Welcome Text Week Readers

I am honored to have earned a spot on the regular roster of The Text This Week resources.  If you’ve landed here from there, thank you for clicking over.  This blog is mostly about the Revised Common Lectionary texts for any given week.  My goal is to blog Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so if you’re here early in the week, check back.  This blog started back in 2006, so there are several cycles of thought here as well, though my use of categories wasn’t great in the old days.  Be sure to comment if you have thoughts, and sign up for email updates.  Thanks again for stopping by.

–The Rev. Steve Pankey

So What is Compassion Anyway?

I’ve spent this week focused on one word from the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, compassion.  Compassion is, however, one of those words that gets a lot of use in the church and even in the wider culture, but like love, charity, hope, and narthex, I’m not sure we really know what it means.  Ask the average Joe and Sally on the street to define compassion, and you’ll probably hear something like, “caring for people” or perhaps more pointedly, “responding to someone’s hurt.”  This are both good definitions, but as my friend Evan Garner noted in his blog post on Tuesday, this word has much deeper meanings (pun intended).

“The Greek word for ‘have compassion on’ (in the case of Sunday’s gospel lesson it’s “ἐσπλαγχνίσθη”) and its various forms literally mean ‘disturbed in one’s guts.’ It shares the same root as the word ‘spleen’ because people believed that emotion came from one’s bowels… The word ‘compassion’ in its Latin roots means ‘to suffer with.’ Suffer, in that sense, has to do with feeling something or to be affected by something—not just to endure the pain and trial of a situation. If I suffer with you, it means I am touched by your circumstance. I cry when you cry. I rejoice when you rejoice.”

It seems as though having compassion means more than just responding to someone else’s hurts, but actually to enter into them, to feel them in your being, to take their pain upon yourself in order to more fully understand and be able to minister to the other.  My friend Candyce found a Fredrick Buechner quote that sums this idea up rather well and shared it on my Facebook wall.

Curiously, the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms doesn’t define “compassion.”  It seems that this emotion that is so closely associated with one of Jesus’ most recognizable miracles would find its way into that go-to resource.  Instead, they saved it for the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, which has a definition that takes up nearly a quarter of the page.  In it, James Childress quotes Lawrence Blum, Professor of Philosophy at UMass-Boston.  “‘Compassion is not a simple feeling-state but a complex emotional attitude toward another, characteristically involving imaginative dwelling on the condition of the other person, an active regard for his good, a view of him as a fellow human being, and emotional responses of a certain degree of intensity’ and duration” (109, emphasis mine).

All of this to say that after the Haiti Earthquake, when you sent a text message to the Red Cross to donate $10, you may having been doing a good thing, but you weren’t really feeling compassion.  Compassion is hard.  It requires us to give of ourselves beyond our normal capacity, and encourages us to act in ways that are self-sacrificial.  Compassion is the by-product of agape love, which Jesus was able to offer to the whole world, but which I have to work hard to give to even my closest loved-ones some days, but compassion is a hallmark of Kingdom Living.  When Paul attempts to describe new life in Jesus Christ to the Church in Colossae, he invites them them “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, [to] clothe [them]selves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (NRSV).  Or, more to the point of today’s post from Young’s Literal Translation, “Put on, therefore, as choice ones of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies [compassion], kindness, humble-mindedness, meekness, long-suffering…”

Perhaps this would be a good prayer for this weekend, from Proper 6, “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

