“Parable of the Mustard Seed,” a painted window at the YMCA training center for German leadership in Kassel. Photo by tin.G.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
There’s a version of this story that’s been around for quite awhile, and you’ve probably heard some version of it somewhere. I think it started with a guru and enlightenment, but eventually, somebody Christianized it, and this is how I first heard it.
Somewhere in rural America, an old pastor takes a younger pastor for a walk.
“How badly do you want to know and follow Jesus?” the older pastor says.
The younger pastor responds enthusiastically, “As badly as I want to eat my next meal!”
They come upon a body of water, and the older pastor suddenly kicks the younger pastor’s legs out from under him. (Both of these pastors are men, otherwise it gets either weird or … just super unlikely.)
The older pastor holds the younger pastor’s head under water RIGHT until the younger pastor is about to lose consciousness. Then he relents.
The younger pastor comes up, sputtering and gasping for air.
“Why on earth did you do that?!” the younger pastor demands.
“Until you want to know and follow Jesus as badly as you wanted to breathe just now,” the old man said, “You’ll never succeed.”
I’m sorry if you like that story, because I hate that story.
This is mostly because I have become a mentor to younger pastors and I cannot imagine doing anything like it. I also find it fairly abhorrent for one adult to hold another one against their will for any reason not pertaining to safety. Finally, I don’t like it because I think it puts the emphasis in all the wrong places, and gives credit where it’s not due.
Basically, I’m as Lutheran as they come, and I think the whole story essentially amounts to works righteousness. But I told you that story for a reason.
Let me explain by way of the Gospel lesson.
There’s a decent enough chance that Matthew here is recording some sayings of Jesus that the community remembered, back to back to back as one dialogue. This seems somehow more likely to some scholars than imagining that he went on and on back to back to back like that in what sort of seems like an unnatural dialogue.
It doesn’t matter, really.
The point is that this is the sort of thing that Jesus wanted to emphasize: that the kingdom of heaven is like — once again, it is like a thing that grows. A mustard seed. A tiny seed, and usually not one that someone would sow on purpose. But in this parable in Matthew, someone does, apparently, sow it on purpose, and it grows strong — much like we talked about last week — and becomes a home for the birds.
Then, the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman kneads into bread. Once again, a little goes a long way. The little seed became a big tree, and now, a bit of yeast levens all the bread and causes it to rise.
Then two more parables, these about someone who gave all they had to get something they saw as valuable.
Then another parable about fishing, where there is an abundance.
The kingdom of heaven, apparently, is like all of these things. This is why the disciples, I think, lied to the Lord when he asked them if they understood.
I want to go back to the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field. In his version, Luke also includes a woman who turns the house upside down looking for a lost coin.
You see, the way we normally read these passages is simple: the kingdom of heaven is worth everything, and we should give up everything to get it. We should want the kingdom of heaven as badly as that young pastor wanted to breathe.
But you see, I think this reading has it all backwards. Because as I always say, when the Gospel becomes a story about us and our goodness and our efforts, chances are very good that we’ve gotten something backwards.
What if you are the treasure hidden in the field? What if you are the pearl of great price? What if you are Luke’s lost coin, and God is the woman who tears her house apart until she finds you?
If I’m off, I’m not very far off, because it’s pretty clear in the next parable that we are the fish.
As every kid eventually learns, being the hero of every story is exhausting, so this morning, let God be the hero of your story for once. I promise you that God is better at it. Chalk it up to more experience.
You are the treasure that someone found and hid, and God is the one who would sell all he had to buy that field. You are the pearl of great value, and God is the merchant who would sell the clothes off his back to have you.
I know that you might not feel worthy, and that is the point. Treasure and pearls do not know their worth. They just are.
And the urgency that we all feel in our lungs when we imagine the young preacher struggling to breathe? What if that is the urgency with which God pursues you and wants life abundant for you?
I don’t mean riches and all of the desires of your heart. Lord, I’d be a terrible prosperity Gospel preacher.
No, I mean life abundant as in freedom. God is always in the business of freedom. In what ways is God freeing you, even as you sit there?
I know, that’s a lot of questions, but what I’ve got to work with is a lot of parables and some lyin’ disciples.
As with everything in life, once you see your own worth, your own value, your own belovedness, life begins to open up for you. God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
There is a poem that every seminary student and every student of religion must read. And it is with an excerpt from that poem that we end. It bears noting that the poem, written in 1909 by Francis Thompson, refers to God as “him” — lest you think I’m talking about some guy.
“I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside).
But, if one little casement parted wide,
The gust of His approach would clash it to.
Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.”
The poem, of course, is “The Hound of Heaven,” and it speaks of a God who will turn the house upside down looking for you. A God who loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. A God who does not need you to be the hero of your story, because that God already is. Amen.