As I have stated but not reiterated, three parables called “kingdom parables” are sandwiched between questions, sometimes hostile questions, to Jesus’ authority and ministry. Matthew chapter 11 and most of 12 contain multiple stories of opposition to and misunderstanding of what Jesus is teaching and doing. Chapter 13, after the parables, ends with Jesus’ heart-breaking rejection by his hometown people. That is why the parables in chapter 13 could be viewed as responding to the dilemma of why does the Gospel message find hospitable space to grow among some people and not others? According to Feasting on the Word commentary, “Matthew gives us a practical theological explanation of why so many more hear than understand, why more disciples are planted than bear fruit, and which elements are necessary for fruitful discipleship.”
The first parable in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew is one that is extremely familiar to you and one I won’t delve into much this morning- it is the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. I will briefly sum it up with this particular interpretation for today: the one who sows the seed that lands in good soil, and then the other one sown in bad soil choked by weeds or hard and impenetrable, is, as Matthew calls Jesus, the Son of Man. Jesus sows the seed of his Gospel message. The field Jesus is sowing in is the world. The good seed are the people who follow God’s will and way and then produce an abundant harvest. The seed that ends up turning bad is people who at first may follow God but are shallow or weak in their faith and it doesn’t stand up to trials and tribulations or their faith is choked out by materialism, all-consuming family obligations, or other worldly matters. The harvest is the end of all things here on earth, the Last Judgment, referred to in theological circles as eschatology. Those who take up the abundant harvest are the angels or heavenly beings or we may want to think of the harvester as God. Jesus desires that all people be the good seed and produce lots of good fruit in the world, in his name.
Before I begin the three parables for this morning, I’d like to set the tone with two stories I listened to on YouTube. They inform the meaning of the first parable of the Wheat and the Tares well. In the first story, a young couple moved into a house on a hill. Mary and Bill lived next door, not too close but close enough. One morning during breakfast, Mary went and looked out her kitchen window to see the young new female neighbor hanging laundry, unusual in and of itself. Mary stated to her husband, “Bill, our young neighbor doesn’t know how to clean her clothes and other laundry. What she is hanging is dirty!” Bill simply continued to read his paper and didn’t say a word. Every time her new neighbor hung her laundry, Mary would make the same comments and Bill wouldn’t say anything. Until one day when Mary was once again staring out her window, she emphatically stated, “Bill, our neighbor’s laundry is nice, fresh and clean today. She finally knows how to wash her clothes and sheets! I wonder how she learned to do that.” Bill actually replied this time saying, “Honey, I might have an answer for you.”
“Really,” exclaimed Mary.
“Yes,” said Bill. “You see, early this morning, before you were up, I went out and washed our windows, including the kitchen window. They were extremely dirty!” Oops!
I think Edward Wallace Hoch, a 17th century politician and the then-Governor of Kansas has a good response to that: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly becomes any of us to talk about the rest of us.” Yes, indeed, as the story ends the last slide stated: We would be wise to focus on our own laundry (and that takes our whole lives) before we worry about someone else’s.
The second illustrative story is from a short, poignant video. A very lily white, extremely blond, beautiful young woman is sitting on a park bench surrounded by trees and directly behind a path through the woods. With drawing pad and charcoal pencil and quite intent on her work, she is creating a lovely drawing of an elegant woman. Soon a young, nice-looking black man comes up to the bench and gently lays his backpack on the other end of the bench. He takes out his Ipod, puts in earphones and jogs down the path. The young woman doesn’t look up and keeps on drawing.
Soon the young man runs back and takes out a bottle of water from his backpack and drinks deeply of it. He takes his earphones out of his ears and leans over, still a couple feet from the woman, and states, “That is a really pretty drawing.” The young woman still doesn’t even acknowledge him. He huffs a little and looks away and then leans over again and says, “Hey, I said that I think you’re a good artist!” Again, the woman keeps drawing and doesn’t say a word.”
The young man is greatly perturbed and slams down his water on the bench, and it is then that she looks at him, and with a great deal of aggravation states, “Why do girls always think a guy is hitting on them! I just wanted to compliment you on your drawing.” He stabs in his earphones another time and jogs down the path again. The young woman, looking bewildered, finishes her drawing of the elegant woman and tears it out of the drawing pad. She writes a note on it and places it under the young man’s backpack and walks away. A little while later, he jogs back and sees the picture sticking out from under his backpack and pulls it out. Startled, he sees the finished picture of the elegant woman with an X on her blank face. He then reads the added note that states, “I’m very sorry to have offended you. I am deaf. Elizabeth.” The young man gets a sheepish look on his face and searches for Elizabeth but she is nowhere to found. He cannot tell her that he was too quick to judge. With a sad look on his face, he carefully folds the picture Elizabeth gave him and puts it in his backpack as a reminder of his erroneous judgment of the young, beautiful, deaf woman. Now you may have perceived this, at least at first, to be a story about race. But you would be incorrect. In the end, race had nothing to do with it for it was about a person with a disability and, importantly for us this morning, about judging another so very wrongly.
