The kingdom is heaven is like...
This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 13, where Jesus teaches through a series of three vivid stories, three parables of everyday life where the hearer is invited to draw conclusions for themselves. The parable of wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and yeast. Read the full story here.
This time last year my mom and I went out to raised garden beds outside our farmhouse. The beds are made from old railroad ties for the borders and fertile dirt from the edges of our pond. We began to work to clear away old things that had been growing there and prepare the soil for something new. Then we started planting zinnia seeds and other wildflowers for harvest at my brothers wedding which would be that summer. We could envision the beautiful bouquets we would have in June. As weeks went on we’d go out and check on their progress and see how these little seedlings were emerging. Bright green shoots and leaves unfolded from the dark rich earth. And I remember furiously googling images of what zinnias seedlings look like so we could discern which seedlings we had intended and which others may have gotten into the mix, intending to remove whatever was taking up room we intended for something else. But it was nearly impossible to tell which leaves were which and so we just had to let them all grow up together. We set a sprinkler that cast water over all the beds and we cared for each plant the same. When June came, we had a garden full of flowers, more than enough for . We had plenty of zinnias, and even a few surprise flowers that added a beautiful diversity that we hadn’t planned for. Even the long grasses that had no flowers at all, added something to the arrangements. And as all these filled the garden, I’ll tell you, the bees and the butterflies didn’t care which was which, but enjoyed the nectar of all the flowers.
Jesus taught through stories which portray rich images and invite us the hearers to paint the picture. They invites us to imagine where we find ourselves in the story, to wonder together about what the parables reveal about God and ourselves? These parables draw on the everyday life of people working in fields, going to the market, and cooking in their homes. Jesus reveals truth through stories, where the meaning is made somewhere in between the word spoken and how we experience them, where the answers aren’t always clear, and there’s room left for mystery.
So here are a few things that the original hearers would have known and understood, that might impact the way you hear the stories, these parables:
The weeds or tares, the mustard and the yeast would all be considered at the least....inconvenient, contaminants, undesirables, pollutants, invasive, an onslaught, ruinous.
First, let’s look at wheat and tares….the seedlings actually look so much alike you literally can’t tell the difference. Even adolescent plants look exactly the same. It isn’t until they mature that the wheat reveals its fruit, a full and lush head of grain, bowing under the weight of its produce, while the tare remains a light and hollow imitation with no real nutritional value. And fire, throughout the bible and Jewish tradition is not a means of destruction but of purification. It is always a refiners fire, skimming away the part which surrounds on the surface to reveal the central nature and value of a thing. And yet, in this parable, both wheat and tare are nurtured together side by side. Such is the kingdom of heaven.
As for mustard - it can either be considered a crop or an invasive species. When grown on purpose by farmers, it is brought to market either for its greens or for grinding down the seeds for seasoning. Either way, it would never be allowed to grow to the point where it becomes a full blown tree. And yet, as it is allowed to grow wild, the plant finds value not for what it can be sold for, not what it can produce, but for simply for being what it is. One plants a mustard seed because one would like to grow some mustard. Such an farmer would view birds as pests. And yet, in this parable, the greatest thing about the mustard seed is that it provides refuge for the very pests the planter wants to keep away. Such is the kingdom of heaven.
Yeast is an agent of growth, the leaven, the expansive force that transforms flour into what we enjoy as bread. It is also something foreign, something from outside the oil and water intentionally included in bread. It’s essentially like a contaminant. Yeast didn’t come in yeast packets from the store, but from the air and environment and time. This yeast was a wild force of fermentation which cannot be contained to a carefully controlled portion of the flour, but changes all of it. Every household in the ancient world would have made bread every day. It was a staple food. But yeast is also an element forbidden from the Passover. Faithful Jews were to remove every trace of it from their homes in preparation for rest. In this parable, yeast is uncontainable against traditions of holiness, hidden out of view and yet the kingdom of heaven is like it.
So, knowing these things, how then do we hear these stories and make meaning from them? What do they tell us about God? about ourselves? How would you tell a story that points toward that kind of meaning? What does this remind you of? What picture comes to mind?
Perhaps we are the wheat, waiting for the day when, even as we are cut down, we bear fruit that nourishes the world. Perhaps we are the field, growing both that which nourishes and that which is hollow inside of us at the same time. Perhaps we are the slaves, clumsily suggesting what we think is helpful without fulling understanding what the master knows and yet still commissioned to care for the field so that all might flourish and grow, to bring life to all, to bring life without preconceptions of who deserves it or what such a life should look like. Perhaps we are the mustard trees, that grow beyond the boundaries the world would try to set for us, offering something of value just by being what we are. Perhaps we are the birds find a home in the wide branches, who finally allow ourselves to find our home and our rest, and to nurture that space for a while. Perhaps we are the flour or the yeast, considered a staple to society or something to be hidden and yet both are joined together to rise and grow and create something new altogether, something delicious and nourishing. Perhaps we are the baker that, even in our attempts to control or appear perfect or put together, unknowingly contributes to something vivacious and expansive.
Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is like a family table, where homeless and housed, privileged and poor break bread together and aren’t always sure how to do that, how to trust one another, how to be generous with one another but also respect the dignity and boundaries of each, and yet...we are mixed together as flour and yeast, becoming intertwined so that we all are changed into a new thing altogether, bread that rises and grows and feeds. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is not so far away.
If the kingdom of heaven is like a mixed bag of things we don’t always understand or agree on and yet somehow bears life, provides a nest, expands and nourishes….then perhaps the kingdom of heaven is not so far away. Amen.