February 17, 2019 Sermon
Jesus Made Known:
First Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:24-3
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
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.”
Second Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:34-35, 44-46
34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”
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.
Message – “Jesus Made Known: Truth Teller”
I’ll never forget one of the most heated religious discussions I had as a youth. One of my best friends was in the habit of doing something I tended to be more than a little reluctant to do: talk about his faith and especially share the Christian ethical views he had learned from his congregation with pretty much everyone he encountered. And in this particular conversation, my friend was dismayed about what he saw happening all around him.
My friend saw people all around him, teenagers all around him, committing what he considered to be unconscionable acts, most of them involving either alcohol or sex. And so the youth of his congregation, guided by their youth leaders and – I think – Senior Minister, took the stance that the best way to respond to such a problem was to separate themselves, to have nothing to do with any other youth, anywhere, outside those of their own youth group, their own congregation, so they would not be influenced and tainted by the ways of the world.
As my friend ranted and raved about the ills of our generation, I occasionally tried to point out an alternative perspective, one I’ll share with you later, but he wasn’t having any of it. As far as he was concerned, the Bible in general, and Jesus, in particular, told us in no uncertain terms that we, as followers of Jesus, have an obligation to separate ourselves from all these sinners, all these people who might influence us for no good.
Why do I tell you that story today? It’s a good question, but one I can’t answer just yet.
Rather, I’ll start by reminding you that we’re studying Matthew’s gospel at this time through a very specific lens, the lens of the season after the Epiphany, the lens of searching for how God was making Jesus’ identity known.
And Jesus’ identity as presented by God through today’s scripture readings from Matthew 13 and, indeed, Jesus’ identity as presented through quite a bit of the gospels, is as one who told parables.
What a lousy identity, right? “He did not say anything to them without using a parable.” Really, God? Doesn’t this mean you’re identifying Jesus as mystery man, as puzzle bringer, even as confuser? If God sent Jesus to share with us, once and for all, what God wants for us and from us, how to best live on this earth and how to receive eternal life, why did God have Jesus share these truths in such a confusing way?
Why are we left getting confused as we try to figure out who is who in this parable about the seed sower and his enemy?
- Who is the seed sower supposed to represent?
- Who is the enemy supposed to represent?
- Who are what are the good seeds…or the weeds?
- Who are the servants?
- Why did everyone fall asleep?
- What and when is the harvest?
Ask 20 different people, and I’ll bet you get 20 different answers to this list of questions.
WHY did Jesus teach in such a confusing way?
As a beginning to the answer to this question, I would suggest that Jesus’ identity as revealed through His telling of these parables could be expressed better than: “parable teller”, or “confusing parable teller” or “puzzle bringer.” I would suggest God made Jesus’ identity known in Jesus’ telling of parables NOT as confuser but as “truth teller.”
Because, y’all, a parable isn’t supposed to be a confusing story: no, it’s supposed to be a story told to tell a deep truth. Jesus told parables because the deep truths God sent Jesus to share could be be conveyed better to relatively simple people through stories than through mere statements.
For some of you, what I’m about to say will be old news…because I’ve said it so many times before. For others, it will be new. Here it is: a parable is NOT an allegory. An allegory is the kind of story told in which our job is to figure out who and what all the characters – animate and inanimate – in the story represent. In other words, with an allegory we’re supposed to ask all those questions that would yield 20 different answers from 20 different people. But a parable is different. A parable is a story told to present one deep truth, a truth so deep and rich that a story connects with the hearing audience in a way that best reveals the deep truth.
When received in this way, Jesus’ parables are rarely confusing but are instead deeply profound, deeply true. Let’s look at today’s first three parables as examples. (By the way, the interpretation I’m going to provide to these parables may be very different than what you’ve heard before. That’s ok. But please, hear these words and consider if they make more or less sense that what you’ve heard before.)
The first parable, the one about the sower of seeds and his enemy. I’ll call it the parable of the weeds. It’s a simple story about how God’s people should co-exist, even co-mingle with other people, even people who aren’t of God. Just like Jesus suggested a smart farmer in that time and place should allow good crops and weeds alike to continue to grow together, to co-mingle, until the harvest, Jesus is telling us that the best life – the kingdom of heaven here on earth no less – is lived not by separating ourselves from everyone we deem unworthy or ungodly but rather by living as best we can in accordance with God’s desires and then allowing God to sort things out in the end.
What an amazing and also somewhat strange point for Jesus to make! I’m guessing the Jews who heard Jesus say these things would have been flabbergasted! Remember, God’s word given through Moses had commanded God’s people to separate themselves from everyone else. Don’t do the same kinds of things foreigners do. Don’t marry foreign women. All of this was to maintain holiness, separateness from the rest of the world, for God. And according to one historical guide I consulted about Judaism in the time of Jesus, many Jews of Jesus’ time interpreted the holiness code given through Moses as meaning they were absolutely, positively, not allowed to come into contact with non-Jews, not allowed to touch them or risk becoming unholy themselves. To these people, Jesus reinterpreted the holiness code by saying God’s desire is for God’s people to live side by side with others, even others they deem unholy, and let God sort it out in the end. Jesus said THAT’S the best way to live.
