Since we have been meeting remotely, few of you have seen our garden. Creating this garden was one of the things that excited us about coming here. Finding enough space with decent sunlight in DC is either difficult or expensive…often both. We are pleased with the garden, though one thing did take us by surprise—the nine-foot-tall sunflower towering over one of the beds. It dwarfs and makes useless the posts I put up to support netting. We were a little worried that it would not open before we left town today, but God provided, and it opened Friday.
The kingdom of heaven is like that sunflower.
Our Gospel text today features five similes, like the one I just used. Jesus says: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…The kingdom of heaven is like treasure…The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant…The kingdom of heaven is like a net…”
In case you have forgotten your high school English, or if you haven’t gotten there yet, a simile is a comparison between two things, usually linked by “like” or “as.”
A simile is rarely literal—we might say it’s as hot as an oven outside, but if you were to put out some batter and hope for a cake…you’d be disappointed. That said, similes often are not very deep. The meaning is usually close to the surface. You might not be able to bake a cake outside, but you will know you will not want to wear a coat.
Jesus’ similes in this story are not simple similes—our Gospel writer calls them parables. The parables are always more complicated than they appear.
This would have been obvious to the people listening to Jesus at the time: let’s start with the beginning of our text for today: “He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’”
It is easy to hear this parable and treat it like a simple simile—to focus on the change from the small seed to the big tree.
Now, Jesus didn’t give us a proper Linnaean classification, in part because he probably didn’t speak Latin and in part because Carl Linnaeus wouldn’t be born for another 1,700 years, so we can’t be certain which variety of mustard Jesus was talking about, but Black mustard is indigenous to the region, so it is a good guess. Further, what I did not know, but what those hearing Jesus speak would have, black mustard grows to about nine feet tall, which is…perhaps a great shrub, but it’s not much of a tree. It is the height of our sunflower.
Birds, however, do nest in it. Not because any single mustard plant is all that big, but because they grow dense. For those of us who are watching the service, the background picture used behind all my slides is a field of mustard. Those are younger plants, so they haven’t reached that full six-to-nine-foot-height, but you may have noticed that they are close together, beginning to form a thicket, which is why birds love it, despite its lack of height.
And it grows dense fast—it is a fast-growing plant, so much so that in many areas of the world, it is an invasive species. I even found videos online that will teach farmers how to train cattle to eat only mustard in an effort to contain it, but even with that, I came across many sources who don’t think it can ever be eradicated from an area once it’s taken off.
Jesus elaborates on this same theme with his next simile: “He told them another parable: ‘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.’”
It is easy, once again, to see this as another small-to-big simile. I suspect more of us have baked bread than have grown, or encountered wild, mustard, so most of us know that, whether you measure by weight or volume, yeast is not a high percentage ingredient. You use a lot more flour…but without that little bit of yeast, your bread will struggle.
Here, armed with some more knowledge, we can see this as another parable about something small having a big impact. But once again, there are a few things that Jesus’ first-century audience would know that we might not.
Some of us, those who have spent lots of time in our bible might be surprised that this story is included at all. Yeast is not spoken highly of in scripture—in fact, this story is the only positive reference to yeast. The Hebrew scriptures are mostly concerned with getting rid of it—with making sure the house is completely devoid of yeast for the full seven days of Passover. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus compares yeast to false teachings, a thread picked up by Paul in his letters. To first-century Jews, the people Jesus was addressing, yeast was a symbol of corruption.
Jesus has now spoken favorably of a weed that takes over fields, becoming dense and nearly impenetrable thickets, and yeast, which changes the nature of the bread.
There is one last little detail here that I want to tease out though. Jesus says that the woman mixed the yeast with three measures of flour.
Now, you may have heard from Katherine, or perhaps remember Pastor Kevin mentioning this during my installation service back in March, but I make my own pizza crust, and it uses three cups of flour—this recipe gives me two pizzas, maybe four calzones, or two smallish loaves of bread. All told, it is not an insignificant amount.
Jesus’ measures, however, are not our cups.
The measures that Jesus was using are quite a bit larger. The three measures of flour that the woman in Jesus story used comes out to a bit more than a bushel, some 144 cups. Using my recipe, that is 96 pizzas.
The woman in Jesus story, she is not making bread to feed herself, not making bread to feed her family. She is making bread to feed the village. She is making enough for everybody.
The mustard and yeast are not just about going from small to big. The mustard grows rampant, providing abundance, but it also grows out of control, escaping the limits we try to impose. The kingdom of God will not be contained.
It also provides shelter for the birds. The kingdom of heaven is a place of safety.
The yeast, yes, it works its way into all the dough, all the bread. It is small but has a massive impact, its value increases through the labor of the woman kneading and mixing, and forms the basis of an act of abundance, feeding many.
The kingdom of God is rooted in small things that grow big, it will not be contained or separated. It is like Katherine’s sunflower, hilariously outstripping my attempts to contain and protect it with a net.
And it provides so much more than we imagined, shelter and safety, sustenance, and life.
Our gospel continues, “‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
Again, we have something small, this hidden treasure, and something big—the field. We have transformation—the man does not take the treasure, but buys the whole field, because the presence of the treasure has transformed the entire field. The man has sold everything else because everything he needs is in that one field.
We continue: “‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
And on this one, I need to pause.
I do not know about you, I do not want to speak for anyone else, but as for me…I tripped over this parable this week. I have preached before about the value of stumbling blocks tripping us when we are moving too fast, reminding us to slow down.
I…I am certain that I learned this parable wrong. I had always heard this parable as saying that the kingdom of heaven was like a pearl of great value, as a story about the value of the kingdom of God, as another story like the one before it, the treasure in the field.
It is not.
One more time: “‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Over the years, I have internalized this parable as if the kingdom of heaven was the pearl, as a story about how we should be ready to give up everything and follow Jesus—that would be on message, it’s a theme Jesus develops elsewhere in the gospels.
But it is not what this story says.
The kingdom of heaven is not like the pearl. The kingdom of heaven is like the merchant.
This is not a story about the kingdom of heaven being valuable—this is about the kingdom of heaven recognizing value. This is a story about the kingdom of heaven valuing us. This is a story about our value. It doesn’t reinforce the story before, about the value we should place on the kingdom of heaven, but it mirrors it—telling us that we are just as valued by God. The final parable expands this.
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.
The kingdom of heaven is not the fishers, sorting good from bad. The kingdom of heaven is like a net. It gathers us all to God whether we like it or not, and this, this closes the circle of these parables, because we are back to the kingdom being irresistible—the mustard will grow wild and escape whatever boundaries we try to use to contain it, whatever we hope will devour it. We cannot stop the mustard from growing. We cannot stop the kingdom from coming. We cannot evade the net, we cannot pull it into the water with us, but God will gather us to the kingdom.