The Feast of William Wilberforce – a homily

Just and eternal God, we give you thanks for the stalwart faith and persistence of your servant William Wilberforce who, undeterred by opposition and failure, held fast to a vision of justice in which no child of yours might suffer in enforced servitude and misery. Grant that we, drawn by that same Gospel vision, may persevere in serving the common good and caring for those who have been cast down, that they may be raised up through Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It’s been a while since you’ve had the chance to hear me rail against the current book, approved for trial use, from which we Episcopalians draw our celebrations of the saints of our faith. We used to have a book called Lesser Feasts and Fasts, which, in 2009, was replaced by a dreadful text called Holy Women, Holy Men. I’ll save you the details of my complaints this afternoon because I’m actually going to pay the new book, which will hopefully be tossed in the dustbin of history next summer, a compliment. The prayer which I read at the beginning of this service in remembrance of William Wilberforce is from Holy Women, Holy Men and it is far superior to the one from Lesser Feasts and Fasts because it actually deals with why we remember William Wilberforce at all. William Wilberforce has a feast day in our church because his faithful commitment to Jesus Christ made him doggedly persistent in the pursuit of justice against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Wilberforce was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. In 1780, at the age of 21 and while still a university student, he was elected to Parliament where he served for 45 years. After four years of doing relatively little in office, other than building an erratic voting pattern, Wilberforce underwent an evangelical conversion and began to feel a call to leave politics to serve God more effectively. His friends thought his position was too powerful to give up and thankfully, convinced him to stay in Parliament and serve God there. While in his personal life, Wilberforce was keen to take on the evils of vice: gambling, drinking, card playing and the like, as a Member of Parliament, his area of deep interest was the slave trade.
By the late 18th century, between 35 and 50 thousand Africans were being shipped, every year, from the Gulf of Guinea to be sold into slavery. As much as 80% of Britain’s foreign income came via slave grown crops like cotton, sugar, and tobacco. The economics of slavery had become so entrenched that it was thought to be impossible to stop; only a handful of people even considered doing something about it, and they were mostly Quakers who had very little clout in 18th century England. At dinner one night in 1783, Wilberforce met the Rev. James Ramsay, a ship’s surgeon who later was ordained to serve in the Leeward Islands and earned his living as a medical supervisor on the plantations there. Wilberforce was horrified as Ramsay explained the conditions under which the slaves were treated on the ships and plantations, but it took him three years and that previously mentioned deep faith conversion to do anything about it. By 1787, Wilberforce had been convinced and so began “his persistent, uncompromising, and single-minded crusade for the abolition of the slave trade.”
Wilberforce and his friend Thomas Clarkson, proposed legislation to abolish the slave trade in 1789, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. Finally in 1807, Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce went to on work to ensure that these laws were enforced and eventually worked to make sure that slavery was abolished outright. On July 26th, 1833, three days before he died, Wilberforce received news that passage of emancipation for slaves was certain. Despite his wishes for a simple burial at a family plot next to his daughter and sister, William Wilberforce was buried as a national hero in the north transept of Westminster Abbey on August 3, 1833.
William Wilberforce was a man of stalwart faith. His commitment to the Gospel allowed him to persist over years of failure to change the slavery based economy of the British Empire. He, unlike many others who have fought for justice over the years, saw the fruit of his faithfulness. He died knowing two things for certain: that all men would be made free in the British Empire and that his home would be in the everlasting arms of his Savior Jesus Christ. This day, I give thanks for the stubbornness of William Wilberforce and ask God that he might make us just as determined in the pursuit of justice for all of his children: black and white; slave and free; male and female; straight and gay; documented and not: to the glory of his name. Amen.

Compassion Overflows

Are you sensing a theme in this week’s blog posts?  I’m not sure I’ve ever spent a whole week on one word in a lesson, but it seems as though we’re 3/4 of the way there already.  It seems to be striking a cord with y’all as well.  Due to to some technical difficulties over at the Text this Week, I’ve fallen out of the usual rotation.  This doesn’t mean much, really, except my daily readership dropped by about 2/3rds from 150 a day to roughly 60 over the past few weeks.  Thanks to my readers who are keen to share these posts, however, my first two posts on compassion have spike my stats this week with 111 views on Monday and a whopping 240 yesterday!  It seems that compassion, or at least blog posts about compassion, have a way of overflowing.

