Today we jump from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount over several chapters in Matthew and land on Jesus telling stories, or parables. Both the Sermon on the Mount and the parables are forms of teaching, but different forms: whereas the Sermon on the Mount laid out in pretty plain form what Jesus expects his kingdom to look like, the parables are using metaphors, or word images, to describe what God’s kingdom looks like. And with metaphors, we have to play with them a bit, turn them this way and that, and try to discern what Jesus is telling us about his kingdom. But, before we get to those parables, let’s take a few moments and fill in what’s happened in the life of Jesus in between the Sermon on the Mount and his telling these stories about the kingdom.
After Jesus comes down the mountain, he continues his healing and his teaching ministries. Included in that are the healing of the centurion’s servant; Jesus stilling the storm when he and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee, and the casting out of demons from a man into a herd of pigs. Jesus also calls Matthew, the tax collector, and when the Pharisees complain, he tells them that he has come to call sinners, not the righteous. Jesus then raises a little girl from the dead and heals a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. He continues his healing ministry, and then, determining that the disciples have learned enough for the moment, he sends them out on their own to proclaim the good news. Then John the Baptist, who was in prison, hears what Jesus is doing and sends messengers to ask if Jesus is the one that he was expecting, or should the people be looking for someone else. Jesus responds by telling John what he is doing and how that is fulfilling the Scripture. Jesus then continues his healing and teaching ministry. While Jesus is doing this, the Pharisees begin to conspire against him, to destroy him.
Then, Jesus starts telling parables, beginning with the sower who sows his seed on all kinds of soil. We’re skipping over that one today, but we’re continuing with the images of farming in Jesus’ next parable, the weeds among the wheat. Most of us here today have not grown up on farms, and even though we live near a lot of farms here in central Pennsylvania, we haven’t spent enough time on farms to make these images work easily for us. So, I’m going to try and describe a little of what I experienced in Wyoming with the weeds among the wheat. In back of the place where I lived was a farmer’s field, and the farmer rotated crops in it each year. I loved the years when the farmer grew barley, because when the barley sprang up, it was like a living sea of green waving in the wind. I would walk Otis on the dirt road that ran by this field and it would feel so peaceful as I walked by this waving grass. But, if you looked closely, you could see other plants in among the barley stalks that were tall and green like the barley but were clearly not barley plants. From a distance you could not tell the difference and going in and pulling the weeds up would almost certainly mean pulling stalks of barley up as well. And the barley was a valuable cash crop: it was all sold to beer companies. So, pulling up the weeds before the harvest was definitely not something that the farmers wanted to do.
So, why does Jesus tell this parable? How is the kingdom of heaven like a field that has both weeds and good plants in it? Well, we do hear Jesus’ explanation of this parable at the end of our section today, and it’s a little harsh. Remember, though, that in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story, Jesus is a refugee, having to flee from Bethlehem because of King Herod, having spent his early years in Egypt, and then returning not to Bethlehem but to the strange town of Nazareth. Psychologists say that children who grow up as refugees from violence have a very strong sense of good and evil, and they divide people into those categories a lot. A person does not move from the evil category to the good category very easily, in the mind of a refugee child. And so, we find Jesus telling frequent parables in Matthew of how, at the end of the age, people will be divided into those categories, and the ones who are evil will go where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But I think there’s more that we can gain from this parable than the separation of good and evil at the end of the age. And here it is: just like it was very difficult to tell the weeds from the good barley plants in the field out in Wyoming, it is often very difficult for us to tell who the good people are and who the bad people are here on earth. And so, as we heard last week when Jesus told us not to judge, we are called to leave the judgment up to God and the angels at the end of the age. They will be the ones to separate people, not us. Therefore, we are called to follow Jesus and to love one another while we are here on this earth. And when we get frustrated with all of the evil going on in the world, we are to trust that one day, Jesus will return and will set all things right.
From the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus then talks about the kingdom of heaven being like a mustard seed. Our Thursday morning Bible study has been studying Jesus’ parables, and we had the parable of the mustard seed a couple of weeks ago. When I went to Greece and Turkey last year, we traveled past many fields where mustard plants were in bloom, and I’m going to take a moment and pass this picture around so you can all see it.
What I discovered in that Bible study session is that we all know mustard as the yellow stuff that we see in bottles in the grocery store, but we don’t know that it actually comes from this plant with yellow flowers. Mustard is good for more than stuff that we eat, too. It’s also used for medicine. But what’s even more interesting about this parable is this: mustard seeds are not the smallest seeds, as Jesus says, nor do the mustard plants grow into trees. So, what’s Jesus talking about? Is he simply a lousy botanist, or is there something more going on here?
Perhaps the kingdom of heaven grows like a mustard seed does: from something small into something big, that overflows the boundaries of the fields and turns into something unexpected. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven provides healing for people, just as the mustard plant was used in a plaster to provide relief for chronic aches and pains. Perhaps we get a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven when one person starts something small, like helping another person to find work, and that gradually turns into something big, like an organization that helps many people in need by preparing for interviews or training for jobs. Or perhaps the kingdom of heaven is simply found in ordinary things of nature, like a mustard plant growing, and in the ordinary work that ordinary people do. Any and all of these interpretations are good ones; and perhaps in prayer and devotion, you may find another interpretation that the Holy Spirit suggests to you. This is the way that metaphors work, and as long as the interpretation is a good and healthy one, then I think Jesus would be pleased.
Lastly, we move from the parable of the mustard seed to the parable of the yeast. And when Jesus is using this image, he is not talking about those little packets of yeast that sit in our refrigerator. Have any of you made sourdough bread from scratch? If you have, then you will know that there is something called sourdough starter. This is a fermented mixture of flour and water, containing a colony of microorganisms that include wild yeast and lactobacilli. It doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? This is most likely what the woman in Jesus’ parable is mixing into flour in order to make bread. So, is the kingdom of heaven like this disgusting-smelling and -looking stuff that, when mixed into flour, turns into something that tastes delicious? That’s an odd way of describing it.
But what about the amount of flour the woman is using? Three measures does not mean three cups. Three measures of flour means between forty and sixty pounds. That’s more bread than any one family can eat in one sitting. So, does this mean that the kingdom of heaven is going to have more than enough food for everyone who comes in? Perhaps, but here’s another question: the woman in the story is not mixing the yeast into the flour. Rather, the Greek word is the word for “hiding”; the woman is hiding the yeast in the flour. So perhaps this means that the kingdom of heaven starts out as something that is hidden, and then it is revealed just as the flour is revealed to have yeast in it when it becomes bread. Again, any of these interpretations are possible.
The weeds in the wheat; the mustard seed; the yeast in the bread. There is one thing that these images of the kingdom of heaven have in common, and that is this: waiting. With the weeds in the wheat, the servants must wait until the harvest comes before they can reap the wheat and separate the weeds out from the grain. When the person sows mustard seed in his field, he must wait for it to grow and take over the field, and he must let it alone until it is ready to be harvested. And when the woman hides the yeast in the flour, she must wait for the dough to rise and to become bread before it can be eaten. This is the encouragement that we can take from these parables. When we get frustrated with the evil that we see in the world; when the efforts that we make to spread the kingdom don’t seem like they will ever be enough; when numbers are few, God tells us to wait. Because right now the kingdom of heaven seems very small, but one day—in God’s time, not ours—the kingdom of heaven will come to fulfillment, and everyone will then find shelter, security, and more than enough to eat. That’s a hope that’s worth waiting for, and worth participating in. Amen.