((Gen. 29:15-28), Rom. 8:26-39, Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52)
It is perhaps not obvious if one has just heard the Gospel for today in church, but if one actually looks at the readings as set down in the lectionary, we have just had a selection of parables from the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, rather than a consecutive reading from it. We have missed out the verses in which Jesus provides his explanation to the disciples about his earlier parable of the weeds among the wheat, which was set as part of last Sunday’s Gospel. It does of course make sense that the explanation should go with the parable, and it means that I’m spared having to preach quite so much about the Son of Man sending angels to collect sinners and throw them into the fiery furnace of hell where there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Something that has perhaps never come easily to certain parts of the Church of England. But it does mean that I have been left with a curious and seemingly random selection of parables about the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven.
We have the two parables comparing the Kingdom to seemingly insignificant things like mustard seeds and yeast. Seemingly insignificant things that can actually turn out to have far more significance than we may think, as these seeds can grow up to be ‘the greatest of shrubs’ and provide a home for the birds of the air, or they can help turn unappetising flour into appealing bread that can provide people with sustenance. Or we have the equally odd comparisons of the Kingdom to that treasure hidden in a field – a treasure you seemingly don’t bother to tell the landowner about, but you invest all you have in buying the field from him, presumably because this treasure is of far greater value than the field itself. Or slightly more ethically the Kingdom is compared to a pearl of great price, which a merchant at least more openly buys with all the money he has been able to raise. And then of course we have a brief reappearance from the angels when they again sort out the bad from the good fish, and consign the evil to the furnace of fire.
So we are left with the sense that the Kingdom we seek is something that should be of overwhelming importance for us, but whose significance like mustard seeds and yeast can easily be overlooked unless you know what you are looking at. A significance that can seemingly last for all eternity, if we do not realise what it means about our relationship with God. And then of course today’s Gospel ends with an even curiouser analogy. An analogy Jesus makes after he has asked the disciples whether they have understood what he is saying, and we have that seemingly definite Yes from them, which probably hid a similar sort of confusion to what we may feel today. This is the analogy of the scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom, and who is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.
Whether this is actually long enough to be a parable, I’m not sure, and whether it is best to think of it as analogy or parable almost certainly doesn’t matter, but it does seem through the centuries to have caused commentators some bewilderment. What does Jesus mean by things old and new, by scribe, by householder? Our reading today just ends and we are told he left that place. A common trope in interpretation has been to see the scribe, the one who interprets the Law, as those in ministry, as those who serve the people of God. After all they are householders, in charge of the household of God, they are the ones who oversee the family of God and its resources. So in this way, the treasure referred to is either seen as our Lord himself, as he is the great treasury and storehouse of grace and truth, and the preacher can then point out that the word translated as treasure in the NRSV actually means something more like a storehouse, where one’s valuables are kept.
Or the treasure can be seen as the Word of God, the Scriptures, so the treasure is that of the Gospel message which is doled out by the householder into the earthen vessels of the congregation. If the preacher is feeling lazy, he or she can say the old and new simply refers to the Law of the Old Testament and the Gospel of love in the New Testament. Or if they are being slightly more subtle, they can point out that the newness of the Gospel, its heart, was actually ordained long before the world began. We have truths that are old in themselves, truths as eternal as God, but which are new to us, and which need to be made new in every generation in which the Gospel is proclaimed. Similar in fact to what Abbot Robert of Ampleforth said to the community during its retreat. That we have two texts to inform our lives – the text of the Word of God, and the text of our lived experience, and our journey as Christians is how we try to remain true to both of those texts, and witness to God with them in our lives.
While I may not be fully convinced by this interpretation of the Kingdom-trained scribe who is like a householder doling out his resources, what our Lord meant must have some relation to all this. Somehow we must balance the old and new, somehow we must take the traditional understandings of God’s truth and reinvigorate them with the new insights and applications we can find for them in our own lives. After all, what Jesus does in the parables is to take the truths of the Kingdom of Heaven, and shine new light upon them so that his hearers had the chance to see and hear that he had come as the Saviour, as the Christ, the Anointed One of God – that he was the one who had been expected who would make all things new. He took the old truths of God and put them into new contexts, and similarly those of us who follow him are also called to find ways in which these truths can be made new and fresh and living, so that the Kingdom can grow in this world.
So it would seem that while we may struggle sometimes about the precise meaning of these parables or analogies, one thing should be clear. They are pointing us to the preciousness of the Kingdom – for Matthew, it is the Kingdom of Heaven, in other Gospels it is of course the Kingdom of God. And while many these days may not like the patriarchal sound of Kingdom, it is perhaps best not to get hung up on that, but recognise that by talking of this Kingdom ultimately we are talking about Christ. What he is and what he has done for us, not just his relevance for us here and now, but what his relevance will be at the end of time, because he is after all the Alpha and the Omega. It was perhaps with something like this in mind that the compliers of the lectionary included our reading today from Romans. Because it is here in this letter that Paul produces one of his greatest statements about the significance of Jesus of Nazareth for those who follow him.
The Kingdom is of such importance, it is such a treasure to be sought, it is such a pearl of great price, because it is through seeking the Kingdom, it is through seeking Christ that we found what is really important in this world and in the next. By giving all to find the Kingdom, we are enabled to see our world as it truly is and as it truly should be, despite all the pain, suffering, violence, and hatred that seems to distort it. In the Kingdom, in Christ, it is as Paul says we have been known – ‘for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born within a large family.’ In seeking Christ, in making the choice for him, we find out what it means to be truly human. That despite all the sin and suffering we see around us, and which mars our own lives, we have not just been justified in continuing our pilgrimage, but we have been glorified, in that we now have the assurance that human beings can be what God intended them to be.
We have the assurance that sin, evil and death, that all that seems to undermine and destroy meaning in our lives, will not have the last word. As Paul says, who will separate us from the love of Christ? If God was willing to give him up for us to the powers of death and destruction, will he not with him give us everything. In Christ Jesus, God revealed the one who died, who was raised and is now at his right hand. If we have sought him and his Kingdom, we have the assurance that ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Of course those of you with good memories may be thinking but what about those reaping angels and that weeping and gnashing of teeth. Well, to indulge in a bit of typical Anglican fudging, we can perhaps find comfort in the way that if the whole cosmos cannot separate us from the love of God, then we cannot confidently predict who that love may ultimately be denied to. Especially if we remember that some may have failed to find this love through our failures as Christians to live that love, that perhaps we should be more concerned about the times that we have failed to live up to the image of his Son, instead of concentrating on finding its absence in others. If God’s love through Christ on the cross can overcome hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword, then we cannot deny that love’s power to rebuild the divine image in all of us. While we may not be able to say this as confidently and comfortably as some do, we can nonetheless recognise that in the Kingdom we seek, in the Kingdom that Christ establishes now, and which will be fulfilled when God is all in all, we have the assurance that Love is permanent, Love is the ultimate truth. That despite what our world may seem like, pain, suffering, sin and death are temporary. After all as the Apostle Paul said, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’