Scripture: NRSV Matthew 13:31 He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it 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; 46 on 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; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and 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." 52 And 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."
Among those activities that just hold no attraction for me is fishing, which I guess is fortunate since I live in the desert. I believe I have talked about a cool and cloudy day spent salmon fishing with some customers from the San Francisco Bay Area one day more than forty years back in a choppy Pacific Ocean two hours off of Fisherman’s Wharf, when about fourteen of us were on a boat for almost ten hours, and we caught something like twelve fish. Four of us caught two each, so you can guess how much fun it was for the six who caught nothing — just trying to see how quickly you can do arithmetic.
But two things: we used lines and bait, not nets, and on that occasion, we had no reason to throw any fish back. (What we caught was put in ice by the fellow who ran the boat, so that the customers could take the fish home, but I had to catch a plane back to Chicago and did not want to take any fish on board, nor, at that time, did I even eat salmon.)
We did not use a net, nor did we sort the fish, so I guess our experience does not tie all that well into the parable Jesus told in the passage from Matthew I just read. But I am less concerned with taking from that parable, “Watch out, Jesus might throw you away,” as with concern that we do not throw ourselves, if not into the fire, which as you know I do not believe is to be taken literally, but rather, that having been “caught” in Jesus’ net, we do not throw ourselves back into the waters, the troubled waters, from which he saves us, by letting our faith in Him ebb away.
Whew; is that too much metaphor and allegory?
And parables are, of course, metaphor or allegory or simile; they are not to be taken literally, though it is tricky as to what we do when we come to their last lines.
Indeed, what was the real message that Jesus was trying to give in our Gospel reading?
Well, from an academic perspective, I like this passage, because it shows the way in which the writer of Matthew incorporates what he or she found in what we call “Mark.” The reason I like that is because in his landmark work from more than a century ago that I read about the same time in my life as that fishing trip, the work known as, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, which touched off the still on-going “Historical Jesus” area of activity for believing and non-believing scholars, in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer concluded that what he could say for certain about the historical Jesus must be based on the Gospel according to Mark as the first written, and thus closest to Jesus’ time, of the four gospel versions, and that what he could say about the historical Jesus was that Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom of God.
And what we read today is an example of Jesus’ so preaching, and what is the most important thing it says? Well, to me it is that whatever it might be, the Kingdom of God — in Matthew the term is instead, the “kingdom of heaven,” — is simply awesome, amazing, . . amazing, but not static! Not static, I think, from the parable of the mustard seed, because it grows into spreading bushes (as I showed in the slide, and I think you know how small a mustard seed is). To use the fishing image later in our passage, it grows because the net is spread wide and people are always being “caught” into it. Yes, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven is amazing and
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; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Let’s pause for a minute. I am not completely comfortable with a particular aspect of this imagery, in these two metaphors — well, similes, to be more precise, since the word like is used, — I am not completely comfortable because the parable seems to suggest that one must act to “acquire” the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. The person who finds the treasure in the field buys the field; the one who finds the pearl of great value does likewise, but! but, they do not merely “buy,” they sell all that they had previously to “buy,” to gain entry to, the kingdom of heaven.
The reason I am not completely comfortable with this imagery is not that I do not recommend that we do what that finder of treasure and the finder of the pearl do, but, rather, that the kingdom of heaven is free! We do not have to pay for the privilege of entry into the kingdom of heaven.
“Oh, but John, we have to declare our faith in Jesus!” Fair enough; I’ll put aside my universalist heresy and accept that, but our faith does not cost us, it enriches us! When we believe in Jesus, when we truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died on our behalf, the way in which God has told us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, even killing His Son, when we so believe, such belief is not a price we pay, it in fact a result of our entry into that very kingdom and benefits us beyond measure! Our faith carries its own benefits for us!
The writers of Mark and Matthew and of Luke see the kingdom of heaven as something we cannot know; something we cannot know until some indefinite future time, when Jesus will return and, in the words of Paul, the apostle who did not know Jesus but whose letters in the New Testament did so much to form the Christian faith, when, in the words of Paul, “the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised.”
But as I point out in Bible study, one of the challenges in reading the Bible and understanding the Bible, one aspect of “wrestling with our faith,” and one of the reasons we simply cannot settle for a literal reading of the Bible, is because Paul’s own understanding changes, and that change is apparent in what we find in the Bible! In the first written book of the New Testament, Paul’s 1 Thessalonians, and in his 1 Corinthians, possibly the next written, though it might be an edited combination of as many as five or six other letters, in 1 Corinthians, where we find that beautiful, “The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,” Paul was looking forward to a future — though he thought it close-at-hand, even within the lives of some of those then living — Paul was looking to a future time when Jesus would return to earth. But not much more than ten years later, if that, in his letter to the Christians at Philipi, the letter we know as “Philippians,” Paul states that, if he were to die, he would be with the Lord; he would not have to wait; he would be in that kingdom of heaven. And the way that I read the later-written Gospel according to John, we do not have to wait until death! We begin encountering the Kingdom of Heaven when we believe!
Paul’s life from the time of his road-to-Damascus experience was a life of full commitment to where his faith would call him — which, so far as we can tell, was persecution and death. It was indeed “selling all that he had.” But that was not what “bought” Paul the kingdom of heaven, it was his faith, as he himself showed and taught.
But obviously, Paul’s was a great faith. Does our faith penetrate into our being and actions in a way that is comparable to whomever found the treasure in the field or found that pearl? And I do not mean in a way that causes us to give up everything else, but rather, in a way which values our need for God above everything else, and leads us daily to seek to be obedient to what God commands?
To go back to our Gospel lesson and Jesus’ discussion of similarities, that is to say, to today’s parables, having faith in God through Jesus is like being caught in Jesus’ fishing net! With faith, we are His.
But while Jesus is interested in catching us, because Jesus is interested in catching us, I really believe He has no interest in throwing us back into the waters from which we came, let alone throwing us in the garbage dump or fire. We might throw ourselves back, but Jesus will not discard us.
And how would we throw ourselves back? Simply by not allowing our faith to lead us to seek to follow the way that Jesus tells us to live, which, quite simply, and I cannot over-emphasize this, is to love God, and to love others. Is there more detail? Sure, do not sin, but we do, and we shall, we shall sin. But if we really have faith, we will seek to follow His commandments and we will incrementally sin less. (Am I reflecting my John Wesley influenced Methodist past? Perhaps.) We will incrementally sin less, but precisely because we will love God increasingly more, and thus find it easier to love our neighbors.
We will remain “caught” in His net.
The kingdom of heaven is like — well, not like a salmon fishing trip; indeed, there is nothing fishy about the kingdom of heaven, just awesome, awesome and amazing and beyond earthly value. And it is here for us now through faith in the one in whose name we pray, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Christ, which is to say, the Messiah.
And in His name. Amen.