Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 30, 2017

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 Commentary

In our seminary preaching classes, we familiarize our students with Paul Scott Wilson’s little mnemonic device to ensure sermon unity: The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine or TTDINM in which each of those letters is preceded by the word “One” as in “One Text,” “One Theme,” and so on with the “I” being “One Image.”    When preaching, we tell our students, select a single, central image and let that work its way all through the sermon for the sake of clarity.  One good image in a sermon is much better than 4 or 5 competing and disparate images.

But in the latter portion of Matthew 13, Jesus is on something of a simile binge.  The kingdom is . . . a mustard seed . . . a bit of yeast in dough . . . a hidden treasure . . . a pearl of great value . . . a net catching fish.    Jesus here slides easily from the agricultural to the culinary to the marketplace and to the fishing trade.  It all seems jumbled together at first blush.   One of my students wouldn’t get away with this in a sermon!  (Thankfully, I have never been asked to grade our Lord!)

But even though Jesus is throwing out these various images at a fast and furious pace, he’s also teaching one of the most remarkable truths that emerges from the gospel: namely, the unexpected hiddenness of the kingdom of God.

Jesus always made clear that the kingdom of God was going to save and rescue this world precisely by virtue of its being so very different from the powerful, flashy, showy political kingdoms that otherwise capture our attention. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, looks small, even tiny. It looks foolish. In fact, the kingdom can even disappear completely the way a seed gets buried in the soil.  It takes 750 mustard seeds to equal one gram. Drop one of those little wisps into the dirt and you won’t even be able to see it or even find it back if you try. The same is true of yeast in dough: once it’s mixed into the water, flour, and oil, the yeast disappears—you could not separate it back out again (much less locate it) if you tried. Yet these tiny things have great effects.

So also with the kingdom: it’s not what you expect in terms of political clout. The kingdom of God is not about gleaming capital cities studded with marble colonnades and soaring executive mansions. It’s not about some fierce army plowing under the opposition by sheer dint of its power. Compared to all of that, God’s kingdom looks as insignificant as a grain of mustard or a packet of dry yeast. But the kingdom can change hearts. It can change the world. It has changed the world.

The kingdom is here but it’s modest. It’s hidden. It’s quiet. In fact, those who discover the kingdom sometimes tend to stumble upon it almost by accident. The kingdom is a great treasure, but you’re not going to find this valuable commodity posted on the big board on Wall Street. No, you’re going to stumble on it in some remote field. The person who owns the field won’t even know it’s there, but once you find it, your joy will be so massive that you’ll do whatever it takes to buy that field.

All of this is profoundly surprising. We are so accustomed to these images in Jesus’ parables that they typically don’t strike us as absurd or paradoxical.

But they are.

Think of it: the kingdom is a seed scarcely visible to the naked eye and that disappears completely in dirt. The kingdom is yeast which a woman kneads into dough. In Jesus’ day so-called “woman’s work” was disdained such that Jesus was being quite provocative by making a woman the parabolic agent of working the kingdom into this world.

And has it ever struck you that the man who finds the treasure in the field is a little devious? Jesus says that this man finds some treasure in a field that does not belong to him. He then covers up this treasure again so the owner won’t know it’s there and then, without saying a word, he buys this field from the unsuspecting owner. It’s a little sneaky! Suppose you were at a garage sale looking over some old purses. But then suppose you discovered that inside one of those old purses was a wad of $100 bills. Wouldn’t you feel a little shady if you silently purchased it for $3 without telling the owner that she had missed a wee little something when cleaning out the purse before the garage sale?!

Tiny seeds, invisible yeast, woman’s work, a slightly underhanded purchase: had it been left up to us, this is not how we would have described the single most powerful, meaningful, and joyful reality in the universe! But it is how Jesus described it. This is the kingdom Jesus bequeathed to us. It is the kingdom he asked us to pray for and the kingdom in which we asked us to live out the will of God on earth every day.

But this also means that if we take our cues from Matthew 13, then it is clear that both our kingdom living and our kingdom proclamation will be more about quiet acts of loving faithfulness than about headline-grabbing, bullhorn tactics. We cannot present the gospel of a suffering servant like Jesus by being arrogant finger-waggers. We cannot give the world the good news of grace if we mostly position ourselves as stern bearers of bad news and judgment. The kingdom of God represents the most powerful force the world has ever known. But we’ve got to let the kingdom grow and leaven in its own quiet, humble ways if people’s hearts are really going to be changed.

