Posts Tagged ‘mustard seed’

Good citizens or bad?

July 29, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 13:30-33, 44-52

Marian Free

In the name of God who refuses to be bound by the limits of the human imagination and who challenges us to go outside our comfort zone to be part of God’s kingdom. Amen.

In our society used-car salesmen and real estate agents are, in general, held in suspicion. There is a belief (based on the experience of some people) that a used-car salesman will use all his persuasive power to convince an unsuspecting buyer to purchase a “bomb” and that real estate agents will in the same vein exert pressure to induce someone to buy a home that may or may not be what they were looking for. Naïve and not so naïve buyers can find that they have spent more than they intended on a car or house that fails to live up to their expectations or that costs them more than it was worth.

Every age has stereotypes that are imposed on members of certain professions, cultures and social classes regardless of whether or not they are an accurate representation of all the people who could be included in a particular category. In every age there are those who contradict or confound the expectations of those around them. Not all used-car salesmen take advantage of their customers’ trust and not all real-estate agents behave in ways that cause alarm.

Today’s gospel consists of five parables, the first four of which have in common that Jesus uses an image that has a negative connotation and turns it around so that it says something that is positive. In order to understand the parables of the mustard seed, the leaven, the treasure and the pearl, we first need to know something of the culture of Jesus’ day.

In first century Palestine, mustard was a noxious weed. Farmers would routinely pull it out of their fields. Leaven was an agent caused decay and while used correctly it could cause bread to rise, it was also an image for evil or corruption. In the absence of banks, treasure was often buried to keep it safe from robbers and marauders. The hidden money is no surprise then, but to whom does it really belong – the owner of the land or the person who has been illegitimately digging around in a field that does not belong to him? Finally, we have a merchant and a pearl. Merchants occupied the place that used-car salesmen and real estate agents occupy in our time. In other words, they would try to purchase goods at the lowest possible price and to sell them for as much as they could persuade someone to pay.

Parables that in the first instance appear to us as bland and almost self-evident, take on quite a different flavour when seen in the light of the culture of Jesus’ time. In comparing the kingdom of heaven to a weed, an agent of corruption, a thief and a merchant, Jesus is giving status to things and people that would normally be considered as contemptible. He is subverting the normal cultural view and suggesting that the kingdom of heaven is very different from anything that his listeners might have envisioned.

Can you imagine the response of Jesus’ listeners when they heard these four parables? No doubt they, like us, had in their heads some sort of idea as to the nature of the kingdom of heaven and what it might take for someone to attain it. I suspect that they, like us, associated the kingdom of heaven with righteousness and good behaviour. They assumed that it was a place (an existence) in which all corruption, unscrupulousness, dishonesty and all that was worthless had been weeded out. A place not too dissimilar to the world with which we are familiar, minus all the things that in our eyes are not “good” or not “worthy” of the kingdom.

Jesus’ parables often contain contradictions that force Jesus’ listeners to see the world and to see the kingdom in a new and different way. Wheat that can yield thirty, sixty or a hundred fold, weeds that are left to grow among the wheat, a Samaritan who is good or a father who welcomes back a son who wished him dead. Here as elsewhere Jesus turns convention on its head reminding us that no matter how hard we try we will not be able to put ourselves in God’s place or to begin to dream what God sees, what God thinks and what God plans for the future.

In other words, so long as we think according to the conventions of our time, we will be blind and deaf to the possibilities of the kingdom. Jesus is suggesting that sometimes being a good citizen of heaven means being a “bad citizen” in terms of the world. Standing up for justice, confronting evil and corruption or challenging unfair, discriminatory practices may mean putting ourselves on the “wrong side” of the law, outside the boundaries of so-called respectable society and challenging the status quo. By behaving in a way that is non-conventional, by operating in ways that differ from the standards of the world Jesus implies, we may in fact discover that we are conforming to the values of the kingdom.

Jesus tells parables, not to provide comfort, not to give us nice stories to tell our children and certainly not to help us to “fit in” to the culture of our time. Jesus tells parables to shock us out of our complacency, to challenge the arrogance of our preconceptions and to open our eyes to the endless possibilities of the kingdom, possibilities that far exceed our ability to imagine. Parables force us to ask ourselves whether, by concentrating on being good citizens of this society, by conforming to the values of the world around us and by fitting in with our culture, we are in fact squandering our opportunity to learn what it means to be good citizens of the kingdom of heaven.



