary disguises the careful way in which Matthew has brought together this teaching of Jesus in chapter 13:
Parable of sower/soils
Reason for teaching in parables
Explanation of parable of sower/soils
Parable of weeds
Parable of mustard seed
Parable of leaven in flour
Explanation of parable of weeds
Parable of the treasure in the field
Parable of the pearl of great price
Parable of the net with its explanation
So, following the opening parable about parables, which is also found in both Mark 4 and Luke 8, we then have two sets of three parables, one longer with an explanation, and the other two shorter and with no explanation. The mustard seed is also found in Mark 4.31 and Luke 13.19, and the parable of the leaven is found in Luke 13.21. In Mark 4, the parable of the mustard seed is the last of Mark’s collection here, and Mark follows it with his intriguing conclusion:
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything (Mark 4.33–34).
This suggests that, where we have three explanations here, Jesus might have offered the disciples an interpretation of all the parables, and not just the ones that we have!
Luke’s versions of the parables follow Mark in opening each with a more reflective introduction, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?’, whereas Matthew dives straight in to Jesus’ teaching: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’
In this week’s reading, we are mostly focussing on those parables in bold above, which are unique to Matthew. The imagery here is striking, very visual and direct; each of them can easily be turned into a book for children or a ‘Sunday school’ lesson for children (which raises the question: why don’t we have Sunday school for adults?), and each is very pithy and memorable. In that regard they both accord with other, shared material in the Synoptics, but also with many of the ‘I am’ sayings in the Fourth Gospel (‘I am the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the light of the world…’) which suggests less distance between the parables here and the sayings in the Fourth Gospel than is usually understood.
The first two parables in our reading, of the mustard seed and the leaven, share with the outer ‘bread’ of this parable sandwich, the parable of the weeds, an organic dynamic where the focus is on different kinds of growth, in contrast to the second group of three which use inorganic vehicles (treasure, pearl, net) to explain the subject of the kingdom.
There is often some debate in commentators about exactly which variety of ‘mustard’ Jesus is referring to here, whether it really is the smallest of all seeds, and whether it can really grow to be the size of a tree. But in the end these miss the rhetorical point of the exaggeration of the parabolic form; mustard is proverbially small, and black mustard (brassica nigra) can in fact grow to be several metres tall. (This is also a wider feature of polemical language; it was not literally true, as Jesus predicted, that ‘not one stone of the temple will be left on another’ [Matt 24.2] since you can still see today some stones of the lower wall of the Second Temple, and share the wonder of the disciples at their size and majesty.) The surprising nature of something substantial growing from something small is actually a feature of all gardening and cultivation. I have just sown and pricked out my second crop of lettuce, and it is a constant surprise to see something so small—almost too small to handle—eventually provide an abundance of food. The kingdom of heaven seems at first to be something small and insignificant—small seeds are almost as fine as dust, and just as easily blown away or lost—but there will come a time when, like the plants that seeds produce, it is impossible to ignore.
(To the keen eared who are soaked in the Old Testament, there is an echo here of the language of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its interpretation by Daniel in Daniel 4.12, 21. The kingdom of Babylon is like a tree, and the birds in its branches are the nations who become subject to it. This is not unconnected with the subject of the kingdom of God/heaven, since in chapters 2 and 7 we have visions of how the ‘kingdom of the God of heaven’ will destroy the four great kingdoms of this world [Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome], depicted as a four-stage statue or four beasts emerging from the ‘sea’ of the peoples of earth.)
Whereas the parable of the mustard seed has a man as the central agent, the parable of the leaven (or yeast) presents us with a woman as the agent of kingdom-like activity. Matthew is not as careful as Luke in having balanced male-female pairs, but this sits quite happily with his emphasis in women, just as much as men, being members of Jesus’ disciple-kinship group in Matt 12.50.
It is striking that the woman ‘hides’ the small piece of sourdough from the previous batch of dough into this new batch of flour. Though the action is common enough as a way of making traditional breads (for example, the ‘pain de campagne’ in many parts of rural France), the ‘hiding’ links this with other themes of the kingdom: it is ‘hidden’ from the wise and intelligent in Matt 11.25; it is hidden from the crowds in the telling of parables, and is a ‘secret’ given only to the disciples in Matt 13.11; it is like the hidden treasure in the following parable; and Jesus’ true identity becomes a secret from Matt 16.20 onwards, only being revealed in the later, post-resurrection proclamation.
