Optical illusions are interesting in that once you see a picture one way it can be difficult to see it any other way. You know Jesus spent a lot of time trying to help people see life differently. Sometimes we get so used to looking at life one way or understanding spiritual things or God one way that it is very difficult to see it any another way. One of the methods Jesus used to teach us to see life or even God differently was through his parables. The last two weeks we have looked at parables from chapter 13 of Matthew. Our Lord continues with the parables to the crowds and to his disciples in the gospel reading this week. There are two primary themes that he shows to the disciples I would like us to consider.
The first theme is illustrated by the first two parables, the parable of the mustard seed and then the parable of the yeast and flour. The theme is simple, the kingdom of heaven is going to start small but it is going to grow! It is going to seem inconsequential at first, but as time goes on the kingdom will have an incredible impact on what is around. This is important for the disciples to realize up front because they have been expecting the kingdom to start big. They are expecting a big impact right off the start. They are expecting the Messiah to start up an army and defeat the Romans and set up a new and powerful Jewish nation. But Jesus is telling them, “No, the kingdom is going to start very, very small, mustard seed small. It will look inconsequential. But like the mustard seed it will grow into a tree. What is interesting about the mustard tree is that it grows large enough for birds to make nests in it but also it is rather like a weed in that it reproduces itself so quickly that they can easily take over an area. Those little seeds just fly everywhere and reproduce. And that’s the point right? The kingdom starts very small, so small that the mustard see can lodge under one’s fingernail and yet it grows and spreads all over.
The next example is that of a woman mixing in leaven or yeast into a large batch of flour. The amount of flour is the most surprising element of the parable, which is not very evident in our English translations. “Three measures” is the usual translation for the original Greek which in real life is a little over a bushel of flour. That’s a ridiculously large amount of flour—you’d need a 100-quart Hobart mixer with a dough hook as big as your leg to knead it! Translating into today’s kitchen measures, 1.125 bushels is 144 cups of flour. Presuming we used a common recipe for bread that uses 5 ½ cups of flour, 144 cups is enough to make 26 batches of bread of two loaves each, giving us a total of 52 loaves, each weighing about a pound and a half. If we’re frugal but not stingy, we can get 16 slices out of a loaf, yielding 832 slices, enough for 416 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! In other words the kingdom of God doesn’t think in small terms. Jesus is talking about enough bread to feed a small village by this one woman. The little bit of yeast that moves in and through the flour is what will change and affect all that is around it; it will have enormous impact way beyond its small beginning.
So with these two parables we see the apparently small and seemingly insignificant can make a huge impact for the kingdom of heaven. And he is talking about us, isn’t he? We may feel as though our lives and what we do are insignificant but God can use them to make a huge impact for his kingdom.
The next two parables are linked together as well. In the first story we see the fellow who accidently finds a treasure in a field. This was not an unheard of situation in Palestine. In a day when there were no banks and when there were invasions of foreign armies it was not uncommon for a wealthy person to go and hide his treasures in the ground so that after the invaders have gone away he can go dig it up. But if this wealthy person is killed or captured during the invasion the treasure lies there forgotten and unknown until it is found again by accident as what happens in this story. When the treasure is found, this fellow scrapes together all his money, selling whatever he has in order to come up with the price of the field because he knows that even though he loses everything he has now it will be worth it when he gets the field with its treasure.
In the second story we see a fellow who knows pearls and knows what he is looking for and when he finds this wonderful pearl he also sells all he has in order to own it. He sells all he has because he knows the value of what he has found. In the first case the fellow finds the treasure by accident, in the second case, the person has been searching for this treasure but in both cases the value of the treasures are worth everything they have. In these stories, the kingdom of heaven, being reconciled to God and having a relationship with Him is the treasure that is worth everything. Some people stumble across the treasure of the gospel by accident and when they realize what it is they give their entire lives to following Jesus. Others are actively looking for something. They are looking for truth, looking for hope, or looking for meaning for their lives and then they hear the gospel; they hear that Christ came down to earth in human form to save them and help them be reconciled to God. When they realize this, they are overwhelmed with the understanding of how much God loves them. And they give up everything to follow Christ. We are reminded of two examples in the Scriptures concerning this. We have Paul the Apostle who found the Kingdom by accident. He was literally knocked off his horse. Later in life Paul said, “Whatever gains I had in my former life, I have come to regard those gains as worthless in comparison to Christ. More than that, I regard everything else in my old life as worthless because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul was a man who once he found the treasure gave up everything in order to have it. And the disciples were like the pearl merchant who had been looking and waiting for the Kingdom and when they found Jesus they gave up everything to follow him.
There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who asked one of the old men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city. The old monk answered him with a story, “Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined in the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit but the chase went on into the night.
After a while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt. “Do you understand,” the old man said, “what I have told you?”
“No,” replied the young monk, “please tell me father.”
“It is simple,” said the desert father, “my dog actually saw the rabbit.”
This question remains then for us, do we see it? Do we see the value of the Kingdom like man understood the value of the treasure in the field? Do we understand its great worth like the pearl merchant understood the value of the wonderful pearl? Because if we do see it, if we grasp its value; then our lives will be transformed. And God will use us to have an amazing impact on the world around us like the mustard seed and the leaven in the flour. Let us pray that God will help us to have the eyes to see and the minds to understand the surpassing value of the kingdom of God. Amen