Eighth Sunday after Pentecost; 26 July 2020; Proper 12A (RCL); Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.
The wonderful thing about parables is that they are so multivalent. There is not single meaning. We have a string of parables here (and one limiting interpretation to one of them), and then an instruction about how to teach.
The parable of the mustard seed includes a bit of humor. Mustard is a scrappy weed. It is not a well-shaped tree, and at least in some varieties, will take over a field if left alone. And when Jesus says that it provides shelter for the birds of the air, he is comparing it to the cedars of Lebanon, a majestic tree, often used as a symbol for empire in the Old Testament.
So, the kingdom is a scrappy weed, that grows in ditches, and competes with the grand cedars for the provision it makes for the birds of the air, who we are told neither sow nor reap, but God provides for their needs. Such a parable would certainly resonate with people living on the margins of a great empire. Their own empire, out in the ditches, provides them better shelter than the grand empire of the center.
My favorite, though, is the woman who hides a little bit of yeast in ten gallons of flour (who is she baking for, anyway!). The yeast leavens the whole mass of dough. In the face of huge injustice, our efforts may seem tiny, but the yeast leavens the whole thing. The kingdom does its work hidden away, but makes the whole business edible. And how many people will ten gallons of flour feed, when baked into bread? Loaves and fishes.
A man finds a treasure in a field, and buries it then sells everything he has to buy the field. First, there is a bit of deception in this story. Wouldn’t the treasure rightfully belong to the owner of the field? Maybe this man is a bit like Jacob — scrappy and deceitful. But the treasure is worth giving up everything that came before it. Same with the guy who buys the pearl. He basically puts himself out of business. Is he ever going to sell that pearl? If so, why sell everything to get it?
The net thrown into the sea is also open to many interpretations. In every life, there is good and bad — keep the good, throw away the bad. But Matthew has to get in the fire and the weeping and gnashing of teeth. He limits the interpretation of the parable to a vision of end times, when the wicked will be burned. I hope no one was burning those fish – what a stink!
I think given our current circumstances, there is some comfort in these parables. A little bit of yeast may not seem like much in the face of a heap of injustice (who wants to eat raw flour?), but given time, it will work its magic. A scrappy community on the margins of power gives shelter to the birds of the air. Every church, society, whatever, has good and bad — keep the good, throw out the bad.
Paul’s letter to the Romans also gives hope. He is arguing that the whole creation is waiting for the revelation of the adoption of the children of God, so that it will no longer be subjected to decay. This is the vocation of the Christian community — to restore the cosmos to God’s purposes. But, we don’t know what to pray for, so the Spirit prays through our cries of anguish, and assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
From small beginning. . .