What Is Old and What Is New
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
In Jesus Christ, God makes God-self familiar, intimate, close, as a friend. In Jesus Christ, God keeps God-self still mysterious, distant, other. In Jesus, the intimate, and the mysterious of the divine are kept in constant tension, or perhaps, in forever balance. After all, isn’t intimacy always somehow mysterious?
Put a simpler way: God gives us Jesus, in part, so we can get to know God, so that we can relate to, and be in relationship with God. In Jesus, humanity sees God, touches God, receives God face-to-face, heart-to-heart, in the everyday essentials of life: from the bread and wine of Holy Communion, to the wonder of nature; from the laughter, or the tears, of a friend, to the wordless, boundless connection we feel when we are gathered as church. Despite such familiarity, even in the person of Jesus, God retains holy distance, and sacred mysteriousness.
God wants us to get to know God, intimately.
God will maintain a shroud, a cloud, a mist, of mystery between Creator, and humanity.
Our Jewish friends believe human beings cannot know or utter the full name of God. Only Moses could see God on Mt. Sinai, as the distance from mountaintop to valley separated the people from God’s face.
So it is with the parables of Jesus. In one sense, they are familiar, approachable, simple stories. On the other hand, they are convoluted, complex, and sometimes not easily decipherable by us, at all.
Have you ever known a storyteller whose stories became so convoluted, you got lost in the complexity of characters, or completely lost your way in the mud and the muck of the plot? There are those types of stories and storytellers. There are other types too, such as the storyteller whose narrative seems compelling for all of about thirty seconds, and thirty minutes later, you find yourself with a headache, wondering, “What was the point of that?” Remember Rose from The Golden Girls, and her innocently inane St. Olaf stories, or to another degree, Sophia’s “Picture it: Sicily, 1918, stories.”
I never knew either of my grandfathers. They both passed away before I was born. For a few years, though, I did have a step-grandfather. I called him Papaw. His name was Bob. Old Bob grew up in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in the little town of North Wilkesboro. Bob worked as a salesman for Wallace Hardware. Now, as a NASCAR fan, the fact that Bob grew up, and had friends in North Wilkesboro, thrilled me to no end. Wilkes County was, after all, the home of NASCAR and American legend Junior Johnson. Bob claimed to know Junior Johnson, too.
I never got to meet Junior Johnson through Bob’s connection to him, and my connection to Bob. I did get to hear countless stories from old Bob, however. Bob was the archetype southern gentleman, and even in retirement, he wore immaculate suits everyday, even on evening visits to our house. His stories were all different, but they were all the same, too.
Each of Bob’s stories featured him as a minor character, with one of his friends being the main protagonist and adventurer. Each of his stories also contained his friend’s father, “old man so-and-so.” That’s always how Bob would say it: “Now his daddy, Old Man Johnson…” or “Old Man Jones…” or “Old Man Henderson.” Bob’s stories would build and build and build in excitement and intrigue. They would build and build and build in excitement and intrigue only to fall completely and utterly flat.
“And I said ‘okay.’’
That’s how all of Bob’s stories ended: From the sunny summer meadows of Carolina, to the frozen, deathly bitterness of the France’s trenches, each story would conclude with Papaw Bob’s resolution, “And I said okay.”
They were interesting stories, occasionally beautiful stories, and always—I came to learn—incredibly formulaic, featuring Bob, a friend, a friend’s daddy, “old man so-and-so,” and back to Bob, “And I said okay.”
Jesus’ stories, or parables, are also somewhat formulaic, and I hope, mostly always beautiful, or at least thought provoking.
We struggle with Jesus’ parables today because we live 2000 years later. We live in a different time. We live in a different place. Because of differences in culture, landscape, and even belief, we need scholars to help us understand what each parable means. The years, the geography, the culture between us and Jesus’ parables gives them some of the mysteriousness they still possess.
In Jesus day, however, to those original hearers of Jesus’ own voice, or half-a-century or so later, with the first readers of Jesus’ words in the synoptic gospels. Jesus’ stories were completely clear, understandable, and simple. That’s why Jesus told these stories: to make the poetry of God’s love everyday prose every person can understand.
My New Testament professor at Duke, Dr. James Efird, teaches and writes that each parable of Jesus aims to make one central, strategic point. Jesus designed his stories to make one point as clear as mountain spring water. Jesus did not design his stories to go along with three points, and a poem. I try to remember that when I preach or teach on Jesus’ parables, but it’s hard.
Today, the Lectionary gives us three very stories from Jesus, that are really more like sentences and similes than they are full-out parables. They are all about the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God. Our Savior tells us the kingdom can be compared to 1) a mustard seed. 2) yeast, and 3) hidden treasure in a field.
Now what could lend itself more naturally to three points and a poem than three related metaphors by Jesus? In many ways, we could get three points out of each of these kingdom similes. In many ways, this scripture, like any piece of scripture, can be imagined, contorted, and stretched to make many, many points.
Today, I humbly offer this one point—just one—for these kingdom statements of Jesus: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.
They are all counter-intuitive, counter cultural, and miraculous. Therefore, Jesus teaches us, the kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom, God’s life, God’s way, is counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and miraculous.
First, let’s look at the mustard seed. Jesus himself tells us that the mustard seed is the smallest seed of all. The smallest seed of all, yet the mustard seed grows fourteen-fifteen feet up, out of the arid, hot soil of Palestine, to be first a weed and later a tree, a strong, fortress of spring giving shelter, giving home, to birds. Something small—small faith, small mass, small stature, small esteem, perceived small value—grows to be a giant in love and protection for other living things. The kingdom of God is like the smallest seed—you? Me?—which grows into something mighty in love.
Second, the lady puts yeast in the bread to make it leavened. We think of yeast primarily as an ingredient to make the bread rise. In Jesus’ day, folks looked at yeast primarily as a preservative. The children of Israel did not leaven their bread when they left Egypt for God’s freedom. God commanded that they eat the Passover bread quickly, for they were about to take flight into God’s deliverance and dance in the wind. God’s kingdom, God’s way brings preservation—God’s way saves life. As the yeast makes the bread rise, God’s way makes life rise, with dignity, hope, and love.
The third little simile of Jesus perhaps makes the least sense. A man sells everything he has to go and claim the treasure hidden in the field. Well, that makes sense to the American mind. We can understand treasure hunters. It’s the first part of the little mini-parable which isn’t rationale. Jesus tells us that the treasure hunter who gives up everything to find the treasure, actually owns the treasure already, and hid it in the field, himself. Huh? A man, or a woman, has a treasure, buries it, only to give up everything else they possess to go and search and claim this other possession they had themselves buried? Perhaps Jesus’ point here is that God’s kingdom, God’s way, which God gives to each and everyone of us, is so sacred, so valuable, it is worth giving up everything else to follow. Indeed, God’s kingdom, God’s way, God’s love makes no rational sense. It simply is. From exodus, to cross; from creation, to resurrection, God’s kingdom, God’s way, simply is. It is life, wholeness, dignity, love, for us all.
It’s quite a story, really.