John Michael Guiterrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds[a] of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The Gospel of the Lord
I’ve been fortunate in my academic life to have two mentors- one American, one British – willing to take me from greenhorn to experienced cluelessness – a far better teachable state. A few words, appreciative ones, about the American who started me down a road I’m still on. In hindsight, it was calculated exposure to the literatures, languages, backgrounds and interpretations in Biblical studies. I was his research and teaching assistant for 4.5 years. But it started off rather awkwardly – for me, at least (although in reflection I suspect he planned it all along). In the week before I began, he handed me one of his ever present 3 x 5 cards with his home address and a date/time – Saturday 6am – with the directive “Don’t be late!” I arrived on time. Gwen directed me down to the study library where Ed was waiting with another 3 x 5 card. Handing me the card, he said “I need to know how this fits into Biblical studies”. I looked at the card – it was written in Hebrew. Rather meekly, I observed it’s Hebrew. Right, says he. I don’t know Hebrew. Right again, says he. I don’t know how it fits into biblical studies. Right one more time, says he. He then motioned at his library saying “To the degree you don’t know your Hebrew Bible, to that degree you won’t know you’re NT; to the degree you know your Hebrew Bible, to that degree you will know your NT”. And so it began like a deer in the headlights. It seems to me the mastery of Biblical Studies is beyond what one can achieve in the normal span of a life. I have dared to hope that where expertise has eluded me, responsible incompetency has not.
Little did I realize how Ed’s axiom about the interplay between the Hebrew Bible and the NT would play out for me. Guided deep into investigating the Judaism of Jesus’ day I became aware of two of Israel’s convictions:
First, YHWH through the Passover/Exodus and Sinai covenant has acted on Israel’s behalf like a father loves a child. The Sinai covenant is YHWH’s written communication of his love, blessing and continued faithfulness, binding individuals into a community. And the Covenant’s institutions with their reasonably detailed instructions regarding obedience/disobedience are intended to make Israel “wise” (Dt. 4.5-8)
Second, the long, slow historical arc revealing Israel’s jarring, habitual covenantal disobedience – note the cautions leading into our lesson about Solomon this morning (1 Kgs. 3.1-14) – pushed some among them to consider what is holding Israel back from being obedient, being wise. Wisdom Literature in Israel – its proverbs, parables, riddles, poetry, narrative – is that outworking conveniently expressed in the motto “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom” (Pro. 9.10 et alii.) To be “wise” is to be an obedient steward of YHWH’s covenantal kingdom. To be “wise” one should live obediently for the long run, that is, without making foolish choices or taking foolish risks. To be “wise” is about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in the labyrinth of life to identify the paths actually taken. But the Sages recognized wisdom’s obedience is hidden just enough to require alertness, openness to understand – note again the cautions in the wider Solomon narrative (1 Kgs. 3.1-11.43). That’s why parables, Wisdom Literature in general, are oblique. They’re written as a way of seeing into obedience so differently that it can’t be grasped without everything else being turned upside down. Admittedly, Wisdom in Israel is elusive but it’s not code to be decoded. Rather what it means is what it says – teasing the hearer, at times, refusing to answer, at times, thus requiring thinking, silence, meditation before action. Becoming wise in Israel assumes active engagement with covenant instructions. Rich in life experience, wisdom is always cautious. Life learning does not always guarantee wisdom just like graduation does not guarantee education.
Covenant and Wisdom themes, then, are written large into Israel’s library. The dual aims of Covenant and Wisdom are to put obedience to YHWH’s oversight into working clothes, into the marketplace.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we come to Matthew’s third teaching section “the kingdom’s presence in society” ( ch.11.2-13.52) for the third successive Sunday . In ch. 11 readers get instruction on the claims and character of Jesus as messiah. In chapter 12, readers get a blunt glimpse of the varying reactions and growing opposition to Jesus as messiah. In ch. 13 readers hear Jesus’ role as “kingdom teacher” featuring Israel’s Wisdom Literature. Generally speaking, Jesus’ parables draw on daily urban and village life, stock character types, and everyday political, social and religious situations. Chapter 13 is Matthew’s arrangement of some of Jesus’ parables in order to explain YHWH’s presence, Jesus’ hiding place in the kingdom, kingdom character and activities and the nature of discipleship. As a group, these edited sayings picture for us the invasive, exaggerated, hidden presence of YHWH. They lean in the direction of the surprise and delight we should experience when we discover, even stumble upon the hidden kingdom. Wisdom’s wild card in Matthew’s collection: he hopes we ponder our readings, our misreadings, about the kingdom.
This also highlights Matthew’s authorial skill. He has placed two kingdom comparisons next door to each other: the wheat/weeds (vs. 24-30) and the leaven (vs. 33). With similar and yet artful differences he skilfully asks us to read, to reflect, to catch a glimpse of wisdom. Last week we walked through a weed infested wheat field. This morning we find ourselves in an everyday kitchen after a harvest.
Initially Jesus’ one line parable might read like a run-of-the-mill domestic scene. Baking leavened bread is an image that everything is ordinary, workaday. Nothing unusual here. Ah, but it’s wisdom literature. So there’s more to say. It’s important to Matthew’s authorial intention that we read Jesus’ actual verbal maneuvers carefully. It is important to restore the translated yeast to “leaven” in our language “sourdough” and the translated mixed to “hid” and calculate the triple recipe- 60 lbs. The parable’s point is to overstate the reader’s understanding of “everyday” expectations of things. So score a touchdown for wisdom. Jesus’ verbal maneuver is not about the woman but about bringing leaven and what she does – hides it – into close proximity with the Kingdom. Leaven and kingdom – there’s words with theological baggage in Israel. Unleavened dough replacing leavened dough at the Passover/Exodus was a mark, a sign, a remembrance for Israel of its redemption, its break from workaday enslavement (Ex. 13.1-10). The Passover/Exodus set in motion the parade ground example of YHWH’s acting on Israel’s behalf. And notice, instead of the expected “kneading” the leaven is concealed, like its counterpart “weed” spread at night by the enemy (vs. 25). It will have its effect. Disappearing into the dough it puffs up everything.
