Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
“Yes,” they replied.
52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
Eugene Peterson, the man who wrote the paraphrase of the Bible known as The Message as well as many other excellent books, tells a very interesting and enlightening story about an experience he had as a young boy. On the third day of first grade Peterson, scrawny and small, was found by the school bully. And every day after that, the bully would rough him up a bit after school.
When Peterson asked his mother what he should do, she told him to remember the teachings of Jesus, to “turn the other cheek,” and to “bless those who persecute you.”
Peterson tried that, and it only made the bully pick on him more. Now the bully would call him a “Jesus sissy” as his fists connected with Peterson’s face.
This went on for a number of months until the spring of the year, when Peterson had had enough. The bully found him outside of the school and immediately a number of other students gathered to watch the altercation. But when the bully went to grab Peterson, Peterson grabbed him back and threw him to the ground. He then crawled upon his chest, pinning him down with his knees, and began hitting him in the face. As Peterson hit the bully, he yelled out, “Say uncle, say uncle!” But the bully refused.
Quickly, Peterson’s Sunday school teaching came back to him, only in a bit of a perverted way. So as the next series of punches landed, Peterson called out, “Say ‘Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.’”
The bully refused. So a few more punches landed, and Peterson repeated himself, “Say ‘Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!’”
Finally, the bully gave in, and repeated those words.
Peterson then notes that the bully was his first convert to Christianity.
Peterson tells this story as a bit of a joke, but mostly as an illustration. Over the last few weeks we have been looking at the parables found in Matthew 13. Two weeks ago we considered the parable of the sower and how Jesus is calling us to spread the seed of his kingdom indiscriminately upon the rocky, thorny, compacted, and good soil. Last week we looked at the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and how Jesus instructed his listeners that the kingdom of heaven does not come through violently uprooting of what we might consider to be evil, which would look a lot like Peterson’s story of his first convert. Today we will look at how the kingdom of heaven does spread: from within.
Today’s passage is made up of six little parables. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to determine that Jesus is working with a common theme here. Five of the six parables begin in the same way: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Remember that the word parable literally means to throw two things out, side by side, to compare them to one another. So Jesus is offering these common items, things that his listeners would have been familiar with, to compare them to the kingdom of heaven. Unfortunately, I cannot address each of these parables in depth, so we are really going to dissect the first two and skim over the others.
The first two are often linked together, and I think that is correct. The first parable is about a mustard seed. Jesus calls the mustard seed the “smallest of all seeds.” Sure, there are smaller seeds than the mustard seed, but the point is that mustard seeds are quite small. You might say Jesus is using hyperbolic language in this parabolic statementJ. Jesus says that the mustard seed, though it starts out small, grows to be a very large plant. So large, in fact, that the birds perch on the mustard plant like it was a tree.
The second parable is the parable of the yeast. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who takes yeast, which is even smaller than a mustard seed, and works it into 60 pounds of flour. 60 pounds is a pretty big sack of flour! But the yeast is able to spread throughout the flour because yeast self-propagates.
Perhaps some of you are familiar with what we commonly call “friendship bread.” I found a description of friendship bread on the internet, and the description said this about friendship bread: “It’s a gloopy, unappetizing substance in a bag that you mash for ten days before baking the most heavenly bread in the world.”
Usually the way it works is that someone gives you a Ziploc baggie filled with this “gloopy, unappetizing substance,” which is actually a yeast starter. The starter is made of flour, sugar, water, and yeast. The flour and sugar serve as food for the yeast. That’s right, the yeast gets to eat the bread before you do. For a period of ten days you follow instructions to massage the bag, mixing the contents, and adding more flour and sugar to feed the yeast. During this time the yeast is making more yeast. After ten days, you pour the contents of the bag into a mixing bowl, add more flour and sugar, and divide the mixed product into four. Three of those portions are divided into other individual Ziploc baggies, and the fourth portion is left in the mixing bowl to make your bread.
So what do you do with the other three bags of yeast starter? You give it to a friend, along with the instruction on how they too can make more starters. So one person makes the first starter, gives three starters away, and each of those three starters are divided into four parts with three bags of starter given to three other friends. Three time three equals nine bags of starter being given away during this second round of friendship bread. Add that to the original three recipients, plus the person who started it all, and 13 people have the means by which to make some of the yummiest bread you’ve ever shoved in your mouth. And it just keeps going, exponentially growing. The nine give starters to 27 people. The 27 give starters to 81 people.
Wouldn’t it have been great if I would have brought friendship bread starters for everyone at church today? Unfortunately, I started writing my sermon too late.
We can’t say for sure what the woman in Jesus’ parable of the yeast is planning to do with her mixture, but 60 pounds of flour makes a lot of dough. I’m pretty sure that she isn’t planning to eat that bread by herself. Perhaps she was planning to make bread to sell or give away. But remember that yeast was not available in powder form at the local supermarket in Jesus’ day. Yeast was kept in live and active form. It isn’t too much of a stretch to think that this woman was mixing the yeast into 60 pounds of flour for the purpose of sharing the product with her family and neighbors.
Jesus is saying that the kingdom of heaven starts small and has the potential to spread, to grow. To reach the skies. To reach every person.
