I guess the folks who lived in Jesus’ day weren’t all that different from folks today. A lot of them would put on their “Make Israel Great Again” ball caps in hope that this Jesus guy would turn out to be the kind of Messiah who would restore their idea of what the Kingdom of God should be—a mighty Utopia made up of people just like them. No Romans or other gentiles. It would be feared for its military might by other nations, and have a booming stock market.
Jesus had to set them straight about this. That’s what the parables were all about.
In the selection from Matthew’s gospel assigned in the RCL for Pentecost 8, Year A (Matthew: 13: 31-33, 44-52) Jesus gives us five similes for what God’s Kingdom is really like. Each of these examples has a slightly different flavor, and I’ll bet that Jesus used them on different occasions to illustrate different lessons. Our evangelist Matthew, however, has lumped them all together in one discourse. If I were to parse each of them you’d probably fall asleep before you finished reading this post, so I’m just going to pick two and save the other three for some other time. Are you okay with that? Good. I will say first off that all five parables have something in common: Unlike the other parables we’ve been reading during this Pentecost season, these five don’t come with a spiffy explanation. It looks like Jesus is making us work to figure out their meaning. So here’s my take on the mustard seed and the fish net.
The mustard seed is—duh!—something small which turns into something bigger. But how much bigger? Jesus says it grows into the “greatest of shrubs.” (v. 32) [i] Greatest of shrubs? That’s like saying the tallest of midgets. Wouldn’t Jesus make a stronger point if he referenced an acorn growing into a mighty cedar of Lebanon? Perhaps, but size doesn’t matter here. Quantity is a human value. God doesn’t give a rip about it because God is bigger than anything we can imagine. You can’t impress God with magnitude. God is magnitude. To God, the tallest and most majestic tree in the forest is no more precious than the bush which produces a great condiment for your hotdog and provides shelter for some of God’s creatures.
Our congregation in Northeast Philly operates on pretty paltry resources—just faith the size of a mustard seed. We’re not a 3,000 seat mega-church with a TV station and world-wide ministry. But we are no less a manifestation of God’s Kingdom. In our “branches” is shelter for all kinds of “birds”—alcoholics seeking to recover, Haitian immigrants who can’t afford a worship space of their own, LGBTQ people, and the otherwise homeless birds who find a temporary nest in our facility through our partnership with Interfaith Hospitality Network. We may not be producing mustard, but with all of the tomatoes harvested each summer in the organic garden we grow for our food pantry we could make one boatload of ketchup! We know that God’s glory can be seen in what the world sees as insignificant.
Now, about that fishnet (v.47). God’s kingdom is full of lots of stuff—some good, some not so good. Dragging a fishnet along the bottom of the lake can get you lots of things. You can get fish to sell or fry up yourself. You can also collect gross stuff like slimy eels and gooey mollusks and old Styrofoam cups, beer cans, hubcaps, and used disposable diapers. There will be some crap in that net which will be just down right unpleasant and smelly. But the net holds all of it. There’s good and bad in God’s Kingdom. There’s virtue and sin, joy and suffering, fulfillment and emptiness—but it’s all still God’s net. Eventually, the useless, rotten stuff will get sorted out (like this COVID-19 pandemic!). For now, though, we live with it all, secure in the knowledge that God is wrapped around us, holding everything together.
We really miss the point if we think God only shows up in the glorious, the successful, or the “feel-good” moments. God surrounds us in the smelly garbage moments, too. God is present in our small and humble efforts. God’s Kingdom doesn’t require awe-inspiring deeds on our behalf, just simple deeds done consistently in faith and trust. Luther reminded us that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and pray “Thy Kingdom come,” we’re really asking for God’s Kingdom to come and reveal itself so we can see it and be strengthened by it, for it surely comes whether we pray for it or not. God’s Kingdom is eternal. That means we’re living in it now.
Peace and joy be with you this week. Thanks again for stopping by!
[i] If you want to get fancy about this the Greek calls it the greatest of lacanon (pronounced lachanon) which literally translates as “herb.” Jesus says it grows into a “tree,” but the word we’re translating as “tree” in Greek is dendron (dendron), which can mean a tree but can also mean a bush like a rose bush. Face it. Mustard just doesn’t grow that big.