Matthew 13.31–33, 44–52
For Jesus, God’s realm is not some esoteric kingdom in the sweet by and by, but as close as the next mustard bush or loaf of bread.
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.3.
Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Saviour. (Isaiah 45.15)
In the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry with these words:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
The kingdom of heaven—what Mark and Luke call the kingdom of God—has come near.
What is the kingdom of God? Well, it’s something Jesus tells stories about.
We can tell that this kingdom is near because when Jesus tells stories about it, he tells stories about things that are near at hand. Jesus’ ‘Parables of the Kingdom’ are stories about farmers and seeds and merchants finding pearls and women baking bread.
But these stories have a bit of a twist. The twist is there because while the kingdom of God really is nearby, it is also hidden. You can see it—hidden in plain sight—if you know how to look. If you can repent and look with new eyes. The parables of Jesus call us to engage with them, to rethink, to redirect our heart.
In today’s terms, we could tell a parable something like this:
The kingdom of God is like an old woman in a coffee shop who pays for the strangers at the next table, and slips out before they realise it.
The kingdom of God is like a pregnant woman getting on a full bus, whereupon a gay man gives up his seat for her.
There’s an old woman in a coffee shop. Happens all the time. But imagine the joy of the people at the next table when they find their bill is paid.
A pregnant woman gets onto a bus, which happens to be full. Happens all the time. But who gives up his seat for her? Someone whose sexuality shocks the ‘respectable people’.
Jesus’ parables of the kingdom are about such ordinary things with extra-ordinary twists. But you need eyes to see what is extraordinary about them to be connected to God’s hidden work in the world.
Perhaps the most familiar parable is the Good Samaritan. You all know the story. An ordinary citizen, minding his own business, gets mugged and left to die. He gets help, and is saved.
But who helps him? The minister of the Word, hurrying to an important service? The elder, off to make a pastoral visit?
No, neither of these. The person who helps him is a Moslem. And here, the kingdom of God has come near.
With this in mind, let’s look at some of the parables in this passage.
The kingdom of God is so close, it is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; and eventually the birds of the air nest in the branches.
Mustard is good, I like mustard a lot. What could be the extraordinary twist?
There are two twists I want to mention.
The first is that in those days, mustard was a nuisance. Once you had it, you couldn’t get rid of it. Why would anyone plant mustard? It grew like the weed it was.
I understand butterfly bush is a declared weed here in Tasmania. Would a farmer really plant it?
The second twist is that the image of birds making their nests in the branches of a tree comes from Old Testament texts about great cedars of Lebanon.
For example, Psalm 104.16–17a says
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests…
But Jesus chooses not to talk about massive trees, but about a bush that you just can’t get rid of.
The kingdom of God is not like a great tree that impresses everyone with its imposing size. It’s like a huge weed, which doesn’t invite our admiration but which digs in for the long haul. But the birds of the air find a home in its branches.
The next parable Jesus tells is that of a woman baking bread. The kingdom of God is as close as this everyday event. When you listen to this story, it seems like there could be no twist in the tail.
Interestingly, there are two here as well.
Firstly, just about everywhere else the Bible mentions yeast it’s a symbol of sin, of evil. When the Bible speaks of ‘yeast’, it means what we call sourdough starter. It’s a bit of the yeast that is kept aside to make the next batch rise. Starter ferments, is goes a bit off, it can smell foul. No wonder it’s a symbol of sin that separates us from God.
But here, far from being a symbol of separation from God, it’s part of something that is like the kingdom of God.
More than that, the bakerwoman has enough yeast to make three measures of flour rise. Three measures of flour would make enough bread to feed a hundred people. She wasn’t just baking for her family. It was bread for a party! Maybe a wedding!
Imagine the joy she gave by making so much bread.
The kingdom of God can use things that respectable people think of as wrong, or questionable.
Jesus hung out with questionable people, so much so that he became a questionable person himself. Once he said,
the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
But Zacchaeus and Matthew and the Gerasene Demonic and countless others were glad that he came to them. And ate with them, and stayed with them. And brought them great joy.
The Parable of the Treasure Hidden in a Field is also intended to make you look again. What was the bloke doing digging in a field that didn’t belong to him?
And the Pearl of Great Price: wasn’t the merchant putting himself out of business by selling everything? Was he going to live on joy the rest of his life?
Another parable. Not one from Jesus:
The kingdom of God is like a cafe which weathered the global downturn because of the loyalty of its regular clients. When things recovered, the owners invited all the regulars to an evening on the house, with huge amounts of wonderful food and drink. Everyone went away satisfied.
I tell you this as a parable, but it’s also a true story. My wife and I were among the regulars.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray
Your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as in heaven.
What are we praying for? We are praying for something already near at hand. Something hidden from us until our ears and eyes are opened. Something unknown by the wise and powerful, but which is made known to the poor in spirit. The kingdom is hidden in plain sight.
It is something that Jesus tells stories about, so that we might see and hear.
Where is the kingdom here in the Derwent Cluster of congregations?
The same place it is everywhere. Hidden in plain sight. You don’t have to strain to see it. Just listen to the stories that are being told. And when you find a story, tell it to others.
The kingdom of God is like a disabled person, moving in her wheelchair with the wind in her face and joy in her heart.
The kingdom of God is like a dog that buries a bone and later digs it up to share with another.
The kingdom is near at hand. Look for it. Open your eyes, see how close it is.
Lord, may your kingdom come.