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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.

 

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