Of course, we see that vividly in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the Feeding of the 5,000.  As I noted yesterday, Jesus is having a pretty crummy day when, as the hour grew late, his disciples realized that there were way too many people and way too little food.  “Send them to the villages to grab a bite,” they say to Jesus, but he’ll hear nothing of it.  “You give them something to eat,” he responds.  That verb “to give” is in imperative aorist, which somebody much smarter than me tells me means “it is the urgent aorist of instant action.”  “Do it, and do it now,” Jesus says to his worried disciples.  He takes the small offering that they have – five loaves and two fish – and according to the Jewish table custom, blesses the meal and breaks the bread, and 5,000 men plus women and children eat until they are full up.

The story could end there and be sufficient as one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, but it doesn’t.  Matthew goes on to tell us that the disciples went back around to collect up the leftovers, not the crumbs, but the broken pieces handed out to be shared, and they filled up 12 baskets!  What started as compassion for a hurting people turned into an event in which the sick were healed, thousands upon thousands were fed, and a dozen baskets of leftovers were collected!  Compassion certainly has a way of overflowing.

I’m reminded of the old Liberty Mutual “Do the Right Thing” ad campaign, were one act of concern acted as a butterfly effect to change the course of an entire city in a day, and I can’t help but wonder, are my eyes open to opportunities to share compassion, or am I just focused on my own stuff?

Compassion isn’t reserved for the good days

I had lunch with an Anglican Ordinariate Roman Catholic Priest last week.  In our conversation, we talked some about the differences he has seen between his time in The Episcopal Church and Roman Catholicism.  One point that I found particularly interesting was the rubric within Roman rites that the priest, at his discretion, can shorten a scripture reading appointed for any given day.  Episcopalians can’t do that.  Instead, the rubric on page 888 reads “Any reading may be lengthened at discretion.”  While there are plenty of Sunday’s that I’d like the hack and slash the RCL reading, this week, I’m in total agreement with my Rector, who is preaching, that the Gospel lesson should be extended to include all of verse 13.  The opening should read something like, “After Jesus had heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

The “this” which lacks a direct antecedent and would drive my homiletics professor crazy, is actually an ideal point of entry into this text.  What Jesus heard was that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by a drunk and horny King Herod.  As Keith noted, “That’s how Jesus’ day started.”  This detail seems pretty important.  It explains the whole “going off by himself” bit.  And it opens the feeding of the [2]5,000 and more importantly, Jesus’ overflowing compassion up to a much deeper interpretation.

This miraculous event didn’t occur on the day Jesus got back from sabbatical.  He wasn’t well rested, full of energy, and feeling good.  No, he was having one of the worst days of his life.  And it was on that day, as he dealt with the emotions surrounding the death of his cousin and he came to grips with the reality that it would soon be his head Herod would be after, that he, out of an overwhelming sense of compassion, healed the sick and helped his disciples feed the crowd of more than 5,000.  Jesus was open to sharing his Father’s love, even on the worst day of his life.

There are days that I wish I could just get in a boat and go off to a deserted place by myself.  There are days that I feel zapped of all compassion.  There are days that I don’t really want to care about somebody else.  And as it happens, those are often the days that my phone rings the most, that the need is greatest, and that I end up being blessed by being a conduit of God’s steadfast love and compassion.  Compassion, it seems, isn’t just for the good days, but maybe especially for the bad ones.

Compassion Isn’t a Political Issue

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of the co-mingling of religion and politics.  The only time this blog did anything close to “going viral” was due to a post I wrote the day after the Presidential Election in 2012, entitled “Why I’m Grieving Election Day” in which I argued that the current obsession about how a candidate and a political slate fits in with my religious beliefs has created a church culture in which we no longer are teaching people how to follow Jesus.  Instead, we’ve created a series of litmus tests on “moral” issues that aren’t actually black and white.

