Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
July 17, 2011
“IMAGINE THIS: PARABLES OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD”
Texts: Matthew 13:31-35, 44-46
What is the kingdom of God like? “Imagine this,” Jesus said, then launched into parable after parable. The kingdom of God was the main theme of Jesus’ preaching and teaching; and parables were his main way of teaching about it. So central were his parables that Mark remarked: “He did not teach them except in parables” (Mark 4:34).
What are parables? Diane Lipsett gave us a wonderful introduction to parables a few weeks ago. Using Chrissy Williamson’s words, she said parables hallow everyday life as a place where the kingdom is at work. Using Justin Williamson’s words, she said parables also subvert everyday life, at least the ways we live and construct our everyday lives, and so offer a radically new way to live.
The word “parable” literally means “to throw alongside.” Jesus threw the kingdom of God alongside our lives so that we might imagine what the kingdom of God was like, and so we might imagine what it would be like for us to enter it – or let it enter us.
Parable scholar Bernard Brandon Scott defines Jesus’ parables as “short narrative fictions that serve as metaphors.”1 What is a metaphor? It is a form of poetic speech that brings two things together not normally brought together so that something new happens in our minds and hearts. Examples: “Ship of state;” “All the world’s a stage;” “A mighty fortress is our God;” “Pilate the fly” (can you see him washing his hands?); “Jesus the rock;” “God our mother.” Emily Dickinson, a master of metaphor, wrote in one poem:
I felt a Funeral, in my brain
And mourners to and fro
kept treading – treading – till it seemed
that Sense was breaking through – . . . . 2
Jesus threw stories about the kingdom alongside our lives so that something new might happen inside, in hope that we would find ourselves turning and changing so we might enter the kingdom. Become like a child, like a trapeze artist, like one suddenly free and brave. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus had transformational impact on both Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Parables teach “seeing”; they help us see where the kingdom is at work, and to see ourselves in a new light. Matthew says that Jesus taught parables to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35). Feminist New Testament scholar Luise Schottroff puts it this way:
They help us see the ways God’s salvation has been at work forever, and is now at work in our world.
One more word about the parables before we plunge into a set of them. They force us to finish them, complete their meaning in our lives. They demand that we become, as Diane Lipsett put it, “active listeners.” Jesus tells a parable, then throws the football to us and says: “Now your turn. How do you hear it? What will you do with it?!”
Famous British parable scholar of the last generation, C.H. Dodd, wrote:
At its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.4
So are you ready to listen again to these four short parables and see what you and God might make of them?
First parable: The kingdom of God is like a Mustard Seed, the smallest of seeds, Jesus said, that someone planted in their garden. Then it grows and grows into the greatest of shrubs, and then becomes a tree so great that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
On one level the parable opens our eyes to the miracle of growth, both in the natural world and especially in the kingdom of God. From small to big. God takes our smallness and littleness – which is sometimes how we feel – and joins it to the greatness of God’s kingdom.
Do you remember the small crystal marbles with the mustard seed placed inside that were worn as a pendant on a necklace? A parable worn around our necks to remind us of the miracle of the kingdom: from small to large.
Our children here were studying this parable. They raised a modern scientific objection: The mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds. There are many smaller. So their teachers gave them an early lesson in Biblical interpretation. This parable of Jesus is not a biology lesson but a story, a story with a spiritual lesson.
The message? From small to big, that for sure. But maybe something more. Pliny, ancient historian, in his Natural History wrote that mustard plants produced wild growth; they can take over a garden. The Jewish commentary the Mishnah warns about planting different kinds of plants together, and the planting of mustard seeds in the garden is prohibited.
The kingdom of God is like someone who planted dandelions in his garden! What was Jesus saying? Could wild, prohibited plants produce kingdom results?
But more: the mustard seed turns into a great tree where birds and animals come to nest and feed. This is botanical madness. A mustard seed into a California redwood. But such a tree was an ancient symbol of empire: Babylonian empire, Roman empire, British empire, American empire. Jesus is picturing for us another kind of empire, God’s empire, where all people are fed and all people safe. And it begins with something as tiny as a mustard seed.
Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution in India was inspired by Jesus’ teaching. Martin Luther King was inspired by Gandhi. King’s movement in America inspired Mandela and South Africans, and Chinese students in Tianamen Square, and freedom movements all over the world. A new kind of empire beginning with small things; like cell phones in Cairo, Egypt.
In 1981 Jody Williams was working as a “temp” agency in Washington, D.C.. Someone in a subway gave her a leaflet about land mines, those “anti-personnel” weapons buried in the ground which maim and kill indiscriminantly and are left in the ground after wars are over. She began a worldwide movement to ban landmines and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
And what about the Jesus story? Imagine this. A carpenter from a small village named Nazareth became an itinerant preacher, gathered no great throng of followers, a handful of disciples, women, outcasts. A single man, no offspring. He taught three years – about the national average of the tenure of a Baptist preacher at a congregation – then died a criminal’s death on a Roman gallows.
But this day his followers number in the millions and cover the globe. Peoples of all ages, races, cultures come to find rest and nurture at his tree. From a mustard seed.
Second parable, the Woman Baking Yeast Bread:
This sounds like a wonderful image of the kingdom: the kingdom like an oven of hot yeast rolls. You can smell them all over the house. And God is like a woman who takes the corner of her apron in her hand, opens the oven door and shouts, “Come and get ‘em while they’re hot!” The kingdom is like bread for all, bread that is life.
