Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 New Revised Standard Version
31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
33 He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’
Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
As many of you know, the pandemic we are all experiencing is the result of an outbreak of a specific strain of coronavirus called the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2. As far as viruses go, COVID-19 is considered a large-sized virus, approximately 120 nanometers or 1/200th of an inch in diameter. The virus is thought to be natural and has an animal origin. At some point in 2019, the virus crossed over to humans for the first time, making it a novel, or new virus. The earliest recorded human infection happened in the Hubei province of China at the end of November 2019. Because of its novel nature, we humans do not have pre-existing defenses in our bodies to COVID-19 that help us identify and fend off the infection. This makes the virus more contagious and more dangerous than the common cold or seasonal flu.
At the end of July, there were over 16 million recorded cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and nearly 650,000 have died as the result of the disease. Meanwhile, our lives have changed dramatically, all because of a virus, 1/200th of an inch in size.
Today’s gospel lesson might ask us to consider what other things, more positive, transformative things, might have their origins in what seemed little, insignificant, novel, or new.
Today we are wrapping up an important section in Matthew where Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven through parables. In previous weeks we’ve explored the context of this section. Jesus is speaking to a gathered crowd of farmers, day laborers, fishermen, and domestic workers in a rural area. John the Baptist has been arrested, and his followers are in the crowd, possibly hoping that Jesus is some type of guerrilla leader that can help them break John out of prison. Meanwhile, Jesus is now gathering large crowds of disenfranchised people, so religious and political leaders are watching him.
Jesus must tread carefully, proclaiming a message of hope while disarming those in the crowd who are looking for a revolutionary leader. And he has to do this while showing those in power that he isn’t a threat, at least not yet.
So Jesus begins telling stories about the Kingdom of Heaven. I like how the Biblical Scholar F. Scott Spencer describes Matthew’s therm "Kingdom of Heaven":
“In Matthew, ‘heaven’ stands for ‘God’ (as in the English idiom, ‘heaven help us’), and ‘kingdom’ represents the orbit of God’s dynamic activity.
It’s fair to say then, that whenever Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew, he is describing the principles, work, and culture of God’s radical building plan for a better world.
The parables in today’s lesson give us additional insight into what’s being built.
The parable of the mustard seed speaks to the inconsequential beginnings of God’s activity, it’s incredible growth, and its ability to be inclusive, sheltering many different “birds of the air.” We might think about the real place Galilee and Jerusalem held at the time of Jesus in the broader world of the Roman Empire. It was a backwater, a place you didn’t go to visit. The originator of this movement was a peasant from Galilee with questionable paternity and a habit of sneaking away to be alone. This doesn’t sound like the origin of great things.
The parable of the yeast sounds similar and might even hit home. During the pandemic, with so many folks at home and with a little more time on their hands, many have taken to breadmaking, especially experimenting with sourdough. In fact, Vermont’s King Arthur Flour Company has seen sales skyrocket by 2,000 percent in 2020. I’ve been in the grocery store many times now when there is a limit on how much flour one can buy, or there’s no flour at all. There’s something really cool in being able to make bread out of a little flour and water and the natural yeast floating in the air.
We might even come to the same conclusion in this short parable as we did with the mustard seed, that something incredible can come out of something small and unassuming. But understanding the unit of measurement is vital in the story. Three measures of flour come out to about 110 pounds, making enough bread for 150 people. This parable does not describe the regular practice of making bread for one’s family. This parable describes God’s activity as providing for the wider community.
And there are other parables too, that describe the quirky and beneficial nature of God’s dynamic activity in the world. The parables of the hidden treasure and the valuable pearl describe the precious nature of God’s alternative way. Searching is necessary, but upon finding it, folks are willing to make sacrifices to hold on to the world God is bringing about.
In startling ways, it’s odd to read these parables, Jesus’ imaginative, subversive illustrations of God’s new way, against the backdrop of 2020. Along with the pandemic, we’ve seen aspects of humanity at its worst: the killing of unarmed people of color, the hoarding of resources, corruption, our government using violence against peaceful protestors, an escalating cold war with China, and the incredible, unequal ways this pandemic affects the world’s poorest.
And yet, there are stories of neighbors getting to know neighbors for the first time.
And other stories about communities banding together to organize volunteers, mutual support, and endeavors like our Little Free Pantry.
And we’ve seen positive changes as the result of protests that have led to the band of chokeholds in several major cities, the passing of a Hate Crime Law in Georgia, and the expansion of hate crime laws in the state of Virginia. Meanwhile, companies, institutions, and organizations are examining their own bias and reviewing their hiring processes, changing recruitment procedures, and making antiracism a part of leadership training.
The pandemic wasn’t put in this world by a god that wanted to teach us valuable life lessons at the expense of all this suffering and loss. But our God has a way of bringing about good things even in times like these, when all seems lost, twisted, gloomy, and confusing. Out of our present crisis, little conversations have created real change, little free pantries have provided lasting hunger relief in our communities, and the atrocity of an unjust death has brought about a better world.
I’m thankful that God has this pesky way of reminding us that good is still being done, even when the world seems pretty awful. God’s dynamic activity in this world is always at work to create an inclusive, non-violent society, and that work doesn’t stop because of some pandemic.
There is enough light and good in this world, even now. We may have to search for it. It may look tiny and inconsequential. Likely it will require some sacrifice. But we will find that that light and good is more precious than anything else in this world. And it will be enough to get us through these difficult times.
May God guide you in your search. May God grow goodness in this world. And may we all find comfort and solace in our God, who transforms death into life, violence into peace and hate into love for the goodness of all creation.