The result of this polarized version of faith and politics is that we’ve created a culture in which compassion has become a political issue.  With tens of thousands of undocumented children streaming across the southern Mexican boarder en route to the United States, the image of God that the Psalmist describes in Psalm 145:8-9 and that Jesus proves himself to be in Matthew 14:13-21 has been put under the microscope of politics.  Surprisingly, every major religious group from Jews to Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals has moved beyond the partisanship of the last several decades to make a simple claim, “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion and we should be too.”

We are called, as children of God and even more so as disciples of Jesus, to reach out in care and love for those who are in need in the world around us.  Sure, undocumented children are the hot topic these days, and showing care and concern for them is shockingly and frighteningly counter-cultural these days, but our compassion doesn’t end there.  We’re called to be compassionate to the prisoner: violent offender and drug addict alike.  We’re to be compassionate to widows and orphans no matter our opinions about Social Security.  We’re to show compassion to our enemy whether they are across the political aisle or sitting in the pew behind us.  Compassion is not a political issue, but rather it is a requirement of those who are made in God’s image.

Mustard Seed Living – a sermon

You can listen to today’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

        Every morning, it is guaranteed that at least five items will be brought out from our girls’ rooms.  Lainey will bring her owl and bear.  Eliza will bring her fraff.  And both girls will bring their blanket.  Oh how they love their blankies.  They are a staple for wake up time, for car rides, for quiet times, and especially for bed time.  The world ends when it is bed time and a blanket cannot be found.  Of course, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  While Lainey has her very own blanket, Eliza actually uses Cassie’s old blankie.  I still have my mine, handmade 30 some-odd years ago by my Aunt Michelle  My sister carried a piece of hers in her wedding dress as her something old.  I think, or a least I hope, that we aren’t the only people with such an affinity to the comfort items of our childhood.  It seems as if most of us have had that one thing that was a source of comfort and security; that kept us safe in the dark of night.  And really, even once it is no longer socially acceptable to carry around a blanket; most of us have found new ways to find comfort in the topsy-turvy-ness of life.  Some find it in routine.  Some find it in companionship.  Some find it in a good book.

        I think we seek security and comfort in a lot of different ways, and I think that for many, one of those sources of comfort is the Scriptures.  We find solace in the stories of our faith.  Just hearing the words “In the beginning…” can remind us that God is in control and we need not worry.  “The Lord is my shepherd” can soothe even the most troubled heart.  Even these parables from Jesus seem safe and tame, especially the Parable of the Mustard Seed which is almost suitable for framing.  Using a parable as a security blanket is problematic, however, because the parables were not meant to be a source of comfort.  Instead, Jesus told parables to confound us and make us think.  He told parables not so that we could find easy answers in them, but so that our minds might be opened to hear difficult truths.  Unfortunately, we’ve heard these parables so often that they have all but lost their meaning.  They’ve become nothing more than pithy proverbs that you might find in a fortune cookie.

        I spent a lot of time this week trying to think of new ways to spin these parables; trying to make them less Linus’ blue blanket and more Eugene Peterson’s description as narrative time bombs, but every time I went back to the text, I would read “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed…”, and immediately began to picture doves making their homes in the strong branches of a yellow flowering tree.  And then, I remembered Mr. Little. 

        We hear the Parable of the Mustard Seed two out of every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Matthew’s version is assigned for this week, Proper 12, Year A and Mark’s original take on it comes on Proper 6, Year B. Luke has it in his Gospel, but we skip over it in Year C.  Every time this parable is read at the 7:30 service, Mr. Little comes out and says something like, “I don’t know what kind of mustard seeds Jesus was planting, but mine don’t look like trees.”  I don’t know the first thing about agriculture generally or mustard plants specifically, and so I always chuckle at the thought and merely shrug my shoulders, but as I read my go-to sources this week, I began to think that maybe Mr. Little is really on to something.  Again and again there were references to the silliness of this parable to the first century hearer.  Words kept coming up like weed, crabgrass and the dreaded kudzu.  Thanks to Mr. Little, the idea that Jesus meant the Parable of the Mustard Seed as a starry eyed image of the Kingdom of Heaven now seems absurd to me.  Jesus didn’t have in mind a mighty tree, but rather the mustard plant that Mr. Little knows well, the scrubby almost grass like plant that when left to its own devices might grow tall and woody, but certainly isn’t a tree.  This parable is often explained to a sleepy congregation, shrunken by the cares and concerns of summer time, by saying “Take heart!  We may be small, but big things can grow from even the smallest of faith.”  That’s nice, and that may be a quality children’s message that we can take from this parable, but I don’t think it is the only thing the mustard seed teaches us.