In fact, as commentator Dale Bruner points out, it is curious to notice that in the parables of the treasure and pearl, it is only after the people run across these valuables that they become changed people who sell all they have. That may be one of the Bible’s many hints, Bruner claims, that we cannot force people into the kingdom by first requiring them to follow a prescribed list of good deeds. Once you find the gospel, you have all the joy you need to motivate you to live a changed life. Until then, however, you won’t find much motivation to follow the will of God on earth nor will the church’s acting as the world’s morality police bully people into the kingdom.

And so as bearers of God’s kingdom, we keep plugging away at activities which may look silly or meaningless to the world but that we believe contain the very seed of a new creation. We keep coming to church and singing our old hymns, reciting our old formulas and creeds.  All of us who preach keep cracking open an ancient book called the Bible, looking to find within it truths that are anything-but ancient. We keep gathering at sick beds and death beds and whisper our prayers for the Spirit of the resurrection to be with us in life and in death. We keep drizzling water onto squirming infants and popping cubes of white bread into our mouths in the earnest faith that through the Spirit baptism and communion don’t just mean something, they mean everything.

And we keep working for Jesus in this mixed-up, backward world of ours. We quietly carry out our jobs and raise our kids and tend our marriages in the belief that God has designs for all those things and it’s our job to follow them. We keep pointing people to an old rugged cross, having the boldness to suggest that the man who died on that cross is now the Lord of the galaxies.

But we cannot close out our look at Matthew 13 without noticing that after piling up one fiercely quiet and subtle image after the next, Jesus concludes with an image where subtlety goes out the window.  There will come a time of reckoning at the end of all things, Jesus says.  There will come a time when the “bad fish” will get tossed into a fate that is more than definitely on the grim side.   So in the long run, despite all Jesus had to say about the hiddenness of the kingdom in the here and now, the day will come when the kingdom will be all in all and each person will either be in that kingdom or outside of it.   We witness to the kingdom in ways consistent with the kingdom, which means lovingly and humbly and compassionately.  But witness we must.  The stakes are too high to stay quiet.

“Have you understood all these things” Jesus asked.  Hilariously the disciples reply with a simple “Yes,” which you just know was not completely true!   And to compound whatever fogginess they may had anyway, Jesus then says that if you do understand all this, you’ll be like a homeowner who brings out “new treasures as well as old.”   What that means is still a bit of a mystery even 2,000 years later!

“Have you understood all these things?”   Sure.  Yup.  Got it.

Well, probably not.   But even yet today we need to understand these things well enough to sense the glory of the kingdom’s hidden nature and yet the absolute urgency of our pointing people to that kingdom every chance we get.

Textual Notes

Frederick Dale Bruner in his Matthew commentary (Volume Two “The Churchbook”) believes that the “new and old” image in verse 52 refers to the new teachings of Jesus in the gospel and the “old” teachings from the Hebrew Scriptures and all that led up to the proclamation of the gospel in Christ.  In a way, this reflects back on this string of parabolic images right in Matthew 13.  For those who had come to believe, based on the Old Testament, that a kingdom was always and only some shining political reality ruled over by people like David or Solomon, the notion of a hidden kingdom is very new indeed.  But Bruner notes—in a comment perfect for all of us who preach—that the “new” things are also the endlessly fresh and new applications of the gospel that have come and continue to come all through the ages.   In this sense, those of us who preach and who are led by the Spirit to constantly fresh applications of what we now call “the old, old story” are instruments of God to bring out the new things that confirm in every age all that is from of old.

Illustration Idea

A kingdom, Dallas Willard wrote in The Divine Conspiracy, is a place where one person’s influence determines what happens. In the case of the kingdom of God, the kingdom is not for now a geographic spot on a map but rather the kingdom of God is present any place and every place where the influence of Jesus’ living presence determines the shape of life. Wherever and whenever Jesus’ wisdom, Jesus’ wit, Jesus savvy, Jesus’ words, and Jesus’ love mold the words, actions, thoughts, and life patterns of some person or group of persons, then there is where God’s kingdom is manifest.

We’ve got to show the world how real the kingdom is by how we conduct ourselves. And the first, best way we can do that is to live as Jesus lived. Of course, Jesus did not reach everybody, and we surely won’t either, therefore. To some Jesus appeared misguided, so will we appear to at least some. To others Jesus seemed quintessentially ineffective (what with all those quirky and confusing parables and that rag-tag group of loser fishermen and women of questionable repute who followed him around). So also we may never come close to generating a fraction of the kind of the head-turning excitement that tingles people’s spines every time George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence walks into a Los Angeles restaurant for dinner.

But we live the quiet, faithful, humble, service-oriented life of Jesus because it’s all we have to go on!


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