The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Author Anthony De Mello tells a story about some people who were on a raft off the coast of Brazil. They were perishing from thirst, for as you know, ocean water is undrinkable. What they did not know, however, was that the water they were floating on was fresh water.
A nearby river was coming out into the sea with such force that it went out for a couple of miles, so they had fresh water right there where they were. But they had no idea. "In the same way," says De Mello, "we're surrounded with joy, with happiness, with love. Most people," he concludes, "have no idea." The treasure is just waiting to be discovered.
The Gospel lesson today presents us with five snippets in which Jesus describes the kingdom of God using very ordinary, common images like a mustard seed, yeast, and a fishing net—all things that would have registered with his audience in first century Palestine.
These brief parables are not about some far away, ethereal place, even though Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven” rather than Mark and Luke’s preference of “the kingdom of God” or “reign of God. The Kingdom of God is the focal point of the message and mission of Jesus. His stories were descriptions of it and his miracles were signs of its presence.
For Jesus, the kingdom was not a place but a relationship—the initiative of God pushing in upon us now, bringing the hope of justice and peace for all.
Jesus begins his public teaching by announcing that “the kingdom is at hand.” It is close—within our grasp—something which is in our midst.
Author Patrick McCormick says of parables: “If parables have a job to do, it’s to force us to make room for a God who is not of our making, to tear down every pious preconception we have, and to leave us disturbed and vulnerable in the face of the living God…If TV commercials tell us,” McCormick continues, “that we don’t have enough, that we need more stuff, then parables tell us that we need to have a financial, emotional and ideological garage sale to clear out the excess baggage we’ve been carrying around.”
The images Jesus used in his parables were all things we find in the practical world. He used things like mustard seeds, a treasure hidden in a field, a marriage banquet, a farmer sowing seed, a waiting father, a lost sheep to excite the imagination and to entice us, shake up our thinking, even to jolt us into entering the kingdom of God—a way of living life here and now, not merely a state or place that we will experience after death. To live in the kingdom is to live a life of faithful commitment, of integrity, of trust in God’s faithfulness and in service to others.
The last of the five parables in today’s Gospel may disturb us with its language about the fiery furnace and the weeping and gnashing of teeth—images with which some of us grew up, images that scare rather than hearten us. If we hear this parable with really open ears we might understand that the parable of the fish and the net proclaims radical inclusiveness—that the kingdom gathers in everyone. There is not a net for the worthy and a net for the unworthy or one for the elite and another for the lower class.
Parables confirm for us that God doesn’t look at things the way we look at things. We measure importance in IQ’s, dollars, market value, and size. God has a very different economy. God’s idea of treasure is very different from the world’s.
Although there may be weeds in the fields and inedible fish in the catch—some undesirable companions and disappointments along the way—we can be confident that it is God’s task, not ours, to sort this all out; for the Kingdom will prevail in the end.
Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “why else would Jesus talk about heaven in terms of farmers and fields and women baking bread and merchants buying and selling things and fishermen sorting fish, unless he meant somehow to be telling us that the kingdom of heaven has to do with these things, that our treasure is buried not in some exotic far off place that requires a special map but that “X” marks the spot right here, right now, in the ordinary people and places and activities in our lives.
In the final analysis, the puzzles presented in the parables of the Kingdom call us to a different perspective of life and help us to understand that it is possible to see God present and active in everyday things if one looks at them with wonder.
The treasure is just waiting to be discovered.