Sermon - Ordinary 17 (Pentecost 10) Year A -
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A glorious surprise

The largest herb, so big that it becomes a tree, grown quickly from the smallest seed you could see in Galilee; a large lump of dough raised up by a tiny amount of leaven hidden within it; a treasure hidden in a field and now discovered unexpectedly; the extraordinarily valuable pearl long sought and now found: these are all signs of the brilliant finish, completion or perfection to which God will bring the work begun in such a humble way by Jesus. In the end, the establishment of the Kingdom of God, now hidden, will be spectacular, surprising and joyful. Its value will be so great that anyone who sees it will be willing to sell everything to possess it. It has incomparable value, its brilliance stands in stark contrast to its puny beginning, and it all comes about as a gift of God, not earned but wonderfully enjoyed. This we learn from two sets of double parables in Matthew 13 among many different parabolic images of the Kingdom.

In the first pair of parables there is a surprisingly great result from a very small beginning.

Matthew recording the two together shows clearly the message that the hearers of Jesus later understood from this teaching. What is often called the parable of the mustard seed would be better remembered for its meaning if it were called the parable of mustard tree, for the meaning is in end, while the parable of the leaven in the bushel of flour is better understood as the parable of the risen leavened lump of dough ready for baking bread. There is a surprising output from very little human input. The process by which the change is bought about is a mystery to the casual observer and the result is cause for wonder. So it is with the Kingdom of God.

That response at the wonder of it all is clearly demonstrated in another parable with the same emphasis on a surprising result, in the parable of the harvest in Mark 4, where it is immediately followed by the parable of the mustard seed or tree:

We can see how the meaning of wonder at the outcome can then be applied to what Mark wrote next:

The ancient memory of the great tree

We are not told what if any private explanation he gave to his disciples, but the main point of the mustard seed and tree is clear to all when it is seen together with the related parables of the harvest and the lump of dough: the great result is a cause for wonder. There are, however, some additional insights which could have come to the disciples. As with much of the teaching of Jesus, the image he used of the tree in which birds come to rest can be received as an echo of an Old Testament idea. In Daniel we have the dream of a king with a vision of a great tree:

In that dream the king saw a heavenly being command that the tree be cut down, except that a stump should be left in the ground; and the interpretation of Daniel was that the great King Nebuchadnezzar was himself the tree in his own dream, and he would be severely humbled until he learned that God is the sovereign Lord of all:-

So perhaps the memory of that sign of the sovereignty of God over all helped to teach what Jesus had to say about the rule of God in his eventual Kingdom. There is a similar message with the sign of a tree in the prophecy of Ezekiel:

The reversal of fortunes here is like that in the song of Mary and many of the parables of Jesus in which the last shall be first and the first last. The coming of the winged creatures of every kind refers to the coming of all kinds of people; the birds here and in the parable of the mustard tree would be understood to mean the gentiles, all the nations of the world coming to the kingdom of God, as is seen in a later chapter of Ezekiel with reference to the great tree with its top in heavens:

Fancy all the great nations of the world living in the shade of single tree! There is always a degree of dramatic exaggeration or hyperbole in these images from the later prophets [and apocalytic writing generally], but it was the only way to bring into human consciousness those ideas about the end towards which all things were moving which can have no direct parallel in history or nature. Jesus expressed the difficulty of making these things known and need for a parable that is not a direct description when he said in Mark and Luke's introduction to the parable of the mustard tree: With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? We struggle for an expression to describe the wonder of it all in the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Another kind of contrast

Another kind of dramatic impact was created in the parable of leavened dough by giving something mundane unexpected value, for it is a rare case in which leaven is used as a sign of something good. Usually, because it promotes fermentation leaven or yeast was taken in biblical writing as a sign of corruption: e.g. Leviticus 2:11; or in the teaching of Jesus,

And in Paul's letters:

Paul also speaks of good yeast as well as bad, but those familiar with signs of God's action in the world in contrast with evil influences would have been careful about images like the affect of yeast. It was typical of Jesus however to ignore such sensitivities in regard to possible contamination and to celebrate rather the great things that God would do in spite of human weakness. The lump of dough would rise regardless of what you thought of the yeast!