Now what has “hidden leaven” to do with wheat/weeds? Well quite a lot. First, in these Kingdom parables Jesus teaches that there is another way to tell Israel’s story. What many folk in Israel, including the disciples, were expecting was the triumph of YHWH’s kingdom. That nothing would be hidden. But what they got in these parables was the intermixing of the kingdom. YHWH’s saving acts in Jesus seem to be hidden into everyday life. But, second, notice so thoroughly was the kingdom mixed into culture the differences weren’t clear. Here’s the subtle difference in the two parables. The wheat is the kingdom’s presence in society. Weedy-ness, secreted into the culture, looks a lot like the kingdom. But it’s a demonic, counterfeit, intended to confuse and corrupt YHWH’s kingdom’s character and mission. In the one liner, the dough is the society and the hidden leaven is the kingdom’s character puffing up the culture’s character. Jesus, the hidden leaven, breaks the everyday of the culture with his theology of the cross reigning in weakness, bringing resurrection out of vulnerability and death. One stealth act deserves another! That’s WisdomLiterature for you.
Now what has “hidden leaven” and “weed infested wheat” to do with us? Well quite a lot. These parables are incredibly insightful descriptions of how cultural corruption and the kingdom often interact and, even at times, seem to be fed in the same soil or dough. But it takes wisdom to figure out how they are different. These parables invite us to consider the complexity of a society’s weedy and doughy -ness and the Kingdom’s presence. So it seems to me it is very timely that we have read these parables, especially the one-line Leaven/Kingdom comparison.
Politics and cultures come and go. Certainly as Christians, you and I can occupy a place anywhere in the rough terrain of cultural and political life in Tustin, California, America. We are – every one of us- being faced increasingly with the question of being a good citizen. To say it another way, we are living in a time of serious clash of fast forming ideologies – political, sexual, religious. Here’s an observation I gleaned from the Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul: to truly understand a worldview, an ideology, uncover its roots, trace its conclusions.
Insofar as the community of faith is concerned, from the Right we are confronted by a secular utopian political power that has become adept at using religious words and rhetoric. We must listen carefully because someone mentioning “God” or “prayer” or quoting from the Bible doesn’t mean it’s the same way we use them. And the Right seems to have overlooked the observation that economic actions, questionable displays of authority and power, at home and abroad, militantly rejecting political compromise are susceptible to a prophetic criticism.
At such a time as this, Christians must understand that the progressive Left’s routes to utopian political power go through race, gender identity, social justice or antisemitism. Careful investigation reveals the progressive Left’s Pandora’s box opens from the wrong side of Biblical truth – neoMarxism. We should not at all be surprised when we hear shrill, loathing scorn for all things Christian: YHWH as a loving father, Jesus dispatched as a savior, a Holy Spirit, a person’s real identity, support for marriage and family. The progressive tricolor flag – inclusion, diversity, tolerance- is anything but. Progressive activists don’t know how to change the human heart. They have no words for repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation or sacrificial love. The driving forces of progressive ideological politics is political power, the threat of wrongthink, the chilling tyranny of conformity. At some time, in one way or another, each Chrisitan will be handed the drink of progressive kool aid – dissent or hesitate – it puts a target on your back.
Cautious partisanship, then, for the political Right or Left by a Christian is not that bad of an outcome. This is not Christianity’s first rodeo. As the early church Fathers amply document being a good Christian sometimes meant being a bad Roman. There was a price to pay. Historically, Christian faith has not flourished when occupying the halls of power or when enveloped by the fleeting blessings of a culture’s commercelized materialism. The fact is Christians lose their ability to prophetically address a culture on vital issues. From the early church onward, Christianity has done some of its best work in the face of opposition. It’s because Biblical faith doesn’t deal with forces driving cultures in the same way. Jesus’ disciples are a priestly community pursuing holiness with Kingdom loyalty and allegiance first. As Christians, we are to love the Lord our God with heart, soul and mind. In the 4th cent. Augustine made an insightful observation. Created in the Lord’s image, every person is sacred. So there is a homing beacon in the heart of every human. Because the “heart’s” true identity can only be formed by a loving Father, a savior Son and a transforming Spirit, everyone will be restless until they find their heart, their love with them. Only in their presence, is there real power. And we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. When someone fails to love their neighbor, we don’t shame them, cancel them. As Jesus’ disciples we are to leaven America, California, Tustin with good news of sacrificial love, renewed hearts, forgiveness, Spirit transformed personhood. As Jesus’ priestly community we are to help people grow and walk in holiness through some really difficult and complex issues. We are to “leaven” Jesus into sensitive areas of life. We are to help Jesus reach people beyond reach, to rescue people who can’t be free and renew people who are weary and beaten down.
May we, at St. Stephen’s, “leaven” our neighbors long before politically induced, utopian worldviews. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of love. It’s a matter of holiness. As a community of faith, a priestly community in the 21st century we have challenges different from Matthew’s. But here’s Jesus’ wisdom’s question to us: How many triple recipe leavened loaves of bread will we bake using the Trinitarian resources of the kingdom?
May the Lord grant us ears to hear, wisdom to obey, loving hearts, renewed minds, courageous wills and gracious words so that we might “leaven” our society.