Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Six Kingdom Parables, Not Five

Yesterday, I wrote about the five parables about the kingdom that Jesus offers in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52). At staff meeting yesterday, Seth reminded me that there are six. Jesus compares the kingdom with 1) a mustard seed, 2) yeast, 3) a hidden treasure, 4) a merchant searching for fine pearls, and 5) a net thrown into the sea. Then, he asks his disciples if they have understood all of this. When they say, "Yes," Jesus offers a sixth parable: "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

This time he's talking about the kingdom indirectly. It's the scribes who are trained for the kingdom that get the comparison, but the point is the same. A scribe was someone who had studied the scriptures and traditions of their people. They were like religious lawyers--people who could interpret a circumstance using the rules of the religion. They had gone to school and had learned vast amounts. Like judges, their opinions were based on precedent. If a respected rabbi had written about a particular issue and it seemed to apply, they would have looked to it for guidance. But Jesus has a slightly different approach to scribes.

Scribes who have properly been trained for the kingdom of God, which Jesus describes in such strange ways, are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and old. What does that mean? I think Jesus has in mind someone who makes use of the old silver and the new china, the bath towels he got at his wedding and the sheets she bought last week, the recipe she inherited from her great-grandmother and the idea he saw on Pintrest yesterday. That may not sound all that special. It's the kind of living most of us do all of the time, but think about how threatening that can be to a religious institution like the one to which Jesus is speaking--both in the first century and in the twenty-first.

"We have always done it that way." How powerful are those words? How important are they for the way a congregation does its work? How central are they to a denomination's leadership? How deeply woven are they into the fabric of a religion? Why do we do it like that? Because we always have. Why does it have to be that way? Because we've never done it any differently. Why can't we change things? Because if it isn't broken, don't try to fix it. Well, it is broken. All six of Jesus' parables suggest that our instinctive approach to the kingdom of God isn't adequate. We need to break the mold, shatter the glass ceiling, burst through barriers, and tear down walls. An expert on God's kingdom maintains old and new, tradition and innovation, familiar and unfamiliar.

If we are going to see the kingdom of God, we must ask God to give us eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart and mind and soul to perceive that which no one on earth can find without help. This is the kingdom of God. It is built on the traditions of our ancestors, and it is formed by the stories of tomorrow. If you think you understand it, you don't. If you think it can be encapsulated in a parable from the past, it can't. It's always bigger, always different, always changing. This Sunday, don't miss the interpretive lens of the sixth parable in the passage. It reminds us that the other five aren't static. All of them imply innovation. Even 2000 years later, if we aren't approaching the kingdom expecting to see something new, we'll miss the whole thing.

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