There is another Old Testament echo in the reference to three measures of flour. First, it is a large amount of flour. The woman who mixed the yeast with it would making enough bread to feed a large crowd. It suggests hospitality and celebration. Such was the intention Abraham who saw three strangers near the entrance to his tent: he welcomed them as honoured guests and made ready to entertain them:

I don't know whether Jesus intended the apostles to have this in mind, but it would have occurred to others later that the guests whom Abraham entertained turned out to be messengers from God who told him that his wife Sarah would have a son, though Sarah laughed at the idea because she thought she was too old. She tried to deny that she had laughed when the Lord challenged Abraham "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord". That is the point too of the parable of the risen bread dough. God does surprising things with the most unlikely material.

The second pair of parables emphasises the greatness of the result, the almost unbelievable value of the what God would do in establishing the kingdom. Nothing would be worthy of comparison with it so that it would be no loss to give up everything else to obtain this precious gift:

It does not matter how it came about: the man working in the field came upon the treasure unexpectedly, having no idea that it existed, while the merchant, we would say a big businessman, knew of the possibility of a peal great value and had searched a long time before finding it; it did not matter whether they had put much or little into the discovery, whether you are the simple farmer ploughing or the rich merchant spending up big in hope a great treasure, what you found was worth far more than anything your efforts could produce; they gladly sold all they had to purchase it. The point is that the kingdom of God is like that: it is worth more than everything else.

There are some other secondary themes in these parables.

You might wonder where this interest in hidden treasure came from. The land of Israel was constantly being fought over and when there was a threat of invasion treasures would be hidden. A man might bury gold in his field but not be able to recover it, so that it remained a long time to found by someone else. In the story the workman who found it was not owner of the field, but the owner would not have known of the treasure hidden long before his time and the workman would have been entitled to possess it with the land if he bought it, that was the law. So he was justified in hiding it until he could take possession. The point is not how he did it. There was nothing extraordinary about that. The thing that mattered was that he recognized its value and was prepared to sacrifice everything else to have it, just as the merchant who sought the pearl was prepared to do what was necessary to make it his own. Nor should we think that it is easy to make such a sacrifice. The value of the hidden treasure is not always appreciated, especially if we have many possessions already. Remember the rich young ruler:

While the emphasis is on the great value of the hidden treasure, there is a secondary message in that to possess it one must be prepared to give up everything else and the following parable after these two might be a warning that there will be sorting out of those worthy to receive the treasure:

Certainly there are plenty of times and various ways in which Jesus warned of the danger of not responding appropriately to the offer of the kingdom. It implies not having the right sense of value, putting other things first before communion with God, allowing oneself to be distracted by other concerns and running the risk of judgment. It is worth keeping that in mind least the great value of the promise, the prospect of rejoicing in the gift of the treasure of heaven, is overshadowed by earthly treasures which decay, entrap and hid the glory of God. The main point of the two pairs of parables is, however, not to emphasise the risk but to signify the positive value of discerning what God is doing, so that the value of the Kingdom, of his reign, will be recognized.

The idea of something of great value being in some way hidden is common to the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom. Not everyone sees it. It is like wisdom. In Proverbs, wisdom is likened to a hidden treasure,

In the 'wisdom literature' the character of wisdom, that is sometimes personified, appears as a remarkable parallel to Christ, whom the modern Indian Christian leader D T Niles called 'the treasure of heaven' in his hymn 'The great love of God':

It's yours, it is ours,
O how lavishly given!
The pearl of great price,
and the treasure of heaven.

