The Rev. Canon Samuel Van Culin
We’ve just heard a description of an event that took place at the shore of the Lake of Galilee in Palestine when Jesus is talking to an enormous crowd of people, trying to help them understand what he means by the Kingdom of Heaven. And he uses familiar images to convey his message. And in this passage there is the image of the mustard seed, the image of the yeast or the leaven in a lump of dough, the image of the pearl, the image of the buried treasure, the image of the fishnet catching fish.
These little narratives are as I think we all know called parables, and they are given to us by Jesus throughout his ministry in order to challenge our thinking, give us an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with God, and provide an occasion for insight and understanding into ourselves and about ourselves.
Jesus himself says that he speaks in parables while teaching so that he can touch the deeper human understanding in people, who he says look but don’t see, listen but don’t hear. Jesus is describing a resistance that many of us often find in our own life and experience. A resistance that occurs when we’re trying to struggle to understand the truth, and there’s something in us that just doesn’t get the point.
There are 41 parables that Jesus speaks that are recorded in the New Testament, and they cover a wide range of images and subjects. There is the parable of the lost coin, the lost sheep, the barren fig tree, the prodigal son. Parables among these are working on a number of different topics. They’re working on the topic of obstacles to faith, the power of forgiveness, the quality of love in human relationships, and the fruits of various human behaviors and attitudes.
But the five parables that we have this morning are of particular interest to us. Jesus has had to get into a small boat that he finds on the shore of the north shore of the Lake of Galilee in order to move out a little bit into the lake from the shore so that he can see the large crowd that has gathered at the shore side, and so that they can hear him more clearly.
And what about this crowd who he is addressing?
It was probably a mixed crowd of people from a variety of backgrounds. I say that so that we don’t feel that we’re still at some ancient moment of nostalgia. This is a living situation at the bank of Galilee, just as our present life is a living situation. And Palestine at the time of Jesus was a diverse and multicultural society. Under Roman political occupation it was a social and economic crossroads. There were Greeks and Romans. There were Meads and Egyptians. There Elamites and Cypriots. There were many others intermingling and involved in trade and commerce, in agriculture, in domestic pursuits, in philosophical and religious discussions and disputes. It was in its way, a center of the global economy of its day. And while Jesus came to address his own people, the Jews and their tradition, when he spoke to the crowd he tried to use stories and narratives to attract their attention and understanding. In spite of their different traditions, their different cultural assumptions, and the use of parables suited his purpose.
Now, I invite you to join me in your own imagination, in gathering with that crowd at the shores of the Lake of Galilee almost 2000 years ago, because it is as valid today to listen to what Jesus says as it was then. So let yourselves be an extension today of that crowd at Galilee, listening to Jesus as he uncovers for us the nature and meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s what he’s talking about. The Kingdom of Heaven.
He speaks to us in a parable in order to awaken a response in us, in order to evoke an active imagination in your own mind. He speaks in parables in order to stimulate our thought and engage us in a deep level. And as we reflect on these five parables, I ask you each to open your own imagination and follow the implications and suggestions of these parabolic images for yourself and for your own life.
First, the mustard seed. As the Gospel described, it was the smallest seed available in the ancient Near East. Yet a mustard seed grows to a great size, particularly in the Galilee and Jordan River area. We can imagine, you and I, the enormous contrast between a small seed and a large plant that emerges from that small seed. Your life and my life is constantly confronted with these fascinating changes in trees, in plants, in flowers, in the whole of nature, as we observe growth from the small to the large. In fact, every seed and plant is part of the process of evolving through time, through adaptation, through care and through nourishment into something that was inherent in it, but doesn’t come out until time has past and care has been taken. Now it also provides, I hope for us, a vivid image of the mysterious and wonderful process at work in the growth of a human being, of each of us, of you and me. We came from a combination of very small cells to develop into the man or into the woman who we have become today, and we’re still growing into something that maybe something is not yet fully revealed in our life. You have to stop and ponder the enormous and profound mystery and beauty of it all. And what is true of the mustard seed is equally true of you and me. This is the Kingdom of Heaven, said Jesus; this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. It’s like this mustard seed. To paraphrase St. Paul, we can say that all things can grow together to glorify God.
