Parables

Sermon at St James Colwall, Trinity 7

1 Kings 3: 5-12; Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

He put another parable before them: The kingdom of heaven is like Japanese Knotweed, a pretty plant which an intrepid plant collector brought to this country to decorate his beautiful garden.  Now you can enjoy it on the banks of every pretty much waterway in this land of ours.

And not just this land - earlier this year we were cycling by the river in Bayonne and for mile after mile the riverbank was overrun by Japanese knotweed to the extent that it was impossible to find anywhere to stop and sit by the water.  I’m sure you know this variety of knotweed is one of a number of alien plants with no natural predators here, which can cause serious problems and are had to eradicate.

Hang on, what am I playing at, distorting a couple of nice comfortable parables about how tiny little things like seeds and yeast can deliver so much more than you expect, like trees and well risen bread - what better illustration of how a little faith can go a long way?  Japanese knotweed indeed!

Well, take it that way if you wish.  And for sure, a little faith can go a long way.  Except that... there’s good reason to believe that Jesus’ hearers were not nearly as relaxed about mustard seed and yeast as we are today.  Sowing this mustard seed was something of an act of desperation - it was an invasive plant with limited nutritional value and the potential to take over the whole field if you weren’t careful.

Similarly, yeast was a contaminant and often represents the pernicious nature of sin when mentioned in the Bible. It certainly wasn’t an unqualified good thing. It didn’t come dried in handy little tins like you can get in the Co-op or wherever you shop, it was a wild thing that wasn’t always welcome, a difficult thing, which oozes and bubbles and collapses, and is hard to handle when you need to be ready to follow the animals quickly.  It’s a kind of contamination of the flour that otherwise is easily handled and cooked.

That’s what Jesus’ audience would have heard - they’d have heard him speaking of a kingdom that is invasive, unstoppable, a nuisance, urgent, shocking, and abundant.  Disruptive, even.

So what do we hear if we take the parables this way, what do they do for us?  Perhaps we hear them on an individual level as a kind of evangelical warning: be careful as you hear this gospel, it might get to you in ways you’re not bargaining for, you may find yourself living it, sharing it, standing up for it - it may take over your life as you realise it is the precious thing you’ve been seeking all along.

But for me it also works on a cultural, dare I say political level.  For it’s clear enough isn’t it, that Jesus’ main concerns were for the poor and the oppressed rather than those who already had the wealth, power and wherewithal to order society as it suited them. 

He was speaking to people who had very little, and were as a result considered of little worth or importance. Put yourself in their position and the idea, of being part of a movement with the power to be of consequence, to disrupt and affect things for the good, is suddenly quite attractive, even if it does mean being compared to a weed. For those of us who enjoy tending our gardens, it seems odd to be thinking of God’s kingdom as pervasive like a weed that takes over everything, but that’s what we’re being invited to consider - what use the well manicured walled gardens and temples of the rich and wealthy? How can God’s kingdom flourish if so constrained?

Which brings me to something that’s been baffling me all week.  What on earth has the OT reading got to do with this?  Don’t get me wrong - I find Solomon quite fascinating but he’s almost the antithesis of what these parables seems to be about.  At the start of his reign he scuppered a rival bid from a credible candidate for kingship, he went on to acquire great wealth and built a magnificent temple based on a questionable trade deal with a neighbouring country, he took squillions of wives and concubines and still managed to retain a reputation for wisdom way beyond that of normal folk.  I have to say that I have long wondered about the wisdom of settling a maternity dispute by threatening to cut the baby in half, but you’ll have to come to your own conclusions about that by reading 1 Kings chapter 4.

OK, so that might be a slightly unsympathetic summary of Solomon’s achievements but there’s no doubt that his was a kingdom of dominance, might, majesty, opulence, all those things.

Jesus’ parables are clear that the kingdom of heaven is different from this; it’s pervasive rather than dominant, and it can’t be subdued and controlled and run for our own benefit and will continue to surprise us.  As does Jesus a few verses on from the mustard seed and yeast:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; so the kingdom of heaven it would seem, is for all, including the rich and powerful and influential.  Even the Solomons of this world.  As the bible tells it, Solomon was doing OK until he started to think that God’s rules didn’t apply to him.  There’s the challenge for all of us I guess - how to avoid thinking we’ve got it sorted; how to let the kingdom of God go on surprising us and taking us to places we aren’t expecting; how to keep seeking the treasure, the pearl of great price.

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. That’s another strange one isn’t it? What does this person do next? Does he just sit there self-satisfied in the knowledge that he knows something about the grass no one else knows?  That’s no model for faith.  Surely he shares it that others may see it. Surely that is what is expected of us.

May we  all know more of what the kingdom of God is like.