I think that the purpose of putting the first four parables in Matthew 13 is to teach us how the kingdom of heaven spreads. It spreads when we share the kingdom message freely with everyone, like a sower who spreads his grain indiscriminately. It grows through planting seeds, kingdom seeds, that have the potential of growing to the heavens. It grows through simple people, like you and me, baking bread, kneading dough, and giving it to our friends, relatives, and neighbors. The kingdom of heaven spreads through relationships, through personal contacts.
For the first 300 years or so of her history, the church got this right. The kingdom of God, this message of reconciliation between us and God and one another, spread through personal contacts, through building relationships, and through literally sharing bread. Even in the midst of severe persecution, Christianity spread. But then there was a shift, and all at once Christians found themselves in control and in power.
The emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the year 312 and this changed the dynamics of what it means to be a Christian. No longer did people become Christians by choice or reason, they became Christian because it was convenient. It may have even been the only way to save their life.
Constantine marched the armies of defeated troops through rivers as a mass baptism. He forced people to convert to Christianity at the tip of a sword. Much like Eugene Peterson beating up the bully, confessing a faith in Jesus was the only option.
In all honesty, Constantine did spread Christianity to much of the known world. And perhaps some of us would not be Christians today if he hadn’t. But when we put these parables together, it seems clear that Jesus is saying that his kingdom does not spread through force. We cannot forcefully uproot the weeds among the wheat. No, it spreads from within, like yeast in a baggie of friendship bread dough.
Jesus goes on to give two more parables that have a similar meaning. The first is of a man who finds a treasure hidden in a field. When he realizes what he has, he buries the treasure right where he found it, goes and sells everything that he has, and buys the field.
In my mind this seems a little bit illogical. Why bury the treasure again, sell all of your things, and then buy the field? Why not just keep the treasure? Then you have the treasure, all of your stuff, and you don’t have to worry about the field.
I think that the reason Jesus adds the part about re-hiding the treasure and buying the field is out of a sense of justice. If you have a valuable item today you would either lock it in a personal safe our take it to the bank and put it in a safe deposit box. But how many banks are mentioned in the Bible? The banks of the Jordan are the only ones I can think of. With Roman soldiers coming through town all the time, and with the risk of marauding and pillaging, the safest place to keep a valuable item was to bury it in a secret place.
So I think the reason this person bought the land after re-burying the treasure is to give the rightful owner a chance to uncover the treasure. If the owner of the land doesn’t come forward to dig up the treasure, he probably didn’t know about it. Therefore, the buyer of the land now becomes the rightful owner of the treasure.
However, this is only a side note. The real purpose of both of these parables is to reveal the value of this kingdom that Jesus came proclaiming. When these men find the treasure, or the pearl, they sell everything they have and they are happy to do it. We may be able to join the kingdom of heaven for free, but there are times when it will cost us everything!
The fifth parable is about a fishing net that is used to collect fish as a boat propels across the sea. This is sometimes called a dragnet, which is of course named after the television show. A dragnet was dropped from a boat and it was long enough to reach the bottom of the sea. As the boat went from one end of the sea or lake to the other end, it collected everything and anything it came in contact with. So a dragnet would capture fish, mollusks, old shoes, and tires (if it is used in Cleveland). The fishers would then sort out their catch, casting aside that which they did not mean to catch.
This parable seems to be very similar to the parable of the weeds and wheat. Perhaps Jesus has simply changed his metaphor to reach a different crowd. Some were farmers, others were fishermen, and Jesus wanted to connect with them all. Jesus simply reminds them that good and evil do and will continue to coexist side-by-side. And Jesus gives a brief explanation after this parable, reminding his listeners that it is not their responsibility to do the sorting. Their job is to share the kingdom message indiscriminately, like the parable of the sower, allowing the kingdom to work through the world like yeast works through dough (I know, I’m mixing metaphors. I learned it from Jesus.)
Jesus concludes this symphony of parables with an easily overlooked reminder to his Jewish audience. This parable is entirely contained in verse 52: “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
I heard this parable compared to a musical group. I remember well when I was a young man and a big act came to our county fair, and I wasn’t about to miss it. I went to the concert for one reason and one reason only. I went to hear Billy Ray Cyrus sing “Achy, Breaky Heart.”
But one of the reasons a musician goes on tour is often because they have a new album coming out. So when Billy Ray played the county fair, he played Achy, Breaky Heart, but he also played something new; something we have never heard before. And the metaphor breaks down there because there is nothing better than Billy Ray singing Achy, Breaky Heart.
The final parable that Jesus gives us in chapter 13 isn’t about the kingdom of heaven. It is about the citizens of that kingdom. He speaks specifically of a teacher of the law who has become a disciple. This teacher of the law/Christian is an example of the collective treasures of old and new, the Hebrew tradition and this new kingdom of heaven thing that Jesus is proclaiming.
Parents, we can make our children go to church, read their Bibles, and pray their prayers. But that doesn’t make her a Christian.
You can vote on laws and pass bills and this may make your neighbor become more moral. But that doesn’t make him a Christian.
You can hold a bully down on the ground, punching him until he name Jesus as his lord. But that doesn’t make him a Christian.
The kingdom of heaven spreads like a mustard seed; like a single cell of yeast. We are called to make friendship bread for the kingdom.