How does your garden grow?

June 13, 2015

Pentecost 3 – 2015

Mark 4:26-34

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen. 

For at least the last forty-five years I have been involved in discussions about the future of the church. In particular, I have observed and been party to a lot of navel gazing in relation to declining attendance on Sundays and a variety of suggestions as to how we might halt that decline. Numerous reasons have been offered for this parlous state of affairs – women returning to the workforce, television, Sunday sport and Sunday trading – to mention a just a few. The liturgy has also been blamed for a downturn in attendance. In particular, there are those who express a concern that our form of worship doesn’t appeal to young people. As a consequence there have been a variety of attempts to address this problem, ranging from Folk Masses in the 60’s to Twitter Masses in the last decade.

Focus on the liturgy has not been the only response to this perceived crisis in the life of the church. Programme after programme has been rolled out, each with a degree of optimism that suggests that this time we have the right formula and one that will bring people back to the church. Sadly, over time, these programmes fall into disuse and distant memory as they fail to live up to their promise. Church attendance remains at best static and worse continues to decline.

The cynic in me wonders whether our concern with church attendance has more to do with maintaining the institution of the church than it does with spreading the gospel message, more to do with us and less to do with God. At the very least it implies that without our help God will simply fade into insignificance, that without the church there will be no God!

A perusal of the Gospels reveals that, unlike us, Jesus was not concerned with the religious practice of the people – how often they went to the Temple, or whether or not they attended the synagogue on a regular basis. Jesus seems to be more concerned that the crowds understand the liberating power of the gospel. The Gospels record that Jesus set people free from their diseases and infirmities; he released them from the power of evil spirits and he liberated them from a false understanding of the scriptures and from the misleading teaching of the leaders of the church. Above all, Jesus was concerned that the people fully understood the nature of the Kingdom of God (or heaven).

Jesus himself proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near (Mark 1:15) and when Jesus sent out the disciples, he gave them authority over unclean spirits. The disciples proclaimed repentance, cast out demons and anointed and cured the sick (Mk 6:6-13). They did not concern themselves with filling church (synagogue) pews.

Jesus’ primary concern was the Kingdom of God and most of the parables relate to this theme. These parables begin: “The Kingdom of God is like – a sower, a seed, a woman, a shepherd ..”. From all of these images, his listeners were able to build a picture of the kingdom of God in which the lost are sought and found, growth is secret and more abundant than expected, weeds will grow together with the wheat, debts are forgiven and the first will be last. Moreover, the kingdom will be worth more than everything that we own and we will give all that we have to possess it.

The parables do not say or even imply that the Kingdom of God will consist of full churches or of dioceses that are financially secure. The signs of the Kingdom are much more subtle and unexpected. More than that the Kingdom, according to Jesus, is not ours to build, but always God’s. It is the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of the church and of church-goers. We seem to have convinced ourselves that the Kingdom is entirely dependent on the existence of the church and lost sight of whose Kingdom it is and that we expend far too much time concerned with the survival of the institution of the church and far too little time announcing the kingdom of God as an alternative to the kingdom of this world.

This morning’s parables are particularly challenging in a climate that is focused on church growth. The first, the parable of the sower, is a stark reminder that the growth of the Kingdom is entirely determined by God and not by human effort (‘the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how’). The second, the parable of the mustard seed, confronts us with the idea that to an untrained eye the Kingdom might look like an insignificant herb or weed – nothing like the images that “Kingdom” usually calls to mind. In other words, whatever the Kingdom is, it will not be as we expect.

In the light of these parables, perhaps it is time that we, the church, stopped looking inwards, trying to tweak what we do on a Sunday morning so that it becomes more attractive to more people; time that we moved out from our beautiful buildings into the communities around us; time that, instead of trying to persuade people to come to us that, we found ways to set people free from the chains of individualism, consumerism, ambition, from oppression, injustice and violence.

Above all it is time to take a deep breath and to remember that it is God (not us) who will cause the Kingdom of God to grow and that in ways that we may not see or understand. It is time to recall that the Kingdom that will be unlike any other Kingdom that has preceded it. If we cannot imagine it, we certainly cannot build it. In other words, perhaps it is time to relax, to stop struggling for survival; to let go and let God and then to watch in amazement to see what God will do and then to go wherever God may take us.

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