'Have you understood all these parables?'

July 26, 2020

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures off lour until all of it was leavened.”

44 “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.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 38 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

By Rev. Minoo Kim

We previously talked about the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew Chapter 13. But these are not the only parables shared in this chapter. There are five more parables which Jesus shares with the crowds and with his disciples. And compared to the other two,these five are very short.

The first of the five is probably one of the more popular and beloved parables. It is the Parable of the Mustard Seed. The takeaway is that the kingdom of heaven is like the mustard seed growing to become the greatest of shrubs—becoming a tree where birds can make nests in its branches. Now, a mustard seed is considered one of the smallest seeds found in the Middle East. If you see a mustard seed in your hand, you likely wouldn’t think to plant it in your field, because its size is so insignificant. But the kingdom of heaven is like the one who knows the seed’s value and plants it despite its smallness, and what follows is this small seed surprisingly growing into a large plant, large enough for birds to find their home. This imagery of mustard seed is referenced again later in Chapter 17, as Jesus says to his disciples, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (v. 20).

The second parable is the Parable of the Yeast. On the surface, it may sound like a reiteration of the Parable of the Mustard Seed. The difference is that a small mustard seed becomes a place for nesting birds, while yeast, with this woman’s baking, becomes food enough to feed 100 to 150 people, as that’s what three measures of flour would produce. Translating into kitchen measures, three measures of flour equate to 144 cups of flour, and according to this blogger the Bread Monk, who is both apriest and a baker, this is enough for 416 peanut butter jelly sandwiches (of course, we would also need 33 jars of jelly and 64 of peanut butter).

Another element to note is that yeast is often considered as something negative in the Jewish tradition, as yeast represents sin or corruption. So, in this parable, we learn about a woman (which is yet again another surprising part of the story, because women were culturally considered subhuman in society and therefore they are not often portrayed as protagonists) using something traditionally negative to create something positive, food enough to feed not only her family, but her entire village, her entire community, and that that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.

The third parable is the Parable of Treasure in the Field. This parable, to be honest, is morally ambiguous, because the right thing for the person that finds treasure in a field to do is to report and find the treasure’s original owner, rather than buying the field with all his money so he can own the hidden treasure for himself. The fourth parable is the Parable of the Precious Pearl, which is similar to the Treasure in the Field, but morally justifiable. The person found what he was looking for and went ahead and sold everything to buy that one pearl of great value.

Both the Parable of Treasure in the Field and the Parable of the Precious Pearl are about the surprising action of going all-in. As the term “all-in” suggests, the action of spending all you have to buy that one thing seems like a gamble. For both the treasure and the pearl, the protagonists abandon everything they have to obtain this one thing, leaving behind all they have to have this one precious and hidden treasure. Jesus says something similar to a rich young man looking for enteral life in Chapter 19, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (v. 21). So, while these parables result in obtaining the treasure and the pearl, it is important to note that it is not about the lavish riches of the treasure and the pearl. It is about leaving everything behind to follow Christ.

The fifth parable is the Parable of the Net.The net will catch all kind of fish, fish of every kind. And when the net is full, when the time comes, the good and the bad will be separated. As the angels separate the wheat from the tares, the righteous will be kept, and the evil will be thrown into the furnace of fire. As I have pointed out in the Parable of the Weeds, the kingdom of heaven is like the net that catches every fish, and it is the angels’ job to sort them out.

You may be wondering by now, so what do we make of all these parables?

Each Sunday, I prepare a message by reading the scripture, doing some additional readings through commentaries and other writings, brewing ideas in my head prayerfully, paying attention to what is happening within my community and around my people on a daily basis, and once I’m ready I sit in front of my computer to type words.

Why am I sharing this? Because I imagine it would be a similar process for Matthew who wrote this book. We call this book the Gospel of Matthew because we assume that it was Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples also called Levi, who wrote this book for his church community. Mathew probably had his Jewish Bible and other sacred documents and traditions, a copy of Mark’s Gospel and other both written and oral resources, the Holy Spirit’s anointing, his own accounts of Jesus’ ministry, and lastly his particular attention and love for his own church which was made up of Jewish Christians.

It is believed that the book was written around 85 CE. And what we know is that during this time, Matthew’s church of Jewish Christians was going through conflict and struggle. First, they were living in a time and place within the Roman regime where persecution and oppression against Christians persisted. Second, they were rejected by the rest of the Jewish community, or what we call Pharisaic Jews. Pharisaic Jews were the traditionalists, those who strongly held their beliefs in their Jewish faith, while the Jewish Christians were the new movement sparked by Jesus’ ministry, death, and ressurection. Thus, Matthew’s church was a community constantly being rejected and persecuted, continuously finding itself edged out and marginalized. In other words, Matthew’s community was a community in need of hope, and I’m sure Matthew was paying close attention to everything his community was experiencing and longing for.

The parables shared in Chapter 13 are about the kingdom of heaven. For those who are at the edge of a society, the message of the kingdom of heaven is a message of hope. And the hope expressed in these parables is “the against-all-expectations hope of the outcast and the oppressed.” Because in this kingdom, their insignificance can be a seed for agreat refuge for others and their unlikeliness can be a recipe for feeding the crowd. And in this kingdom, what is about to come is worth everything they previously held, and in this kingdom, there is new life. And in this kingdom, the always-rejected-and-persecuted will no longer stay as rejected and persecuted but will be judged accordingly at last; that there will finally be a fair trial.

For those amongst us who don’t really understand what it means to be pushed to the edge and margins of society, the message of the kingdom of God portrayed in the parables may sound counter-productive and inefficient at worst, and counter-cultural or radically subversive at best.

Ulrich Luz, Swiss theologian, speaks to those of us who may feel this way. “In the pleasant lounge, the hope of the kingdom cannot be understood. On the sofa, the parables of the kingdom cannot be understood. Through exegesis alone, the parables of the kingdom cannot be understood.”

It seems the only way for us to understand the parables is by being in solidarity with those who know and experience the meaning of hope in the margins. Ultimately, this is what Jesus meant by the Beatitudes, blessed are the poor (in spirit), those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. These are the people who recognize the limitations of human power, the people who are economically, socially, culturally, and spiritually vulnerable, the people who truly know the meaning of hope.

If you find yourself looking for hope in vulnerable, desperate situations, I pray that you would find hope in the mysteries revealed in these parables found in Matthew Chapter 13.

And for those of us who are still living comfortably, being able to rely on our own power and agency even in the midst of the coronavirus and racial injustice, I earnestly pray that we would give ears, eyes, and heart to those who truly know the meaning of hope, those whom Jesus calls blessed, those in a similar situation as Matthew’s church community, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.