        Instead, Jesus is using hyperbole, one of those great rhetorical devices they taught us about in seminary, by making a greatly exaggerated claim to teach a deeper truth.  I’m certain that as Jesus told this story, many in the crowd chuckled at its absurdity.  Some probably rolled their eyes at the very thought of the mustard plant being “the greatest of shrubs.”  Maybe in the rolling of their eyes, this rag tag group of farmers and fishermen; widows and orphans; scribes and illiterate women crowded around the seashore were really learning something about the Kingdom of Heaven. 

        Jesus could have chosen a more classical Biblical image of a majestic kingdom.  He could have said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the seed pod of the mighty cedar, which when planted grows into the greatest of trees.”  His audience would have immediately thought the mighty trees of the Babylonians or the lofty cedar of the Assyrians or the oaks of Bashan.  They would have associated it with real power, real authority, real kingdoms.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  Instead, he uses the image of the wild growing mustard plant to turn the idea of power upside down, subtly suggesting that real power doesn’t come from our usual expectation of might makes right, but from ordinary, often un-majestic sources.  The Kingdom of Heaven is always expanding, always growing, and always present when people of faith take on seemingly simple acts of love.  The love of God, like the lowly mustard plant, has a way of spreading beyond anything we can ask or imagine.  It can take over your life, your family, our church, our city, even the world.[1]

        Jesus’ parables, like the Gospel message they share, are not meant to be like the comfort of a beloved blankie.  If we take seriously that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, then it will change every aspect of our lives: from how you shop to how you vote; how you watch the news to how you treat your neighbor.  Nobody likes that much change, but as we heard in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we do not go it alone.  Nothing, not “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

        Sometimes, life in the Kingdom of God compels you to open your checkbook in unexpected ways.  Sometimes, it calls you to be a tutor for kindergarteners at Foley Elementary School. Sometimes, it means sleeping on a cot in the education building for Family Promise, or inviting your neighbor to church, or forgiving that family member or friend who hurt you so many years ago, or praying for Christians in Mosul or Israelis and Palestinians in and around Gaza and undocumented children caught in between a political rock and a hard place on the Mexican border.  The love of God can take you way out of your comfort zone, and these Parables, especially the mustard seed, suggest that that is exactly what the Kingdom of God is like.  Sometimes, the Kingdom is just a tiny seed, waiting to be planted, so that it can grow, spread, and someday, to take over the whole world.

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/topics/preaching-2/dear-partner-in-preaching/

For those who don’t like Parable Season

I understand that some of my dear readers aren’t as big a fan of Parable Season as I am.  I can understand that.  The parables aren’t easy, they are convoluted, and they really can be frustrating to deal with.  To top it off, they come right in the midst of what would be a great sermon series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and I can’t blame anyone for taking on a summer preaching series, especially when the topic is Romans.  So, for those of you who maybe aren’t preaching on the machine gun similes of Jesus this week, I offer you a brief reflection on the waning verses of Romans 8.