The parables I am about to deliberate on are called “kingdom” parables, what Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven even though they are speaking of what the other gospel accounts call the kingdom of God. They are about God’s Realm on earth now even though it is certainly far from complete. When we chose God, we chose to live in God’s kingdom—I will call Realm to be inclusive—and are to live as our gracious Lord would have us live. The following parables inform some of how we are to live in that fashion.
The parable of The Wheat and The Tares, meaning weeds, is similar to the Sower and Seed. There is seed and there is a Sower very similarly. There are also servants of the Sower who want to pull the weeds before the harvest and the tender wheat is ready. It is a story that Jesus uses to teach his listeners, and we readers, not to judge others. Jesus is very clear in his parable that any attempt at harvesting the bad weeds before the right time, will likely damage the good wheat. The servants need to wait for the wheat to grow to fruition and cut both the wheat and weeds together. The servants are not to separate the two; that job is up to the Sower. Even though you may think that the wheat is believers and the weeds are non-believers, similar to The Sower and the Seed, many commentators think that both the weeds and the wheat refer to believers. Some believers are weak and grow little in their faith or even fall away and some are stronger growing in their faith and bear much better fruit, improved service in God’s world as Christ’s hand and feet present today.
Similar to this story, judging others, sometimes whole groups of others, has played out far too often in our churches and denominations in our present day. We can look at both the history of this church and other churches and of actions of our denomination and see that there has been an attempt to pluck out perceived weeds. These are people viewed as having the wrong interpretation or opinion on a particular issue or scripture reading or liturgical practice or lifestyle or, even, the supposed wrong color of skin. Those viewing such matters in this manner are the “in” people who envision themselves as the only true believers. There are those “in” people who judge the so-called “out” people or nonbelievers, too. Jesus is very clear on this matter- we simply don’t really know who is “in” and who is “out.” Rather than make terribly judgmental mistakes, like the people in our two YouTube stories, we are to defer judgment to God. Therefore, we believers aren’t to pull out the perceived weeds, also believers, with the wheat at the end of time. God will do what God wills with the weeds.
The second, shorter Realm of God parable is this: “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.” We don’t know why the man was in the field; perhaps he was merely passing by or looking over the property to buy it. At any rate, he finds an incredible treasure in the field. Maybe it is something that was very priceless in Jesus’ time, such as pearls. Or maybe it is gold or silver, very biblical metals. The man could have covered it up and gone on his way but he has the amazing treasure and he receives it with delight. In fact, he even goes and sells everything he owns such as his home, sheep, goats, pastureland and jewels to buy the land and own the treasure. So joyful is he at this discovery that he gladly gives up his worldly possessions to focus on the treasure. Perhaps you have figured out that the meaning of the treasure is the Realm of God.
The third parable Jesus proclaims is this: “… 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. Real, oyster-created pearls are as precious today as they were in Jesus’ day. I gratefully possess my Nana’s pearls and they are precious to me because they are hers, they are authentic, and they are beautiful. The person in the parable sees God’s Realm, the priceless pearl, as special, authentic and beautiful. Again, like our second parable, he gives up everything to keep this pearl. Now the pearl and the treasure as the new life we find when we embrace God’s Realm on earth is much more than that which will take us to heaven after we die. These treasures mean knowing God, our heavenly Parent, Ruler of all, imitating Jesus Christ in all we say and do, and even think- yikes! We have been taught by Jesus himself that judging others is not our task as faithful followers.
These parables aren’t instructing us to sell all we own to follow Jesus; that would completely miss the point and be irresponsible in are present society. Instead, the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds teaches us not to judge others. The other two parables state that our worldly possessions, ideas and opinions are not nearly as important as God’s will and way in our life. Our priority, as believers, is to start with God’s will and way, not pick that priority up somewhere in the middle or end of our priorities’ list. This takes reflection, prayer, hearing the Word read and preached, and study to understand what it means to say that our loving Lord is our first priority. God and imitating Jesus in our lives is to be first on our list. As our faith evolves to come first in our lives, that will lead to difficult decisions that may be unpopular with our family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. As I have said in sermons before, this is not a particularly popular notion in our present post-contemporary society, even among Christians. I encourage you to reflect on and pray about how that top priority translates into your life.
Finally, an important reason the pearl is beyond price is because God’s forgiving, loving, compassionate, merciful, and often kind nature forgives us and leads us to live that very same way, even when it hurts us to do so. We are greatly loved and therefore we greatly love too, as we then live in God’s mighty Realm as a faithful people in the here and now. Alleluia! Amen.