Once more, we have absurd exaggeration to make a point; the ‘sixty pounds’ of flour would be enough to feed a whole village! It is striking that the emphasis here, that the kingdom of heaven will work its effect through the whole batch, offers a counterpoint to the surrounding parable of the weeds. In the weeds, there is a sharp distinction between those who are of the kingdom and those who are not, though that distinction will only become evident at The End. In the flour, there is much more a focus on the intermingling, and the effect of the kingdom in the meantime.
The second group of parables shifts focus, from the inevitability of the growth of the kingdom, to its discovery and the response it elicits. The two parables have different kinds of appeal. On the one hand, the idea of buried treasure has a wide, almost archetypal popular appeal: ‘X marks the spot!’ On the other hand, whilst pearls, with the shimmering lustre of their opalescence, have a universal appeal, they were particularly prized by the wealthy elite in Roman society—so much so that they would dissolve the most expensive in vinegar and drink them with wine as a kind of extreme indulgence! It is this indulgence which is behind the importance of pearls in the figure of the great prostitute of Rev 17, and its counterpoint in the pearl gates that adorn the bride-city in Rev 21.
But once again, the practical issues at stake are not really the point. If someone finds treasure in a field, is it really ethical to purchase it without informing the owner? And why would a pearl merchant sell all he has in order to buy this marvellous pearl? At least the man who buys the field can now use the treasure and live off it; but how can you eat a pearl?
There are two issues here, and these are what make this pair of parables ones that have gripped me ever since I first read them. The first issue is that, whilst there is some hint of the pearl merchant searching for the pearl of great price, the overwhelming sense is that these things of great value have been discovered, almost by chance. The man digging in the field does not appear to be a treasure hunter; he is presumably digging in order (ironically!) to sow a crop. And so the kingdom becomes this thing of great value that has been found by accident.
This chimes with my own story, since as I reflect on my journey to faith as a teenager, there was little sense in which I was looking for God, but rather, God was looking for me, and it was only after I was found that I realised I was in any sense lost. Through a series of relationships and connections, I stumbled across this great treasure that God was just waiting for me to find. This kind of experience correlates with the narratives of Jesus calling the disciples in the Synoptics, and it is made explicit in the Fourth Gospel: ‘You did not choose me, but [in contradiction to the usual practice of rabbis] I chose you’ (John 15.16).
But notice that, in both of these pithy parables, the enormity of the gift of grace leads quite naturally to the second issue of the immediate and radical response. If we struggle to respond to God’s call, then we have not yet understood the extent of his grace to us. And when we realise what a great treasure we have come across, it would be foolish not to give up everything in order to gain this!
The third parable of this second group, the parable of the net, offers interesting connections with the other two, but also with the preceding group, especially the parable of the weeds. Here, the kingdom is about God’s sovereignty and action; none of the fish ‘chose’ to be caught! But like the parable of the weeds, there is a mixture of the good and the bad, until there is a sorting at the end of the age, and in this parable there is an unavoidable emphasis on the fate of the wicked in the ‘blazing furnace’; the language of Matt 13.50 almost exactly matches the language of Matt 13.42.
The conclusion to this section of teaching is another enigmatic saying of Jesus, unique to Matthew. Given that Jesus has been explaining the parables to them, it is perhaps no surprise that the disciples affirm their understanding—and it reflects Matthew’s overall more positive depiction of the disciples as a group, in contrast to Mark.
None of them is likely to have been a ‘scribe’, though perhaps Matthew, in his writing work in his booth might come close, which has led some commentators to suggest that this is his autobiographical note. But the overall emphasis here is rather important; in Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven, and his expression of it in his ministry, the disciples have seen something that ‘the prophets and righteous men’ longed for but did not see (Matt 13.17). And yet the treasure of the kingdom comes from the same storeroom as the previous treasures of God’s dealing with and speaking with his people. Jesus has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it (Matt 5.17).
In the kingdom of heaven, set out in the teaching and ministry of Jesus, God is doing a radical new thing—the same radical new thing that he has always been doing. He is the living God. And this new work of grace is one that demands response if it is to be received as gift; whether people will respond or not in itself brings division (Matt 13.57).
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