Impressed? Hardly. Well, Maybe
Passage: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Date: July 27, 2008
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Commenting on Senator Obama's speech in Berlin last week, one news person noted that Obama was long on generalities and short on specifics. He chose broad brush stroke images instead of facing divisive, difficult issues. Imagine, imagine what would have been said if he had spoken in parables instead.
In the gospels, Jesus characteristically taught in parables. Nothing like the way Jesus used them existed in Hellenistic literature or in rabbinic teaching. Because of their seemingly vague, open-to-interpretation form, even as early as the biblical text itself, explanations were included for some of them. So, in the previous chapter, Jesus told the parable of the sower and the seed and the four kinds of soil. Following the telling, Matthew has Jesus explain its meaning. Surely that helped the early church, but I suspect Jesus actually just let his parables just hang there, without interpretation. The intent was to let his listeners puzzle, wonder, and in the process, God would reveal. Often, Jesus remarked, "Let anyone with ears listen."
Matthew's gospel was written after Mark's, probably 80-90CE, to Matthew's specific community of believers. They had separated from Pharisee led Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem, in about 70 CE. These people could be understood as Jewish Christians or Christian Jews, perhaps religious exiles from Judea living in Antioch, a tiny minority in the vast Roman empire.
Today's text contains six parables, the first two addressed to peasants, 80-90% of the population, and the other four to the disciples. Let us focus on the first two: mustard seeds and leaven in the dough. As we do, we remember that Jesus' parables were not intended to be cute pithy stories containing a moral lesson. Rather, they were designed to disturb, to threaten the hearer's tidy secure world of assumptions and expectations. By the way, too often, we preachers have done a fabulous job of domesticating, taming, and making safe these teachings, perhaps because we did not want to be disrupted ourselves. Just by the fact that we can hear these tidy stories this morning and be nearly bored because we have heard them before gives us a clue as to what we have done with them. In a sense, we have not been listening.
Mustard plants, most likely the variety "black mustard," they were the tallest of the Holy Land mustards, at times reaching more than six feet, exceptionally eight or ten, but hardly a tree. Mustard was used as a condiment and for medicinal purposes. People then knew about trees. For centuries, the cedars of Lebanon had been nearly revered. Moreover, great trees were used as symbols of empires: Babylon, Rome, and even Israel. Jesus said, "The reign of the Holy One is like a wild herb, that lowly weed with tiny seeds, which when grown is a huge bush." What a contrast. Scholars remind us that there were religious problems about planting a wild weed in the garden. Farmers were prohibited from mixing crops, as were weavers from mixing materials. Living faithfully meant planting in stable and orderly ways, expressing the love of God in all things. Planting a weed was a symbol of wild disorder, compromising basic principles of Jewish life. (Richard Swanson, Pictures of God's Realm, July 21-27, 2008, i.ucc/Weekly Seeds, p.2) In Matthew, Jesus said that the mustard seed was sown in a field. His hearers would immediately catch that, and be startled by it. A farmer planting mustard seeds: how could Jesus imagine that? The reign of the sovereign God, the Creator God, is no more obvious than that lowly wild herb, said Jesus. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth..." we pray. It would be like our singing, "A mighty mustard bush is our God..." How odd. We prefer "a mighty fortress," "God of the ages, whose almighty hand." How odd is Jesus' image, until we remember our Sovereign, who operated in weakness, who entered Jerusalem on a humble donkey, not a charging horse of war. And we proclaim that in that mustard seed of the peasant Jesus, God was sowing nothing less than the seeds of the holy kingdom. How unlike the world in which we live.
How many of you make bread? I thought about having a bread-baking machine here, and filling the space with that mouth-watering aroma. But, Jesus' parable is not about bread. Rather, the central element is leaven. I regret the way the New Revised Version has translated two words in this parable. When we think of yeast, the word it uses, we picture that mealy, clean stuff kept in the freezer until it is needed for baking. In the ancient world, leaven was made by taking a piece of bread and storing it in a damp dark place until mold formed. The rotting, decaying bread became leaven for the next loaves. (Bernard Scott, Hear Then the Parable, p. 324) Leaven in the ancient world was a symbol for moral corruption, for being unclean, unacceptable to God. Leavened bread was eaten in ordinary times, but, pure unleavened bread was reserved for the holiest of days. By elevating leavened dough, was Jesus challenging those holy days and their practices? Who knows? Some might have heard that in these words. Do you hear the disruptiveness, the unexpectedness, raising a universally recognized symbol of moral corruption to an illustration of God's coming kingdom? This parable would have been offensive from the start. Then he made matters worse. In that patriarchal culture, Jesus pointed to the work of a woman to illustrate a matter about God. In the Middle East, including Judaism, women were often associated with the unclean, the religiously impure. Men were seen as clean. But Jesus was not finished. He said that the woman hid the leaven in the mass of dough. The NRSV translates egkrypto (Gk) as she "mixed in" the flour. I think that understanding is inaccurate. The Greek word implies concealment, not neutral, but in a negative sense. She hid the leaven in the dough. The items play upon each other: corrupt leaven, an unclean woman, and subversively hiding. Jesus said that through that corrupt-as-you-understand-it process, God's reign permeates, it grows. Oh, and by the way, the huge quantity of flour the woman was using would have made bread for well over 100 people. Extravagant. Pay attention. And then he let it just hang.
Mercy. I'll bet that people who were seen as unclean, unworthy, tiny and powerless listened with drop-jaw amazement. Jesus was revealing a God far different from the one revered in religious practice and cultural prejudice. Moreover, Jesus used the word kingdom, basileia in Greek-the reign, the empire of God. The people of Judah knew all about empire, the Roman one. Jesus raised the expectation of another empire, dangerously challenging that one, one which was far greater even than imperial Rome. Perhaps in these parables, Jesus sought to offer an alternative to both current religious institutions and Roman domination. Imagine how powerless oppressed peasants, how stressed-out and kept-out women might have felt just hearing the images. More than 80% of the people lived at subsistence level, at mustard seed level, at leaven level. As they let these parables sink in, would they have heard a word of revolutionary hope and possibility? Would their whole way of thinking about God and themselves been disrupted? I suspect.
Through the centuries, the church has seen itself in these parables. Scholars have compared the mustard seed and the leaven to the tiny early Christian community growing, spreading, invisibly permeating to the far corners of the world. We have claimed the image rather triumphalistically. We have easily equated the kingdom, the reign of God with the institution of the church. Hymn 441, verse 1: "I love Thy kingdom, Lord, The House of Thine abode, The church our blest Redeemer saved With His own precious blood." All too often we have shaped that kingdom to look like us. In our sincere efforts to be faithful, we have domesticated the images to fit our values, our cultures, our socio-economic levels, our race, our sexual orientation, our way of life. But, friends, these words of Jesus are not about the church, even this one which I dearly love. The parables are about a pretty disruptive and subversive God, about this God's intention and reign. They point to the totally unexpected, to the king who humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, and even suffering unto death. They point to the powerless one, the corrupt and unclean one who met people at the margins, the one whom God raised to rule. And Jesus' words call us to listen with our whole beings, even to be disturbed, but always to be open to this surprising God we discover in Jesus Christ.
Disturbing and disruptive God, may your disrupting and hope-filled kingdom come and your life-giving will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Making-new-God, grow your subversive hope within us. Make us your instruments. May our lives and our life together overflow with your astonishing love. Amen.