Then the parable of the yeast or the leaven reminds us of the way that God can work quietly to raise a life to its full potential. Yeast, as most bakers know and most of us either know or becoming to know, yeast is fermented dough used to raise and lighten bread, to give it life. It works in the same way that leaven does. It leavens the lump. The analogy is to the quiet action of the spirit of the human mind and soul. Its work is silent and invisible. Yet under the surface, tremendous activity takes place. When the bread is baked and its aroma fills the house, we see and smell the sweet aroma of the yeast’s work. Jesus is a darn good psychologist. He reminds us that human causation is silent and hidden in the realms of thought, of feeling and conviction. He is speaking of what we might today call unconscious motivation. That wasn’t a phrase that was probably alive in his day as it is today. Unconscious motivation. And the result of that is found in our behavior. You and I need to ask ourselves this question: Does the leaven in your life or my life sweeten and refreshen our life and the life around us as it does in the parable? Or does it sour and somehow ruin and injure and contaminate life both within us and around us? If your life is like mine it’s probably a mixture of both, some sweet leaven and some sour leaven.
Jesus insists that the Kingdom of Heaven is like this leaven that enriches and sweetens life. This is the Christian understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven. But it is challenged in every age. And today it is challenged by a terrorism which breeds on a kind of sacred rage that seeks entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven through what it describes as a kind of sacred suicide that kills and maims in order to have entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. So you and I see, then, that there is a deep conflict between our perceptions of the Kingdom of Heaven and how the Kingdom of Heaven is perceived and molded in other lives and other attitudes.
According to Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field which a man found and hid until he could purchase the whole field for himself. The treasure opens up for him a new world of unforeseen and promising possibilities. And he wants that. It is so important to this man that he makes considerable sacrifices to obtain it. The new treasure is so important for him that he gives up what he has. He sells a lot of his things. He changes from what has been in order to lay hold of what may be and can be.
For us, this new treasure is Christ who shows us a new way of life and action, a new way of behavior open to all of us through a living and vibrant faith, a reassuring hope, and a transforming love. Whatever our background, our ethnic traditions, our perceived attitudes and experiences, they are given up if we recognize and embrace this new treasure. The life and teaching of Christ opens this new treasure to us. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, says Jesus. It is a treasure to be found and embraced. It sets a new pattern.
And the pearl found by the merchant. It is most valuable because, he says, no other pearl that he has compares. So he sells all and purchases it. In its simplicity and glowing beauty, a pearl–think of a pearl–reminds us of the enormous transition that takes place from the grit, the little stony grit that starts it into its final beauty. That grit that forms the core of a pearl is taken from the body of one of the smallest creatures in the sea, the oyster, found in mud, mud flats. And the pearl is a reminder to us of God’s transforming power. And this image can remind us that our own mundane lives can be transformed so that they can reflect the beauty of Christ’s presence and love.
The image of the pearl reminds us that there is at work in each of us, a foretaste of the heavenly realm. Some incipient sign of hope and promise. We are more than flesh and blood, you and I, because infinity is at work in all of us. Jesus reminds us that this is the Kingdom of Heaven at work in you and me.
The fishnet is the last parable. It points to the fact that each and every one of us is required to sort out his or her own thoughts, habits, beliefs and emotional patterns, as we each need to take a good look at ourselves. Like the net that hauls in many varieties of fish and ocean life, we draw many attitudes and traditions into our own lives as we grow. And like the fisherman, we need to sort these things out. Like the man who gave up much for the hidden treasure or the merchant who discarded much for the pearl of great price, we must sort and discard in order to embrace and obtain the richest gifts of the Spirit. This is a constant life in all of us and requires prayer and meditation, worship, thought, conversation, and reflection.
Some of us may believe that the Kingdom of Heaven lies in some golden age in the past, or some imagined utopia in the future. We may even dream of a heavenly kingdom somewhere over the rainbow. But Jesus is asking us to realize that the Kingdom of Heaven is at work within us and within the world of God’s creation. If we could but see and hear, we could understand what he says.
In these parables Jesus is outlining a strategy of how heaven and earth can work together to transform human history. And human beings, you and I, are the key to this strategy. In every human being there is the interaction of the flesh and spirit, of tradition and hope, of fear and confidence, of sin and virtue. In every human being there also pain and injury, suffering and serenity, fear and friendship. But God depends on us to become a partner with God. God affects the whole world and challenges human history. But he doesn’t do it by manipulating events. He does it by making it possible for men and women to glimpse God’s purchase of love and be inspired by that vision to pray and work.
Hopefully these parables can open for you and for me a glimpse of that vision of love that can assist us all and fulfilling God’s will.