There is much descriptive detail packed in these few words. A woman. She takes leaven and mixes it with three measures of flour. She covers it until the dough has risen and is ready to bake.
Three measures! Enough bread for one hundred. She is cooking for the whole neighborhood! God’s kingdom is not just about me and mine, but for others too, for the world.
But there is something subversive, counter hidden in this parable. First a woman is the hero. No small detail in that patriarchal world. Then “leaven” itself had a largely negative association in the ancient Near-Eastern world. Leaven caused spoilage. The kingdom is like mold!
All Biblical references for leaven are negative. “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees,” Jesus said. Paul quoted the proverb: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” and he meant corrupts the whole lump. Like our proverb: One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.
In the holy feast of Passover leavened bread was forbidden. But not only that, that family had to remove all yeast, all leaven, from the kitchen seven days ahead of the feast.
For Jesus’ hearers it was shocking to hear “leaven” used as a positive image of the kingdom. But Jesus was overturning our neat categories of clean and unclean, holy and profane.
The kingdom is like mold which makes penicillin which has saved millions of lives. The kingdom is like compost whose processes of decay rebuild the richness of the soil.
The kingdom is like women, for goodness’ sake, long considered unclean and inferior, who now become co-equal partners alongside men in the kingdom of God. Women and holiness go together. To paraphrase Paul in the text Bill Leonard will use next week, God has chosen what the world considers the foolish, the weak, the lowly and despised to bring in the kingdom (I Corinthians 1:26-29).
Jesus is blowing our minds, rearranging our categories. Small things become big. He is making the unclean clean. The unwashed are washing the world.
In 1935 a tiny spiritual movement began. It began in Akron, Ohio, of all places. A man named Bill W. began the first group. “Hello, my name is Bill,” he said, “and I’m an alcoholic.” “Hello, Bill,” they responded.
It did not begin in church. Alcoholics were considered unclean. If they met in churches it was in church basements. At least there all that cigarette smoke wouldn’t mess up the whole church building.
Today its following has grown to encompass millions. It has saved lives and restored many to sanity and sobriety. It is a major healing arm of the kingdom of God. Its wisdom today teaches people how to live with sanity and serenity in the face of a myriad of human difficulties.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Hello, my name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic. Not a rotten apple spoiling the barrel but the most delicious smelling yeast bread coming from the oven.
Parable three, the kingdom is like a Treasure Hidden in a Field.
He was a tenant farmer plowing someone else’s field. One day as he plowed his plow hit something hard. “Oh no!” he said, or something stronger. Another blankety-blank stump to dig out and haul to the edge of the plot. But as he began to dig he saw the outline of a chest, a treasure chest. His hands began to dig faster and faster until he had unearthed a treasure chest full of gold and silver. He quickly covered it up so no one else would find it, went and in his joy, sold all he had to buy the field so he could have the treasure.
Fourth parable, the kingdom as the Pearl of Great Price. There was a merchant who went all over the world in search of fine pearls. One day in a port city an old man came to him with something wrapped in an old cloth. Opening the cloth, he showed the merchant a pearl. The merchant almost fainted. There was a pearl the merchant had dreamed of finding but never expected to find. The pearl of great price. And he went and sold all he had and bought it. The one pearl worth everything.
What is the pearl? What is your pearl of great price? Have you found it? Ancient listeners to the parable said, Jesus is the pearl, the kingdom is the pearl. Your own true self is the pearl. Thomas Merton wrote: “For me to be a saint is to be myself,” a phrase that could be adapted to any pop psychology out today. However, he added this:
“To thine own self be true,” wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet. Are we not in search of this pearl, our own true self, and when we find it, it is the pearl of great price. The “kingdom of God within” is that place where God gives to us the secret of our identity and makes us who we are.
The plot of salvation is pictured in the verbs of these two parables: finding, selling, buying. And all in joy.
At first these parables may seem something like winning the lottery. But look closer. The kingdom of God is not about getting something for nothing but finding a treasure so great it costs us everything. But its cost, though everything, seems like nothing for the surpassing worth of the kingdom.
People think we are crazy, but we laugh all the way to the pawn shop. The finding is unimaginable good fortune, the sacrifice is joy, the cost is exhilaration. There’s a giddiness in the giving.
Jesus taught us not to worry about all the things we worry about, what Buddhists call the “ten thousand things” that preoccupy and occupy our lives. Instead he said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added to you.” Which might be paraphrased: Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will find its proper place. The main thing has become the main thing.
I’ve told you story, Fred Craddock’s story about the American missionary family in China. One day they were told they had to leave China the next morning and could take only two hundred pounds with them. They spent half the night weighing, measuring, deciding: what to leave and what to take! They showed up with their children the next morning at the gate with their bags packed to the ounce, two hundred pounds.
The guard said, “Have you weighed everything?”
“Yes, everything is weighed.”
“Did you weigh the children?”
“Yes, the children.”
Suddenly everything they thought they valued meant nothing.
This is a parable of the kingdom. Such is what happens when the kingdom draws near. “God give us the grace to risk something big for something good.” This is the grace that happens when the kingdom comes.
1 Bernard Brandon Scott, Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge Press), p. 13.
2 Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), #280, p. 128.
3 Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 204.
4 C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), p. 5.
5 Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: A New Directions Book, 1949), p. 26-7.