Texts: 1 Kings 3:5-12 ; Psalm 119:129-136 ; Romans 8:26-39 ; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
Do you spend much time wondering what heaven will be like?
I don’t. At least, not in the way I did when I was very young – when I would try and guess what happens after we die based on very limited information. I was intrigued by questions like:
· In heaven, will we still look like ourselves – and if we do, will it be with all our same scars and chipped teeth and wrinkles, or will it be perfect spiritual versions of ourselves?
· Which led me to wonder – in heaven, will we recognize each other or will we look so young and healthy and free of physical and social defects that we’ll look nothing like ourselves?
· And – in heaven, will we have anything to do? Or, will we just wander around meeting up with family and friends made during our mortal lives in some sort of never-ending reunion, noticing who (surprisingly) made it and who (shockingly) did not.
These were the things I wondered but, since no one could ever offer any definitive answers or ways of knowing I moved on to other concerns located here and now where I could taste and see and touch and test things for myself.
Parables, like the many we hear this morning, were of no help to me as a child trying to decode what the afterlife would be like. In the same way that I was interested in what happens after we die, Jesus seemed to be interested in what happens here among us while we are alive. His parables about heaven are set on earth and they seem to talk about us using images that would have been familiar to the people he was speaking to:
· the reign of God is like a small seed that becomes a ridiculously big tree, large enough to shelter all kinds of creatures;
· the reign of God is like a packet of baker’s yeast that gets into a storehouse full of flour and produces a whole bakery’s worth of bread;
· the reign of God is like someone trading everything they own in order to buy one small treasure; or
· the reign of God is like a net cast into the sea, catching all sorts of things that later need sorting.
You see my problem? No details. No descriptions of heaven. Instead, the parables gave me more little puzzles to try and decipher.
We’ve been hearing a series of Jesus’ parables for three weeks now. First it was the parable of the sower who cast seed on all kinds of soil. Then it was the wheat and the weeds that the landowner refused to uproot from the field. This week is “parable gone wild”: we get not just one image to consider, but five – each one giving us a different metaphoric window into Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom of heaven, or the reign of God.
All these parables represent something of a challenge to preachers. We read them, then we look at the blank pieces of paper or empty computer screens waiting to be filled up with words that will be delivered as sermons, and the immediate temptation is to try and explain the meaning of the parables. But, I think that’s a mistake.
It reminds me of my childhood again, but this time of a bad habit I developed of try to explain jokes to people. I would hear a good joke and laugh myself silly over it, and then I’d want to share it with other people. So, I would look for a chance to tell my new joke to anyone who’d listen and – after racing through the set-up and the punchline – I’d ruin the entire effect by asking “do you get it?” Worse, I’d explain it. I’d ruin a good joke with an explanation that took all the pleasure out of the joke. Do you really need anyone to explain a knock-knock joke? It’s a play on words. Do you need someone to explain that Jerry Seinfeld makes observations about the absurdity of life by examining the silliness to be found in the details? Maybe, maybe not, but where’s the pleasure in that?
Parables are meant to be fun, meant to tease your brain a little bit. It’s only when we bring boring assumptions about the bible to our reading of it that the parables become boring and annoying too. If we think that the bible is a big instruction book for life, or we think that it’s full of wisdom for people who are smart enough to get it, then the parables are taunts thrown at us to test our intelligence. But when we remember that the bible is a set of books, each one a gift from our ancestors, speaking in their own distinctive voice, trying to tell us the story of God’s unfailing love, then the parables are like a former math teacher of mine who went to the same church I grew up in – always posing brain teasers to us, not to make us feel dumb, but to develop our ability to think. That’s a nice way to think about parables. They’re not there to leave us in the dark, but to teach us how to see the light.
One thing it may be useful for a preacher to do is to explain language a little bit. The parables are clever and witty, but only if you understand the language they’re being told in. Our translators have tried their best to render them to us in English without flattening all the meaning out of them in the process, but that leaves some things unclear.
Take for example the parable of the yeast. It’s only one sentence long. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” That’s it. The whole parable. What does it mean?
Well, I’m not going to ruin the fun by asking, “do you get it?” but I will give you some helpful info that Jesus’ audience would already have known. Like, in Jewish tradition at that time yeast was a symbol for corruption or contamination. Think about the smell that comes of our bread dough as it rises – kind of a thick, moist, fermenting smell. Or, that “three measures” of flour, the amount she leavens with the yeast, is about ten gallons of flour – enough flour to make enough bread to feed over a hundred people. Or, that the verb we heard translated as “mixed in,” as in “the yeast was mixed in with three measures of flour,” doesn’t mean “placed” or “kneaded,” but means “hid.” So, to the ears of the people Jesus was speaking to the parable sounded something more like this:
“The kingdom of heaven is like nasty, moist, fermenting yeast that a woman took and hid inside a huge sack of flour until the whole batch was irretrievably leavened.”
Do you get it?
I’ll skip all the explanation and give you the annotated version of another one:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny little seed, the kind that grows into your everyday, garden-variety shrub, not a mighty oak or majestic cedar tree, just a mustard tree, with branches wide enough to shelter and protect the birds that come to build nests there.”
Do you get it?
One commentary I read posed that a modern analogy to these parable would be, “the reign of God is like a preacher who preached every Sunday to a congregation of twenty-five people in a city of two million residents. The preacher kept on preaching until the whole city believed the gospel.”[i]
You want to know what I find really funny about this morning’s gospel? It’s that the gospel writer himself does what I just did. He teases the audience with a “do you get it” of his own. In Matthew’s account Jesus tells a set of parables and ends by asking “have you understood all this” and the people answer “yes,” which I think probably came out sounding like, “Umm… yeah.”
It’s like the math teacher from my church, and his brain teasers. He would start the class with a little riddle, not to make us feel dumb, just to get us warmed up and thinking. To be honest, most of the time we waited for one or two students in to give him the answer for all of us so we could get on with the rest of the class. That happens this morning as well.
Jesus tells a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, to a crowd of people who wanted to know who was getting into heaven, and who wasn’t.
People with questions like, “in heaven will all my imperfections finally be wiped away,” or “will we recognize ourselves, or each other, in heaven,” or “who’s going to be in heaven with me… assuming God lets someone like me in.” Jesus isn’t trying to keep things a mystery – he’s trying to make them abundantly clear. He’s going to answer their questions over and over and over again, with teachings and miracles and sacrifices too large to understand. All so that we will lay to rest our anxieties about whether or not God wants people like us in God’s kingdom. Here he’s just warming us up, getting us thinking.
If you just can’t take it; if you’re like me, who picked up the last book in the Harry Potter series and opened to the back chapter just long enough to scan the ending before I could let myself begin reading; then look back at Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verses 38-39. There Paul, like the one or two kids in my math class who always knew the answer, gives us the meaning of the parables in words that are very good news. I’m not going to read them aloud here and now, in case some of you want to keep puzzling away at the parables, but make a note of it: Romans 8:38-39.
Do you get it?
[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 8. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1995. p311.