February 1, 2015
“Parables of Priority”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” 53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
When we encounter Jesus in this text, he is rattling off one parable after another. Jesus had gone and sat beside the sea and such a massive crowd of people surrounded him that he had to get into a boat, while the crowd stood on the beach. And he started telling them parables. And when we hear “parable” we should understand that to mean, “stories to make us think”, stories with a deeper meaning, beyond what just appears to lie on the surface, a sub-versive meaning.
And he tells the disciples a few more parables as well. He tells them that the kingdom of heaven is like when a man plants wheat but an enemy comes and plants a toxic wheat-like plant, and the master tells the slaves to let them grow together because they will be sorted at harvest time.
And Jesus tells them that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that grows into an enormous plant. And Jesus tells them that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast the transforms a massive amount of flour. But we looked at these parables not long ago. Mustard is an invasive weed, and yeast was unwanted contamination of good dough. Yeast was a pollutant, always viewed in a negative light in the Jewish tradition as something corruptive. Make bread with no leavening, no yeast – it was easier to work with and easier to travel with. We have been warned of the yeast of the Pharisees. Yeast is not a good thing.
The kingdom of heaven was going to spread like something that couldn’t be rooted out.
First thing to notice is that all of these stories are similes. The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is “like” something. One commentator pointed out that Jesus wasn’t going for a dictionary-style description of God’s kingdom.
Similes get at the truth a different way – the way a poem describes what it feels like to be in love, or the way a painting evokes what it feels like to be in awe.
So when we read parables, we are attending to not only to what things mean on the surface, but also what they evoke, what they make us feel. So in that way parables work on two levels – the details of the story may be shocking or surprising or eye-opening or unusual – it turns out that these stories are not ordinary tales of farming or baking – which is intended to get us thinking about what the truth of the parable is.
But we also must attend to what the parables helps us to feel or understand at a deeper level.
Second thing to notice is that all these parables that Jesus has been sharing, about the farmer, and the mustard plant, and the dough, are descriptive of what the kingdom of God will look like, how we will recognize it, what will be surprising, what we can expect.
The parables that Jesus tells next, the ones we read this morning, are a little different – not exactly what the kingdom of God is like, but what it is like for us, for us personally, when we encounter the kingdom.
I’ve begun reading some of Jesuit author James Martin’s writing on the Jesuit approach to just about everything (indeed the title of his bestselling book is “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything”). Jesuits follow the spiritual practices created by Ignatius of Loyola, and one way of reading scripture following the practice of Ignatius, is to imagine ourselves in the story.
This is really very helpful when it comes to parables because of the way parables work, on the surface and beneath the surface.
So here we go. Imagine yourself in a field. All around you is wheat blowing softly in the wind. All around you, you see good earth and good crops and a good harvest.
But it is not yours.
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, calls you a trespasser.
This is not your property and you are not even supposed to be here, and you know it. In this field you are not searching for anything but a way out. Perhaps you are lost, perhaps you are desperate, perhaps you are running away from your problems, perhaps you are just taking a short cut.
Other scholars think that you are a tenant farmer. This is not your land, but you work it hard to bring forth a living for your family. It is a day like any other. The same dry rows of ground go on before you, and all you are focused on is the work, and what must be done, and your duty. Perhaps you are hot and weary and you think that nothing will ever change. All you will do for the rest of your life is plow this earth.
And then you stumble, or your plow hits something. A treasure, coins wrapped in cloth, family jewelry hidden away and forgotten. Someone’s life fortune buried years ago to keep it safe from thieves and enemies. And you have found it.
And suddenly you know, with every fiber of your being, that this changes everything – but you cannot waste a moment of time. You are desperate but now frantically so. You cannot miss this chance, you cannot lose this opportunity.
You were staring at work and toil and anxiety and being lost for the rest of your life – you were staring at a living death – and now you are face to face with a chance for life and freedom – and you realize that you must to do anything and everything you can to hold onto it.
You cannot get distracted by who you meet along the road, or by the hunger in your belly, or by the chores left undone.
You must run, and get all the money you can – you realize that you must sell everything you own – but you know that whatever you leave behind, you will gain so much more – you must buy that field so that you have legal rights to that treasure.
You cannot contain your joy, you are dancing and running, you don’t care how it looks to other people – they think you are crazy – no respectable person dances in the street. But you don’t care because you have found something that will change your life.
Change the scene. You are a wealthy merchant, and your specialty is jewels, especially pearls – you’ve got the eye – you know perfection when you find it, but you have never found it. You keep searching and searching, never satisfied. Your wife and your children, they wonder why you work so hard and why you travel so far. Isn’t what you have enough?
But no, for you, something is missing – that which gives your profession, even your life, its meaning. You know it is out there somewhere – something that will quench this thirst.
And after years of searching, you suddenly find it. A flawless pearl. The most beautiful thing you have even seen. And you know instinctively that your search is over. This is what you have been looking for.
But it is very valuable, very expensive. In order to possess it you must sell all your other merchandise. But it isn’t enough, you must sell the rings off your wife’s fingers, and the rugs, and the animals. You must sell everything – and yet that seems like a small sacrifice, so small that when these things are gone you will barely even think of them again, compared to that one treasure.
When we place ourselves in these parables, we find that there are two things that tug on our hearts, two things that draw our focus. We can look at, agonize over, that which is left behind, that which is lost, that which we must sacrifice to gain the kingdom. Or we can rejoice in, delight in, what is gained, what is won.
Jesus tells us these stories to paint for us a picture of what it should be like for us when we find the kingdom, when we discover the grace that was waiting for us, when we lay hold of our salvation, when we discover what God is doing in the world.
But to be between the treasure, the kingdom of God, and everything we need to leave behind – that can be a difficult place to be, and sometimes we falter.
Augustine of Hippo, a famous fourth century theologian and saint, wrote the story of his conversion to Christianity in his book “The Confessions.”
And he comes to the point where he believes everything that he has learned to be true, he believes it in his head, but he writes, “And now I had discovered the good pearl. To buy it I had to sell all that I had; and I hesitated.”
One commentator meditating on these parables writes, “Gosh. I’m always hesitating. I have a treasure map, a shovel, and I’m living on the field. And still I hesitate. What do I think might happen if I actually dug? . . . What do I think I’d miss from the junk I’m reluctant to sell for the one pearl?”
For some of us, we have moments in life when we find the kingdom, maybe on purpose or maybe by accident. Big moments were we can look back and know that we left behind things that we thought were important to follow Jesus – and we found that they weren’t so important after all. Some of us have done that.
May you have more moments like that.
Some of us have caught a glimpse of the kingdom, and wish we could be like that person running joyously in the street to collect the treasure – and we hesitate. We have moments when we could lay hold of the joy, the peace, loving-kindness which is the gift of faith in Jesus Christ . . . but we pull back our hands.
By God’s grace, may you have the courage not to hesitate, and to know the truth of the goodness of God’s kingdom.
And some of us wonder if any of this matters at all for us because we are too overwhelmed with just making it through the day. We are tired, we are weary, we are afraid of the future, our hope is fraying, we can’t see the treasure right in front of us because we are blinded by our pain and anxiety. For some of us, the parable assures us that hope is not lost – the treasure, the gift of God’s Kingdom is out there, waiting for us when the time is right.
May you rest in the hope that one day you will lay hold of the grace offered to you in Christ, and you too will dance in the streets, and leave behind the things that you thought were important – and win life and freedom.