Last week, I noted that the Romans lesson contained a portion of the lection suggested for the Burial Office in The Episcopal Church.  My friend and colleague Adam, was quick to point out that good exegesis tells us that Paul was probably not thinking about the struggles of everyday life when he was talking about the glory to be revealed.  While I agree with him, I also know that sometimes a funeral homily calls not for good exegesis but for good eisegesis.  Which brings me to the second half of that funeral proper which comes up in this week’s lesson.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Several years ago, I had the honor to preach at a funeral of a retired member of the US Air Force who went on to spend 20 or so years as a postal carrier.  Due to the effects of Agent Orange, he spent his last years confined to a wheel chair suffering from several different ailments.  As I stepped into the pulpit that afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between Romans 8 and the famous motto etched on the facade of a post office in New York City.

Neither snow nor rain nor height nor depth nor angels nor demons nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor principalities nor heat nor gloom of night nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus.  Standing in the pulpit, I realized that many of us have experienced plenty of hardships: illness, the death of a loved one, or job loss; and our news is full of awfulness: MH17, ISIS, and the Sudan, just to name a few; and though it might sound like a platitude, the truth of the matter isn’t that it’ll get better someday, but that God is even there in the midst of it all.  The love of God surrounds us even in the darkest gloom of night, even as powers do their best to push us down, even as it seems like everything in creation is conspiring against us.  God is there.

After another week full of bad news, maybe Romans 8 would be good to preach this Sunday.

More Fun with Jesus – Hyperbole Edition

As best as I can tell, we hear the Parable of the Mustard Seed two out of every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary.  We hear Matthew’s version this week, Proper 12, Year A and Mark’s original on Proper 6, Year B (Luke has it in his Gospel, but we skip over it in Year C).  Every time the Parable of the Mustard Seed is read at the 7:30 service on Sunday morning, Mr. Little, a man who has farmed in South Baldwin County since the end of WWII, whose hands look like this:

onion hands

comes out and says, “I don’t know what kind of mustard seeds Jesus was planting, but mine certainly don’t grow into trees.”  Not knowing the first thing about agriculture generally or mustard plants specifically, I always chuckle and merely shrug my shoulders.

As I’ve been reading my go-to sources this week, I’ve begun to realize that maybe Mr. Little is on to something.  Several of my usual commentators have suggested that perhaps Jesus was using hyperbole to make his point, that perhaps in the rolling of their eyes, the crowd full of farmers and fishermen by the seashore would have learned something.  Here’s how Mark Vitalis Hoffman, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Gettysburg Lutheran puts it:

The Mustard Seed parable has often been sadly reduced to “From small beginnings come great endings.” Since it is set among the accounts emphasizing abundant harvests, Matthew may have this idea in mind as it pertains to the ultimate triumph of God’s dominion, but such a reading also overlooks the parabolic difficulties it poses. Mustard is closer to being a weed than wheat. For a symbol of success, the cedar tree is a better choice. According to Ezekiel 17:23, the “noble cedar” provides the kind of shelter birds’ need, so Jesus is providing a stark and surprising contrast here. To say it becomes the “greatest of shrubs” is faint praise and to call it a “tree” can only be hyperbolic irony. What becomes striking is that this lowly plant is the unexpected symbol of God’s dominion. Is there any other “tree” that could so scandously become part of God’s plan? (Source)

Jesus doesn’t compare the Kingdom of Heaven to the Cedars of Lebanon.  Instead, he compares to the mustard plant, a weedy bush that produces no real fruit, only very pungent seeds carried in a pod.

As I’ve said before, parables aren’t meant to be easy.  They are complex, literary hand grenades that invite us to look at their various layers of meaning to see what we can glean from them about the Kingdom of God.  Taking on all five this Sunday might be a bit much, but the keen preacher might pick one or two and dive in deeply, probing the question, what is the Kingdom of God really like?

