This week's reflection was done as a group. I provided some insight and then together we discussed and explored the text. I invite you to use this reflection as a guided exploration of the Matthew text on your own, perhaps as a writing prompt. You can share you own insights in the comments section below.
This week we continue to romp through the parables, stories, told by Jesus as recounted by the writer known as Matthew. There are several short stories today, it is unclear wether Jesus told all of these at the same time, or if the writer compiled them together afterwards. Today we will read each section separately, listen to these words with an open heart and mind and we will explore them together.
Jesus presented of another parable to the crowds: “The kingdom of heaven is like the mustard seed which a farmer sowed in the field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all - it becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come to perch in its branches.”
Jesus is using stories, parables, to illustrate what the kin-dom of heaven is like. Different translations say Kingdom of Heaven, Kingdom of God, Reign of God, all referring to the same idea. Now, I want us to stretch out thinking to imagine the kin-dom of heaven not as afterlife or end times, but as a counter-cultural, economy of love in the here and now. It is something that Jesus and those that follow him are working to manifest, and as followers of that Jesus, we too are working to manifest in our own here and now. Then and now, it is driven by a desire to think that there must be a better way to live together than the present state of affairs. There must be a better way to do this, there must be another way of living.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also believed there was a better way to live together, during the civil rights movement talked extensively about the beloved community. First coined in the early 20th Century by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation, it was popularized by Dr. King who further articulated the vision.
“For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”
Let's hear that parable again through the lens of Dr. King’s beloved community.
“The Beloved Community is like the mustard seed which a farmer sowed in the field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all - it becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come to perch in its branches.”
Do you know what a mustard seed is? Have you ever seen on? Take one or a few and pass it down. These are mustard seeds, now they aren’t the smallest seeds, but they are small and from them can grow a large brushy bush. Also not a tree by our standards, but the mustard seed is important in this illustration because the mustard plant is something of an invasive weed. It is fast growing and growing faster than most anything around it, so it would not be the ideal plant for a farmer to plant in his garden. So what if we read the parable like this:
“The beloved kin-dom is like the dandelion which a farmer sowed in the field.”
“The beloved kingdom is like the wild blackberry which a farmer sowed in the field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all - it becomes a large hedge so that the birds of the air come to make nests in its branches.”
Planting a mustard seed in the middle of the field that provided your livelihood and ensured your prosperity would be a really bad idea. So what was Jesus talking about? How is that like the Beloved Community?
PAUSE FOR REFLECTION
“Jesus offered them still another parable the Beloved Community is like the yeast a baker took and mixed in with three measures of flour until it was leavened all through.”
Today, almost all of our bread is made with yeast. It is the tiny granolas of active bacteria that when warmed and create the rise, the fluffiness that we enjoy about bread. But, in the Jewish tradition leavened or yeasted bread is not eaten on the sabbath and so it would have to be thrown away. And three measures of flour would be enough to feed 100 people. So here again, it would be really unwise to mix the yeast and the flour together because come sabbath you wouldn’t be able to use it. Perhaps a modern comparison might be:
“The Beloved Community is like the cereal upon which milk was poured and left overnight until thoroughly soggy.”
What is Jesus talking about? In relation to the mustard seed, what might this yeast and flour, or milk and cereal, parable be articulating?
PAUSE FOR REFLECTION
Or again, the Beloved Community is like a merchant’s search for fine pearls. When one pearl of great value was found, the merchant went back and sold everything else and bought it.”
Here again, this doesn’t make great business sense. This merchant’s livelihood depends on the buying and selling of goods, they are selling everything else for one pearl. To me, I understand that, like all parables, this is metaphorical, so the intention is not to tell us to sell all of our possessions specifically, but rather, what are we willing to risk to manifest the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community. In these first two parables it is clear that the the kingdom of God is backwards, counter intuitive and probably goes against our best judgement, it takes a lot to fully embrace something culture and upbringing tells us not to do. But that is the richness in it too. This is an all or nothing deal, we can’t afford to embrace the beloved community and not give up our privilege, our wealth, our comfort, our racism, bigotry, and prejudice. It requires us to give up EVERYTHING and embrace a counter-cultural, counter-initiative way of living. The Kingdom of Heaven, the Beloved Community, the Beloved Kin-dom disrupts. It afflicts our comfortable sensibilities, it rattles our cages, turns over tables, and turns over institution of empire. The Beloved Kin-dom is not about business as usual, towing the party line, accommodation or maintaining the status quo, it is about a new economy. An economy of Holy justice and Divine love that doesn’t make sense to the ways of the world. It threatens the empires then and now in the same way that a rogue dandelion threatens our vegetable gardens and the yeast ruined the flour.
PAUSE FOR REFLECTION
Jumping to the end of this section of parables, Jesus asks, “Have you understood all of this?” to which they answer. “yes”. It is almost comical that the way Matthew tells the story they all answers unanimously and without hesitation. I’ve spent quite a bit of time this week reading, researching and reflecting and I know that I could not offer an resounding affirmation that I have understood all of this. But thankfully, Jesus goes on, “Every religious scholar who has become a student of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Beloved Community, is like the head of a household who can bring from the storeroom both the new and the old.” There will always be new and different ways to find deeper meaning in these parables. These stories of ordinary things illustrate that the Beloved Community is found in the ordinary things, even if it is not visible. It is for us to continually wrestle with, work with, study, to retrieve from the cellar, our storage places, both the old and new things, the historical understanding and breath into it new life. The Beloved Kin-dom is in and within all things, if only we are looking for it. Preacher and storyteller Frederick Buechner puts it like this: “It is not just that the Kingdom is like a pearl of great price, a mustard seed, leaven... but it is also within them, as it is also within us. Pearls, seeds, fields, leaven, the human heart, all of them carry within them something of the holiness of their origin. It is the wholest and realest part of their reality and of ours”
May it be so.
Mack, B. L. Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.
Beuchner. Theology Today. 1993