SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
27th July 2008
Mt 13.31-33, 44-52
If we were to be serious and literalist about the scriptures of our faith we are faced with a problem in this passage from Matthew. We don’t need to be botanists to know that Jesus appears to have got a few things seriously wrong here.
First, the mustard seed is far from ‘the smallest of all seeds’, even if we disallow pores from the equation. Secondly, the mustard bush usually grows to a metre or two, very occasionally to three or more, and in no circumstances could be considered ‘greatest of plants and a tree’. And thirdly, mustard is an annual herb, growing and dying each year, (90% of it is grown in Saskatchewan, incidentally!), and therefore of far less use to birds than many middle eastern plants.
A literary critic named Frank Kermode once suggested, rightly I believe, that is anything in a text, including the scriptures, strikes us as odd, then we should have a closer look. Consider the mustard seed! What is it doing for us here? Was Jesus simply wrong – and if so, wouldn’t it have been easier for Matthew to have left this error out of his story? Why is it here? Perhaps one clue is that traditionally ‘trees’ were a familiar symbol of empires: The vast, majestic imperial tree of Rome was being threatened by something seemingly flimsy and ephemeral, and it would be, ultimately, the mustard seed beginnings of the Christ-community that would lead history, including us, into the futures of God.
So we probably don’t need to be rocket scientists to see that the contrast Jesus is drawing is between powerless, small beginnings – indeed the powerlessness of a crucified, convicted criminal on a Roman cross – on the one hand and the majestic redeeming love and creative power of God on the other. The tiny mustard seed beginnings are as politically illustrious as a radish in the garden, but the victory of God, both provisionally in the events of Easter and eternally in the coming of God’s Empire, will happen.
Strangely, the next mini-parable, too, is full of hidden surprises. We wouldn’t notice it (without the aid of scholars), but yeast was almost unknown as a symbol of something positive. Again Kermode would warn us: is something strange happening here? And why is the woman kneading ‘three satas’, in the Greek, a massive amount of dough, sufficient to provide bread for 100-150 people? Clearly whatever small thing happened as a result of the presence of the yeast, it was intended to have considerable impact, far more than one lowly woman or indeed one lowly mustard seed would normally expect. Out of the powerlessness of the woman or the powerlessness of the seed normal expectations and structures were to be overthrown: perhaps, as Matthew was writing, his community was fluctuating between 100-150 members, leavened by the yeast of Matthew’s gospel-telling.
It is interesting, too, that the verb used by Matthew to describe the woman’s placement of the yeast in the dough, hidden in our translation, is just that: ‘to hide’. It is not a normal word to describe a baker’s action: mum may once upon a time have hidden threepenny or ten cent pieces in the Christmas pudding, but ‘hide’ is not normally a word we use of adding yeast to flour. Kermode again: is something strange here? Are we indeed hidden as it were, in the world, and is creation, the world around us, as Paul puts it, waiting ‘with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’? They are strange hints that we are indeed being called to be yeast in a world, and that we are called to be that miracle that can transform, when empowered by God’s Spirit, lives and communities around us. Firs, though, we must be mustard seeds, or yeast.
And the remaining parables give us a hint how that may be. For, although they are very different, the remaining mini-parables are about prioritising. Be it an unexpected pearl, or a pearly deliberately and systematically hidden, the response is the same: make this our single highest priority. Do that, Matthew is suggesting, and Jesus is suggesting, and we will be mustard seed, infectious, influential proclaimers of the Empire of God.
The parable of the net, product of a church under persecution, with the sinister threat of damnation and destruction of the opponents of God is not ultimately a parable for the western world. By that I don’t mean we can ignore it. I mean that it needs to be read through eyes of powerlessness, when all the persecuted community has left is the hope that its enemies will receive the wrath of God. In a western world we would be better employed in intercession, praying that our neighbours receive the mercy of God. The Church is not to proclaim itself as the net: our task is to be the re-prioritised and urgently loving people of God.