Sometimes as human beings we have a perception problem. We often think we have the proper perspective on an issue when in fact we are way off. There’s an amusing story that Thomas Wheeler, CEO of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, tells on himself: He and his wife were driving along an interstate highway when he noticed that their car was low on gas. Wheeler got off the highway at the next exit and soon found a rundown gas station with just one gas pump. This was back in the days when the gas attendant would fill your gas tank you understand. He asked the lone attendant to fill the tank and check the oil; then went for a little walk around the station to stretch his legs.
As he was returning to the car, he noticed that the attendant and his wife were engaged in an animated conversation. The conversation stopped as he paid the attendant. But as he was getting back into the car, he saw the attendant wave and heard him say, “It was great talking to you.”
As they drove out of the station, Wheeler asked his wife if she knew the man. She readily admitted she did. They had gone to high school together and had dated steadily for about a year. “Boy, were you lucky that I came along,” said Wheeler. “If you had married him, you’d be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a CEO.”
“My dear,” replied his wife, “if I had married him, he’d be a chief executive officer and you’d be the gas station attendant.” Sometimes we think we have the proper perspective on an issue when in fact we may be way off. Jesus understood this propensity for us humans to get it wrong especially when it comes to things spiritual. 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.
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! This is important for the disciples to realize up front because they have been expecting the kingdom to start big. 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 in a seed that 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 entirely evident in most English translations. “Three measures” is the usual translation for the original Greek which 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 kitchen measures, 1.125 bushels is 144 cups of flour. Presuming we used a common recipe for basic white 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 and we’d need 33 jars of jelly, and 64 jars of peanut butter. In other words the kingdom of God doesn’t think in small terms. Jesus is talking about enough bread to perhaps feed a small village by 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 insignificant having a huge impact of the kingdom of heaven. In 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 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 he is killed or taken away during the invasion the treasure lies there unnoticed and unknown until it is found again by accident as what happens in this story. When the treasure is found, the fellow scrapes together all his money, selling whatever he has in order to come up with the price 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 because of the value of the treasures it is worth everything they have.
What is the point? Clearly the kingdom of heaven 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 God came down to earth in human form to save them and help them be reconciled to God. They realize this and 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 the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and then went away sad because he didn’t want to give up anything to have this eternal life and then we have the man Saul who became Paul the Apostle. He said, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Paul was a man who once he found the treasure gave up everything in order to have it.
These four short parables are first to encourage us and second to challenge us. First we can be encouraged that though it may seem as though our efforts are small; it may seem as though what we do in spreading the good news about Jesus may be insignificant; we need to realize that God is the one who is overseeing the matter and he will give it increase as he chooses. And secondly we need to realize that what we know and believe is of great value. It is worth far more than any riches this world can ever give us because it is eternal because it brings us to God.
As I pointed out in the beginning sometimes it is easy to have our perspectives off. Jesus wants us to have a right perspective so let us continue to work to spread his kingdom and to realize anew the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as our Lord. Amen