I expect Niles would have agreed with the European theologian Jeremias who wrote:

Any sacrifice that may be needed is as nothing when the value of the treasure of the kingdom is known. So the brilliant finish to the drama, begun in such a humble way by Jesus that few people saw its potential: it comes to the fore when God acts to show his own glory in the man of Galilee, revealed for all to see, as the Lord of heaven and earth.

May we glory now in that prospect, and at the end be blessed to see him as he is, the pearl of great price, the treasure of heaven.

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Appendix

CONSUMMATION from Joachim Jeremias The Parables of Jesus

The presence of salvation, bringing with it the offer of God's gift of it, is only the prelude to the future consummation. When Jesus speaks of it, he always uses symbols.

God is King, and will be worshipped in a new Temple (Mk. xiv, 58). On his right hand on the throne sits the Son of Man (Mk. xiv, 62), surrounded by the holy angels (Mk. viii, 38). Homage will be paid to him (Mt. xxiii, 39). As the Good Shepherd he feeds the purified flock (Mk. xiv, 28; Mt. xxv, 32 f).

Evil is banished; for the profaned Temple has been destroyed (Mk xiii, 2), the sinful world has passed away (Mt. xix 28; Lk. xvii, 26-30), the judgement of the dead and the living (Mt. xii, 41 f) has taken place, and the final separation is completed (Mt. xiii, 30, 48). Satan has been cast out of heaven (Lk. x, 18), and together with his angels thrown into eternal fire (Mt. xxv, 41). Death reigns no longer (Lk xx, 36), there is an end of suffering (Mt. xi, 5), and sorrow has ceased (c£ Mk. ii, 19).

Conditions are reversed: what is hidden becomes manifest (Mt. x, 26 par.), poor become rich (Lk. vi, 20), the last are first (Mk. x, 31), the small become great (Mt. xviii, 4), the hungry are filled (Lk. vi, 21), the weary find rest (Mt. xi, 28), those who weep laugh (Lk. vi, 21), the mourners are comforted (Mt. v, 4), the sick are healed, blind receive their sight, lame walk, lepers are cleansed, deaf hear (Mt. xi, 5), prisoners are freed, the oppressed relieved (Lk. iv, 18), the lowly are exalted (Mt. xxiii, 12; Lk. xiv, I I; xviii, 14), the humble bear rule (Mt. V, 5), and the dead live (xi, 5).

Sinners are forgiven (Mt. vi, 14), the Servant of the Lord has .paid the ransom for the peoples (Mk. x, 45 par.), the pure in heart see God (Mt. v, 8), the new name is bestowed (v, 9), the heavenly angelic garb of glory (doxa) is conferred (Mk. xii, 25). They have eternal life (Mk. ix, 43), they live to God (Lk. xx, 3 8).

God recompenses (Lk. xiv, 14), and his great reward is paid (Mt. V, 12); in measure pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing, it is poured into one's lap (Lk. vi, 38), the inheritance is distributed (Mt. xix, 29), the treasure laid up in heaven is handed out (vi,20), thrones and positions of authority are bestowed (xix, 28).

The glorified community stands before the throne of God. Like Noah and Lot it has been delivered out of destruction (Lk. xvii, 27, 29). The harvest is gathered into everlasting garners (Mt. xiii, 30), the new Temple is built (Mk. xiv, 58), the scattered elect are gathered together (Mk. xiii, 27), God's children are at home in their Father's house (Mt. V, 9), the flock is fed (Mk. xiv, 2 8), the marriage celebrated (Mk. ii, 19). Fullness of joy after tribulation has begun (Jno. xvi, 21). They dwell in everlasting tabernacles (Lk. xvi, 9), the Gentiles pour into the city on the hill, and feast with the patriarchs (Mt. viii, 11) at the table of the Son of Man (Lk. xxii, 29 f.). For them he breaks the bread of salvation (Mt. vi, 11), hands to them the cup of the wine of the New Age (Mk. xiv, 25), hunger and thirst are satisfied and the joyous laughter of the Messianic Age resounds (Lk. vi, 21). The communion between God and man, broken by sin, is restored.

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