The Kingdom is like…

While I enjoy all three weeks of Parable Season, my distrust of all things allegory makes week three the shining star.  Clearly the disciples, and Matthew’s readers, have failed to fully grasp Jesus’ drawn out metaphorical parables.  They, and we, have been further confused by his attempts to explain them.  And so this week, Jesus tries a different tack, straight up simile.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like…

  • A Mustard Seed
  • Yeast
  • A Treasure Hidden in a Field
  • A Merchant in Search of a Fine Pearl
  • A Net Thrown into the Sea

These are five very different ways of explaining the kingdom.  None of them is able to carry the full weight of explaining the Kingdom of Heaven.  In fact, combined, they still don’t even begin to do the job justice.  Still, there is plenty to learn from these five short similes about the Kingdom.

  • The Mustard Seed – the Kingdom of Heaven may look unassuming at the start, but when it takes root, it changes the very landscape of your heart.  From shrub to tree to a home for the birds of the air (those pesky things that stole the seed back in the Parable of the Sower), the Kingdom changes everything.
  • Yeast – the Kingdom of Heaven is subversive: working through an inordinate amount of flour, even this little bit of yeast can change the world.
  • A Treasure – this is a tough one.  It seems as though Jesus is telling the disciples to be unscrupulous.  It is awfully unethical to find a treasure, not tell the land owner, and buy it at market value, but Jesus did once tell his disciples to be shrewd like the children of this age and to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
  • A Merchant – the Kingdom of Heaven is of great value, in fact, it will cost you everything, even your very life.  This is the parabolic version of “take up your cross and follow me.”
  • A Net – though God desires the restoration of all of creation, there will come a day when everyone will have to make a choice: do I want to live in God’s love or not?  I believe there is a hell, though I hope it will be empty at the second coming when everyone, experiencing the overwhelming love of God, chooses to live in the Kingdom of Heaven that is so unspeakably awesome (I use that overused word very intentionally), that even Jesus can’t explain it fully in human terms.

Have you understood all this?

The Bible really is an hilarious book. There are all sorts of points of entry for the sarcastic and snarky as well as those whose sense of humor is more polite and tame.  This week, we have one of those moments between Jesus and his disciples that just makes me laugh.  Like many of the jokes in scripture, however, the way the story is chopped up on the lectionary means we miss out.

Our scene begins with Jesus telling a few more kingdom parables to the crowd: the mustard seed and the yeast.  After he finishes those two stories, the lectionary skips 11 verses that we had last Sunday: the terrible explanation of the Parable of Wheat and Tares.  In that section, Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples had retired into the house where they were staying (13:36).  After explaining to them the earlier parable (37-43), Jesus goes on to tell only his disciples the final three parables: the treasure in the field, the merchant in search of fine pearls, and the seine net.  It is kind of important that we know this detail as we deal with passive aggressive Jesus in verses 51 and 52.  Here’s the exchange from the Contemporary English Version.

After the Parable of the Sower, the disciple try to coax an explanation by saying that the crowds didn’t understand it.  After the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, they are more direct, “Just tell us what it means, Jesus.”  After three rapid-fire parables about the kingdom, Jesus knows full well that the disciples don’t have a clue what he’s talking about, but like most of us, when their honor is tested, the disciples lie.  “Sure, Jesus, we get it.”  And so he lays down the gauntlet with a final parable about themselves.  “Every student of the Scriptures who becomes a disciples in the kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out new and old treasures from the storeroom.”  He doesn’t ask the question again, but you can infer it, “Do you understand?”

After what seems like an eternity in Romans, we are getting pretty used to listening to convoluted sentences, but this little parable might be the toughest we’ve heard yet.  “Every student of the Scriptures who becomes a disciples in the kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out new and old treasures from the storeroom.”  I think I know what that parable means.  I think it affirms my model of teaching for a congregation that spans at least four generations.  I think I’m supposed to use the language of the people, even when that language changes dramatically depending on if you were born in 1934, 1954, 1974, or 2004.  I think maybe that’s what I’m supposed to learn from it, but I also think it is hilarious.  I think Jesus called the disciples’ bluff.  I think they, like us, didn’t understand anything Jesus said in Matthew 13, and I think that might be the point.