Proper 12A 2005 Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a
We have spent the last two Sundays with the 13th chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. It marks the point at which Jesus’
use of parables for teaching has become fully developed. It begins with the parable of the seed and the sower and moves through
the wheat and the tares. And concludes today with those cryptic parables about the kingdom of heaven: the mustard seed,
the yeast and the bread, the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, and the fish of every kind.
I use the English word “cryptic” to describe these parables. Cryptic means in English having a hidden or ambiguous
meaning, something that is a characteristic of parables: mysterious and hidden. So it is with these parables for today.
In fact two of these parables use the Greek verb “kroopto”, meaning to hide or conceal, from which our word cryptic
is ultimately derived.
The parables in this section of Matthew also constitute what is called a catena, from the Latin for chain. Catenae are chains
of multiple images interconnected to, or associated with, each other in some fashion or another. The association or interconnection
in this part of Saint Matthew’s gospel is the kingdom of heaven and what the kingdom of heaven is like. A catena of
metaphors is strung together to make a cumulative point about something unfamiliar – the kingdom of heaven – by
this chain of familiar images. Each succeeding image corrects the oversimplifications of the ones before – for no one
image is sufficient to explain something so complex and vast as the kingdom of heaven.
In the early rabbinical literature, the writing of a catena was called “stringing pearls. In a necklace, each pearl
is unique. But when they’re strung together they become a necklace even more beautiful than the individual pearls themselves.
Catenae are like the kaleidoscope that still can fascinate children both young and old. In a kaleidoscope, the same pieces
are used over and over again, but even the slightest change in the position of the pieces relative to each other will create
a new pattern which in turn provides the observer with a new moment of perception.
So it is with the catena in today’s gospel. The chain or string of parables moves in rapid succession through the metaphors
of a mustard seed, yeast in the dough, treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great value, and the catch in a fishing net.
Our listening and perceptions are intensified as the images pile rapidly on top of each other.
In each parable we are not told the kingdom of heaven IS something or the other. Rather we are told that the kingdom is
LIKE something or the other. The rapidly cascading chain of parables suggests several conclusions to us.
One is that the kingdom of heaven has to do with the most ordinary of daily activities. In ancient Palestine fishing and
bread baking and farming and buying and selling were daily activities except on the Sabbath – for those who observed
the Sabbath anyway. Brother Lawrence understood this very well when he said that everything he did he did for the glory of
God – whether washing dishes in the monastery scullery or traveling across France to buy wine for the monks.
Another conclusion we can draw is that certain aspects of the kingdom seem as obvious as the growing mustard tree and the
rising bread and the pearl of great price and the fish in the net. But are they?
And sometimes the kingdom seems to behave according to some natural law: seeds growing, bread rising, fish swimming. At
other times human industry seems to be involved: kneading and baking the bread, planting the seed, digging up the hidden
buried treasure, sacrificing everything for the pearl of great price, casting nets into the waters. The kingdom seems to
behave that way – but does it?
The most striking thing about all of the parables is their essential hiddeness – their crypticness. The mustard seed
is hidden in the ground, the yeast is hidden in the rising dough, the treasure is hidden in the field, the pearl hidden among
all the other pearls, the net and fish hidden in the depths of the sea.
If the kingdom is like these, then the kingdom is something not readily apparent to our eyes, even though it may be all around
us and very near to us – even within us. The kingdom is something that must be searched for, something just below the
surface of things, something just waiting there to be discovered and claimed, something we must train our eyes and hearts
and minds and souls to see. In short, we must look for it if we are to see it.
Concepts and information like this have always attracted our imaginations. It’s the stuff legends and great stories
are made of: the treasure sewn into the old mattress at the dump, the secret formula found on an old envelope, the long lost
masterpiece suddenly discovered collecting dust in the attic, suddenly found and claimed and enjoyed amidst much celebration.
That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus tells us. Whether it begins as a seed hidden in the ground or a treasure
hidden in a field, the kingdom comes when it is no longer buried and hidden, but revealed, when the tree is full grown, when
the treasure chest is opened, when what was lost was found, when the fish are caught, and what was secret is known and what
was hidden away is finally seen for what it really is and brought forth for everyone to see.
But where do we start looking for the hidden kingdom of heaven? This business of catenae and metaphor and image is fine,
all of these parables about seed and yeast and treasure and pearls and nets and fish are interesting and intriguing, but where
do we look?
Do we look in holy places like monasteries and cathedrals and ancient churches? Do we look in the slums of Calcutta, where
the sisters of Mother Theresa labor, bathing the sick and the dying? Do we look in the Holy Land or at Canterbury?
Of course, it may not matter where we are – what is necessary is to look for the extraordinary wherever we are. Because
if the kingdom of heaven is hidden in this world, it is hidden really well.
Unless, of course, God has played the oldest trick in the book and hidden the kingdom in plain sight, in the last place any
of us would think to look – in the ordinary things and events and circumstances of our daily lives: a diamond pull
on a glass lamp, Mikimoto pearl necklaces in with the costume ones, the extraordinary hidden among the ordinary, the kingdom
of heaven all mixed in with the routine and ho hum and humdrum of our days, as easy to find as the amaryllis bulb in the dark
basement that suddenly sends forth a shoot, or the waking smile of a child or grand child or great grand child, or the first
good rain after a long drought, or the coolness of morning or evening in hot summer – all signs of the kingdom of heaven,
all clues to the holiness hidden in the dullest of our days.
Jesus knew it all along. That’s why he talked about heaven in terms of farmers and fields and women baking bread and
merchants buying and selling and fisherman hauling in fish in nets – to tell us somehow that the kingdom of heaven has
to do with all these things, not exotic things in exotic places but right here right now in all the ordinary people and places
and activities of our lives.
This catena of cryptic parables surprises us with both its mystery and its simplicity. It cautions us to pay attention.
Whatever else we may learn from this chain of stories, we learn to pay great attention for, indeed, the kingdom may already
be among us and we will miss it if we don’t look deeply at what is around us. That’s why we had to be told that
it is “like” things we have become used to in our every day lives. If we want to describe something that is vast
beyond all words, we must begin with words we know: man, woman, field, seed, yeast, bird, air, bread; words such as pearl,
net, sea, fish, joy.
The kingdom is like these things, the kingdom is found in these things, the kingdom is all around. These are the places
to begin looking for the kingdom of heaven, for this is where the God who loves us sowed the seeds. And if we stop and look
and listen, we can see the seeds of the kingdom growing slowly and quietly everywhere we turn on earth.
If we cannot find them here we will never find them anywhere else, for earth is where the seeds of heaven are sown.