Pentecost 8 A: Parabolic Promises

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Dear Partner in Preaching,

There’s something sneaky about the parables we are reading this week. And I mean that quite literally – in each parable (except perhaps the last), there seems to be some element of surprise or stealth. A quick overview to explain what I mean:

  • While most of us grew up reading the parable of the mustard seed somewhat simplistically – “big things often have small beginnings” – the truth is that mustard was a weed, uncontrollable, invasive, undesirable.
  • So different from our cultural associations, leaven in the biblical world was a sign of impurity, and kneading it into the flour irreparably tainted the loaves.
  • Rushing out to buy a field because you know it’s worth far more than the seller is aware, while perhaps shrewd, could also be considered dubious, if not dishonest.
  • There is a surprising joyfulness in the one who sells all to buy a precious pearl, though few around the buyer would likely have understood his actions.

This quick succession of provocative parables suggests two things to me: First, the Gospel of God’s coming kingdom is threatening before it is comforting, because it invites no half measures. The Gospel makes a claim on your whole life, not just part. It invades your whole world and reality and can’t be contained only to your spiritual, Sunday self. Not only that, but it taints the reality we’ve grown to accept, challenges the views we’ve lived by, and again and again calls into question assumptions that have guided much of our lives in the world.

All of which means that the Gospel of the kingdom that Jesus proclaims and lives is truly good news only to those who are not finally satisfied with what this life has to offer. For those who are content, selling everything to possess a single pearl, no matter how valuable, seems a little crazy. How can anything be so precious as to give up everything else to possess it? But to those who are dissatisfied – with the status quo, with what they have been able to secure on their own, with the values, stereotypes, or prejudices of the culture – then Jesus’ Gospel, while still disruptive and even upsetting, nevertheless feels true, real, and something worth buying at any cost.

Which is perhaps why the church has always grown most quickly in those places where life is most fragile, if not threatened. When you can set yourself up with the comforts of the world and fortify the illusion that you are master of the universe, of what value are Jesus’ promises? The Gospel, as Paul says, appears foolish in the eyes of the world and so has little value to the self-contented, the self-made man or woman of the age, and the powerful. But to those who are perishing – whether by illness or disappointment or poverty or dissatisfaction with the inequities of the world or spiritual discontent – Jesus’ promises are still good news, indeed the best news we’ve heard and worth sacrificing all to embrace.

These parables say a second thing as well: faith is about seeing – seeing something others do not, seeing something that the world does not acknowledge and perhaps does not want you to see – and because of that sight persevering, acting differently, investing in a future at which others scoff. Faith, it turns out, is not about cognitive assent to doctrinal statements but is about whole-hearted embrace of a promise. Faith, that is, is not about knowledge but about trust, the kind of trust that leads you do act and speak differently, as if you’ve been invited into a secret that not everyone knows.

All of which leads me to think, Dear Partner, that this week’s message may revolve around making a promise – that God’s disruptive, life changing, and ultimately life-giving kingdom is coming. It will take some patience, trust, and perseverance to await it, and when it comes it will likely not be what we expect and perhaps not what we even wanted. But to those who recognize there is something more out there than the world has offered, to those who are willing to acknowledge the deep ache in their hearts for a sense of true if also elusive joy, then it will come as more than we could have imagined and will invade, take over, and transform our lives. Even here, even now.

Indeed, perhaps church is the place where we remind each other of God’s promises and point to places in our lives and the world where we catch glimpses of its presence. You have seen these glimpses in your congregation, Dear Partner – the person who overcomes addiction or prejudice in order to cope with and change a challenging reality, the kid who befriends the friendless, the one who finds joy in sacrifice, those who are stunningly generous, the person who sees and stands with the marginalized, those who in the face of illness or fear radiate confidence and offer courage to others, the ones who use their power or popularity to uplift others. These parables give us a chance to make the kingdom life and reality Jesus preaches a tad more concrete by pointing us to those whose actions are perhaps inexplicable according to the logic of the world but in tune with the parabolic promises of the kingdom.

Thank you for your commitment to sharing this parabolic good news in word and deed, Dear Partner, and for inviting your people into the secret God has shared with us in Christ. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,