Posted on Jul 30, 2017 by Pastor Dave Whetter
According to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus began his ministry immediately following John the Baptist’s arrest and from the beginning Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). From the beginning, Jesus’ ministry was about sharing with the world the need for the people to repent, that is change their ways to God’s ways because God’s kingdom was near. What was unclear to everyone in the beginning of his ministry is that Jesus himself is the beginning of this new era in which God’s kingdom will be fully realized. Oh, it hasn’t been fulfilled, yet, but it is coming and throughout his ministry, Jesus invites his followers, and you and I, to seek it.
But if we are going to find the kingdom, or at least begin to recognize it, we must know what it looks like and feels like. So, in Matthew’s gospel, we hear how Jesus described the kingdom of heaven to the people. As we heard a couple of weeks ago, Jesus, like all good teachers, described this difficult concept of the kingdom by using parables, or metaphors, in an attempt to help the people understand. In the first parable Jesus used, we heard him say the kingdom was like a sower… Then, in the parable that we skipped last week, he compared the kingdom to seed and weeds. While the parables about the sower and seeds and the weeds may have appealed to the farmers in the crowd, the parables we hear today were probably meant to appeal to the fishermen, the bakers, and the merchants.
As I read our story for today, I imagined the crowds listening to Jesus describe the kingdom of heaven. As the crowd listened, I imagined them smiling and whispering to each other, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if such a kingdom really existed,” or, “Oh, I wish we could really be part of such a kingdom…” And then, I imagined someone in the crowd yelling, “Jesus, tell us more about this kingdom of heaven!”, to which Jesus responded with these last 5 parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a valuable treasure, and a net.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Here it is as if Jesus was saying, "I know Rome has told us that it is a great kingdom because it is so big, but size really doesn’t matter." Now, before we get hung up on technicalities, I know the mustard seed is not really the smallest of all seeds. Today there are those who would say, see, Jesus can’t be God, because God would have known that the mustard seed isn’t the smallest of seeds. But this misses the point altogether. First, for the people Jesus was talking to, they probably thought of the mustard seed as the smallest, since it was most likely the smallest thing they ever used. Secondly, even today, we use language that isn’t technically correct. For example, we often say that when the sun goes down it is sunset, but technically, scientifically speaking, the sun never sets on the earth. Jesus wasn’t attempting to be technically correct here; he was trying to create an image that would help us understand what the Kingdom was like. I would argue that Jesus emphasized the size of this seed so that he could help us see that the kingdom of heaven will have a modest, small beginning, but from such humble, small beginnings great things will come. In fact, later in his ministry, Jesus will again talk about the mustard seed when he tells his disciples that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains (Matthew 17:20). That which will start out so small will have an overwhelming impact on the world. Just like those seeds mentioned in the previous parables, the mustard seed, too, will produce a yield.
Then Jesus describes the kingdom in terms of yeast. When I was a little boy, my mom and grandma used to make bread. After they added all the ingredients they would have this small ball of dough that they would set in a bowl, cover with a towel, and set on the windowsill in the sun. Then, about 45 minutes later, they would uncover the bowl and the dough had expanded to the size of the bowl. That always amazed me. I learned when I got older that one of the ingredients was yeast, and the yeast is what caused the dough to rise. Yeast is a key ingredient for making bread because without it, the bread would not get fluffy and light. The kingdom of heaven is that yeast because it transformative and uplifting. Without God’s reign, life would be flat and dull. It is the presence of God’s kingdom that empowers God’s people to rise above life’s circumstances.
Following this parable, Jesus went on and said the kingdom of heaven is like hidden treasure that has been found because it brings joy. In fact, this kingdom brings so much joy that it is worth risking everything we have to be part of it, even our lives.
Then he continue by describing the kingdom as a valuable treasure. Jesus said, “…on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:46). Like the man who finds a hidden treasure, the merchant who is searching for a pearl sells all that he has to purchase it. Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is a treasure that is to be valued. Also, Jesus seems to be saying that the kingdom of heaven must be sought. It is not easily obtained or readily available.
Lastly, Jesus said, the kingdom in like a net that catches fish of every kind. He describes the kingdom as being diverse and inclusive. But, he also says that in the end the angels will come to “separate the evil from the righteous” (13:49). Just as the fish exist together in the sea, we also must live together, exist peaceably, and leave the judgment to God.
Jesus takes the time to describe the kingdom in ways that hopefully will help the people better understand what a kingdom under God’s reign will be like. But the question today is what do these parables teach us. First, I would say these parables suggest that faith is about seeing; seeing something others do not, seeing something that the world does not acknowledge and perhaps does not want you to see. To be a child of the faith is to seek the kingdom. Secondly, I would argue that as beautiful as these teachings are, they are also challenging. For example, that yeast, once it's in the dough, spreads everywhere. It literally takes over. If we let the kingdom become part of our lives, God wants our whole life, not just Sundays.
They also tell us that to fully experience the joy and value we will find in the kingdom we have to be willing to give up what we have in this world. It might not make sense to give up everything we have for one pearl, or one piece of property, but until we are willing to do that the real value and joy of God’s reign will not be realized.
The Gospel, as Paul says, appears foolish in the eyes of the world, and so has little value to those who are comfortable with the status quo. Jesus’ promises are good news, actually the best news we’ve heard. Our challenge today is, are we ready for the kingdom? Are we ready to give it all up for the joy of the kingdom? Amen