Start small

27 July 2014
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 12A (RCL)

Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

We have more parables of the kingdom in the Gospel reading for this Sunday. We’ve been reading a chopped up discourse of Jesus, delivered while sitting in a boat at the lake shore. Into this discourse, Matthew has inserted a number of asides, questions asked by the disciples back in the house. The interpretations of the parables have been separated from the parables themselves by this narrative device, but in our liturgical reading, the parables and interpretations seem to by side by side. In this reading again, we chop out bits in between. The overall effect (if one reads all of chapter 13 in course) is to paint a picture of the kingdom as a final event in history when the righteous and unrighteous will be separated. Matthew will return to this theme again in chapter 25 (the separation of sheep from goats).

Some of the material is found in both Mark and Luke (the sower who went out to sow), some of it is found in Luke but not Mark (Q material: the mustard seed, the yeast) and some of it is uniquely Matthean (darnel in the wheat, buried treasure, pearl of great price, the dragnet). Matthew’s use of this material seems to equate the kingdom with the “church” or the Matthean community which has responded to the Gospel, and to suggest that the “church” will be the just (at least some portion of the “church”) at the resurrection of the just. One had better value membership among the just above all things.

If we unstitch the quilt that Matthew has made, however, the pieces each can be read differently, especially the Q material. The mustard seed and the yeast seem to suggest that the Kingdom (whatever it is) is not necessarily wanted by all (mustard is an aggressive weed, yeast us unclean), but that without much effort on our part, it will take over. In the midst of life, if we find the kingdom, we’ll want to change our lives to keep it.

Both readings are important. For us, as for Matthew, the “church” is a small, counter-cultural movement at the fringes of society (like mustard at the edge of the field). But rather than worrying about a few bad fish who might have found their way into the net, we might be more in the position of the Q community, wondering how our small efforts might change the world, the way the kingdom is expected to.

I think Paul can help us here. Paul, speaking to his little community of mixed Jew and Greek, rich and poor, male and female, says that God has chosen us from the beginning to be conformed to the image of his son for the transformation of the world, for the gathering of a large family. Contrast this to Matthew’s concern that some bad elements have sneaked into the church. According to Paul, we were chosen beforehand, not for our own benefit (to make it into the good place and not to be thrown out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth), but in order that we might conformed to the image of Jesus so that he could be the firstborn of a large family.

What does it mean to be conformed to the image of the son? I think in Paul, it means to live sacrificially; and by that I don’t think he means to give up our identity for others (to die for others), but to live for the benefit of others. For Paul, Jesus died in order to become our food, our feast, so that we could gather at the table. We, the church, are to live the same way, make our common life available for the party, to which God invites all. If we live that way, asks Paul, what can separate us from the love of God in Christ? We are more than conquerors.

The image of the yeast seems especially apropos. We may be small, but we make the whole lump taste good, give it body and texture. The church needs to live in a way that conforms the world into the image of God’s son, and invites all to the party.

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