Why would Jesus say such a thing? Why would God want such a thing?
Well, it turns out that Jesus tended to teach parables in groups such that each subsequent parable related to and built upon the truth of those before it. Remember, Jesus was trying to teach deep truths to somewhat simple people…so he used multiple stories to add new layers to the truth he taught. Which leads us to the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast…two parables that help us better understand why God would want Godly people to co-mingle with ungodly people.
The second parable. Standing on its own, you’ve probably heard the parable of the mustard seed as teaching a truth about the rapid growth of God’s kingdom…even from the humblest of beginnings, like those of the tiny mustard seed. Sounds like a great truth about what came to pass. A very small group, just twelve disciples, took what Jesus started and turned it into a worldwide force that exists today. Truth!
But, within the context of the parable of the weeds, the mustard seed story takes on new meaning. The kind of plant described here as starting from a mustard seed was, quite simply, a weed…perhaps this is a way of Jesus very obviously connecting this story to the one that came before it: two consecutive parables about weeds. Plant mustard seed with a bunch of other plants – something, by the way, that was absolutely against the rules by the holiness code – and before long the mustard plants would absolutely, positively take over the whole garden. Interestingly, in this story, this weed that takes over everything isn’t a bad thing but a good thing, providing shade and rest for some other of God’s creatures.
In this context, what could the deep truth of the mustard seed story be? How does it modify the parable of the weeds? Quite simply, Jesus is proposing a truth opposite the conventional wisdom of his time: put some godly people with some ungodly people, and pretty soon the place will be overrun with godly people. The kingdom of heaven is like THAT: a place in which God’s people impact everyone else as they share God’s love.
The third parable. As we move on to the parable of the yeast, we see the culmination of God’s deep truth Jesus had begun to share through the parables of the weeds and mustard seeds. Jesus is expecting everyone to have seen what happens when you add some yeast to flour and water. Even though you start with quite a bit more flour than yeast, it’s the YEAST, though hidden by its small amount in relationship to the flour, that ends up making a noticeable difference to the dough.
So…getting back to my earlier question: why would God want God’s people to co-mingle with everybody else, even those deemed perfectly UN-Godly? Quite simply because that’s how God’s people could make the greatest impact for God. It’s the same reason Jesus ate with sinners. Put some Godly people in the midst of others and God’s kingdom can grow.
That’s the deep truth Jesus offered to a people who had been taught the exact opposite for generations. And I would imagine it was quite shocking for them to hear. I would imagine they wouldn’t have accepted it for a moment if Jesus had simply told them straight up…so Jesus conveyed this truth in parables.
Now, fast forward a couple thousand years. As it turns out, Jesus deep truth is still difficult for some people of God to hear. Remember the story of my friend from the beginning of this sermon.
His church taught that Jesus commands us to separate ourselves from the people its leadership deems unworthy.
And it’s not like they’re alone. Susan periodically reminds me of the story of a youth group meeting she attended at a friend’s church when she was in high school. At that meeting, the youth leaders taught an object lesson based in their understanding of Christianity. The leaders called each one of the youth in turn to come forward and stand on a chair. While each stood on the chair, another youth stood below on the ground. The youth on the chair was told to try to pull the youth on the ground up, while the youth on the ground was told to try to pull the youth on the chair down. You can imagine the results: the youth on the ground always one. The moral of the object lesson: it’s easier to get pulled down than up, so stay away from the ungodly people who would pull you down.
Y’all, conventional wisdom tells us to separate ourselves from people who might pull us down. But God says something different through Jesus. Jesus ate with sinners: not just sinful Jews but also Gentiles, people who didn’t want to have anything to do with God. And through these parables, Jesus conveyed the deep truth that as people of God we’re supposed to eat and live and otherwise co-mingle with people who don’t want to have anything to do with God. And the reason we’re supposed to do this is the same reason Jesus sent his disciples out into the world: so that by our faith and by our lives of following Jesus, God will transform everyone around us into something else, something better.
If you’re wondering about the final two parables of our readings today – the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl – they fit alongside the other three in a fascinating kind of way, a way that should give us hope that our co-mingling with the world just might work out. These two parables reveal the truth of the mechanism that makes this mixing thing work. When other people discover the kingdom of God through their interaction with us, when other people catch a glimpse or get a little taste through us, what they discover will be so overwhelmingly powerful that they’ll give up everything else to join in. That’s why we can live side-by-side with people who don’t know anything about God and don’t care to know anything about God. The tiny bit of God’s kingdom they witness in us will be so overwhelming that they will drop everything else to get what we’ve got.
That’s God’s truth. Revealed through the parables of Jesus. Let’s respond as Jesus intended…and share by our lives and words the kingdom of heaven we know with so many people around us who’ve never glimpsed it. Amen.