Proper 11A, Mt 13.24-30, 36-43
St. Stephen’s, Oak Harbor
July 23 2017
‘He told them stories’
Blessed be the Name of God
Some years ago, I read an article in a church newspaper about a ministry to street people in San Francisco. The ministry program was begun by the then Bishop of California, William Swing. The reporter asked the bishop what gave rise or shape to the program. Bishop Swing replied, “We simply carry on the ministry of Jesus.” When asked to describe that ministry, he said, “When Jesus was with the people, he tended to do three things: he fed them something, he touched them, he told them stories. That’s what we do, too.” Food, touch and stories. The ministry of Jesus.
The gospel passage we heard this morning is a story in a string of stories about the kingdom of God. Matthew 13—where last week’s gospel reading began—Matthew 13, verse 3 reads: “And he told them many things in parables.” And nearly all of the parables are intended to expose some facet of the reign of God. “The kingdom of heaven is like…” This is how they begin. Or as ours does this morning, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to …”
With this kind of beginning, Jesus goes on to take something from ordinary life and find in it something mysterious and instructive about God’s reign. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” [Mt 13.31]; “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…” [Mt 13.33]; “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sows” a field with seeds. [Mt 13.34] These are all familiar stories and their ingredients would have been quite familiar in the world where the stories were first told.
Last Sunday, we heard a wonderful sermon about this sower and the sower’s indiscriminate generosity, broadcasting seed everywhere. Last week’s gospel story is clearly related to our story this morning. The similarities are undeniable. Similarities. That’s also true to last week’s sermon and this week’s. If you were here last week, you’ll see that last week’s sermon and this week’s sermon are related. But then again, so are the preachers.
Ordinary stuff used to a remarkable end. A parable, by definition, is two things laid alongside each other. This ordinary stuff is given an extraordinary association, extravagant, something that stretches the imagination. This association is intended by Jesus to tell us something about life with God. The extravagance of the story, its peculiarity is essential to its meaning. And this peculiar extravagance intends to tickle our senses, to make us wonder, to cause us to puzzle over its meaning. If we were to draw a picture of a parable, the two lines would typically not come together in the end; rather they would be open-ended, rather like the broader end of a funnel. Parables send us onward; they do not settle us and bring us to conclusion. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” [Mt 13.33] There you are—thrown into our own imagination. “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” “Huh,” we say. “Huh!” Isn’t that something!
There is another typical thing about the parables of the kingdom. They often tell us that the ways of the kingdom are not the ways we find common or comfortable or good or just. The prodigal son is the classic here. The younger son goes off, lives a dissolute life, awakens to his sorrows and returns home. The vigilant father sees him coming, runs to welcome him, embraces the boy and orders up a feast. The dutiful older brother—that is us—complains saying how responsible and faithful he has been and yet he has never received such treatment. The father’s generosity is clearly unfair to the faithful son, unjust by any standard—well, at least by our conventional standards. And here, you see, is the point: the reign of God is not built on our rules or expectations or desires. The kingdom of heaven, the reign of God—that’s where God rules, where God is God, and we are not.
The parable that Matthew gives us this morning is a good one for us to consider. It bears many characteristics of the typical parable. And it also has a little something extra to it, something that will likely remind us of ourselves.
We have a story rooted in ordinary, rural life—someone planting a field. And along with this ordinary thing, we have something peculiar that happens and a mildly puzzling direction. As to the planting, only good seed was used. Smart farming! The sower did exactly the right thing. Still doing the right thing did not lead directly to good results, for in the field well seeded with only good seed, weeds appear, clearly the work of the evil one.
What to do? And here’s the twist. Whereas, as Amy told you last week, we work diligently to weed our little garden—like any right-thinking gardeners would--the householder in the parable says, ‘Don’t worry with the weeds until the harvest.’ Trying to weed the field would kill both the weeds and the good grain. Instead, the story says, wait, wait until harvest. At that time, bundle the weeds for burning, and gather the wheat into the barn.
So ends Jesus’ parable. And there we are, at the broad end of the funnel—puzzling, wondering, imaginations tickled and teased. “Huh,” we say. “Huh!”
That, no doubt, is where Jesus left the story, in the same place he leaves most of his parables—with us wondering, “intrigued” into the story. But as you know, that is not where Matthew leaves the story. Whereas Jesus says to his hearers, “let those of you with ears to hear, listen,” Matthew, discontent to be left on the outer edge of that funnel, Matthew—like us probably—says, “I don’t get it. What on earth does that mean?” So, since Matthew is writing this stuff down, he takes Jesus’ parable and makes an allegory out of it, a dirty trick to do with a parable. All the details are made to personify something or someone and the richness and complexity of the parable are exchanged for simple equations. This means that and that means this. Even Matthew can’t tolerate that broad expanse at the far side of the parables!
How very often in our life of faith have we wanted to be able to do what Matthew does—take something broad and extraordinary, something puzzling and teasing, and tidy it up, make it plain, settle it down, contain it, as it were. And to have it be pleasing to us, comforting even. [I’m almost certain that in Matthew’s allegory, he probably didn’t imagine himself to be a weed!] Comfortable insights, careful, “unticklish” conclusions. We do it all the time.
Our favorite subject for this treatment is Jesus himself. It would be such a help if we could just get him right, get clear about him and what he said, about what he really wanted. It would be such a help if we could just forget some of what he said and did—and even more of a help if he had said and done some other things, things like we’d find more comfortable. I wish he’d said, “Having lots of money is swell. Go for it!” I wish he’d said, “Disliking people is only human. Don’t worry about it.” I wish he’d said, “It doesn’t matter how you treat other folks, not at all. Just be cool.” I wish he’d said, “Episcopalians are the most wonderful people. They are my favorites.” I’ll bet we could make quite a list of things we wish Jesus had said differently—or things brand new.
But this Jesus, our gracious Lord, does not tidy up or settle down so easily. He has frayed edges, walks irregular pathways, tells open and teasing stories. Our best efforts to contain him are bound to fail; our striving to make him “simply” someone or to have him hold “simply” certain views—it doesn’t quite work.
This being the case, we have to be careful about how we shape and mold our Jesus. We can work him over—like Matthew does with the parable—and make him more “understandable,” more like we like him to be but that really isn’t a way to the truth. More faithful is to abide in the ambiguities, to admit the complexities, to be teased and tickled into a faithful adventure where we simply cannot get everything nailed down.
This is not an easy message for me to announce, being the tidy minded person that I am. But I am in recovery, and the prospect of life with Jesus, however he is, is increasingly more alluring than a life of certainty—a life of certainty that is certainly an illusion.
So, I’d stick with Jesus and his “ticklish” stories. And leave the ‘tightening down’ to the likes of Matthew. Remember, “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.” [13.34]
Blessed be the Name of God