The MacDonaldtown Parables (A sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-45)

[Jesus] 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.” … “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.”

“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, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls … “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”
I can never read these parables without being reminded of MacDonaldtown Railway Station. For those who know MacDonaldtown Station, the connection might not be immediately obvious. For those who don’t know it, the connection is probably less obvious still!

MacDonaldtown Station was the closest railway station to my home for much of my youth. It’s nestled between Newtown Station, which is quite a large station, and Redfern, which is larger still. I believe it was originally built purely to service the rail repair yards, which I think were subsequently moved elsewhere. The bottom line is that very few people get off and on there, and I remember that even when I was young there was talk of closing it down though a quick Google search last night ensured me that it still stands defiant.

Indeed, I found from my web search that MacDonaldtown Station has its own Wikipedia page (which made me feel considerably less proud of having one myself). According to that entry, MacDonaldtown is the 150th most patronized railway station in Sydney (out of 176). I’d hate to think what that says about the other 26, for unless the situation has radically changed (and indications are that it has not) very few people get on and off there, much as is the case with these parables.

We’ve been travelling through the Gospel of Matthew for quite a few weeks now and have stopped off at some major parables – the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. These tend to be major stopping points on any journey through the Gospels, but not so with the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Parable of the Woman Making Bread, or the Parable of the Pearl. Not many travelers get on or off at these stops.

These are the MacDonaldtown Parables. They’ve always been there and we recognise them as we pass by, but in all of my pastoral visits to the sick and dying, I am yet to have anyone say to me, “Father, before I die, read to me again the Parable of the Mustard seed!”

No. Few of us get on or off here. Few of us take these stories to heart, and I suspect that this is much to our detriment!

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.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

I don’t know if you deal much in mustard seeds. I don’t. I looked around to see if we had any mustard seeds at home and I’m pretty sure we don’t! We had a jar of Keen’s mustard. The problem was that when I picked up the jar I had a sudden case of Dijon Vu (I could have sworn I’d had this mustard before).

Forgive me if I seem irreverent but parables are often intended as jokes, with camels going through the eyes of needles, and finding dust in someone else’s eye when you’ve got a log in your own. And here, with the mustard seed, where you’ve got the smallest of all seeds suddenly blossoming into a magnificent piece of foliage.

I don’t think I’ve even seen first-hand a fully grown mustard plant but, having looked at some images, the impression I get is that the mustard tree is not a particularly impressive plant in its adult form. It’s more like an oversized weed!

‘And birds of the air come and build their nests in this oversized shrub’, Jesus says. ‘Very small birds’, He might have added.

And what about the woman? 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.” (Matthew 13:33)

Unless you’re a baker by trade, you might miss the fact that Jesus is talking about an absurdly large amount of dough in this parable – using the equivalent of 40 kilograms of flour, as I understand it! We’re talking about a lot of dough and a large woman!

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.” (Matthew 13:44)

I remember as a young child, enthusiastically digging holes in the backyard of the family home, hoping that I might uncover some buried treasure. I uncovered a gas pipe once.

I learned over time to accept that there was not a lot of pirates’ gold buried in the backyards of suburban Australia. Even so, in Palestine, in the area where Jesus was, where numerous tribes, peoples, and civilizations had fought over the same plots of ground over many generations, it was always possible that a previous owner of your property had stashed treasure deep in the ground when he saw enemies coming and then never got an opportunity to redeem it!

The law then (as now I think) is that it’s the owner of the property, rather than the person who discovers the treasure, who is the rightful owner of buried wealth, though I think in our law, once it reaches a certain depth, all buried treasure becomes Commonwealth property. If only I’d known that in the days of my youth, my parents’ back yard might have been saved a lot of trauma!

In Jesus’ story, at any rate, there was no such clause in operation. The treasure belonged to the owner of the property, and so this worker, who was probably just laboring on the site when he accidentally stumbled across this unexpected bounty, started scheming as to how he might buy the field and so become the owner, not only of the field but of its subterranean contents.

Jesus told them another parable:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

Now I know nothing about pearls. I’m rather uncultured (nb. I think that joke is part of the original parable) and I don’t know if pearls are valued today as they once were. Legend has it that Julius Caesar gave Brutus’ mother a pearl worth six million sesterces! (and no doubt lived to regret it). Cleopatra was supposed to have a pearl worth 100 million sesterces!

Certain pearls were evidently worth a lot to certain persons in the first century.  You’d sell everything you had in order to get the right one! That doesn’t make much sense to me, but then again I’m not an addict.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a heroin addict who sells everything he has (and everything his family and friends have) in order to get a hit. That works for me (at least the concept works for me. The reality has worked against me!)

The Kingdom of Heaven costs. That’s the thrust of these parables, isn‘t it? The Kingdom of Heaven costs us! ‘Grace might be free’ as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, ‘but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap!’

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”, says Jesus(Matthew 16:24). Or, taking Bonhoeffer’s translation once again, “when Christ calls us He bids us ‘Come and die!’” Working for the Kingdom of God is a costly business. If we are going to give ourselves to this work we need to give 100% of ourselves!

And the other side of that equation, of course, is that, despite all it costs us and despite all our best efforts, we never seem to achieve very much!

You can pour twenty-five years’ worth of blood, sweat and tears into building a parish and at the end of twenty-five years you’re still holding a mustard seed!  That’s not been my experience, of course, but what has been my experience is that the process is exactly that described in the parable.

In doing the work of Christian ministry, in working with people, in working for peace – you put in your best effort and you plug away day after day and for almost all of that time the experience is something akin to banging your head against a brick wall, and then all of a sudden … WHAM! A mustard tree!

There it is – a huge, flat mass of floury goo sitting on the table, looking like it will never be fit for anything other than contributing to the kids’ stockpile of play-dough and then you nod off for a while and suddenly … WHAM!

Miracles happen! That’s the bottom line! We might like to think that if we stick to the system and follow all the right protocols that the Kingdom of God will be advanced slowly and steadily as a matter of course, but that is never the experience!

On the contrary, it’s just when you’re giving up on someone. It’s just when you’ve run out of ideas and you haven’t got any more wisdom or energy left to contribute that suddenly you find that mustard seed has been transformed into a huge bush full of galas (which is a fantastic image for the church)!

I’m only sorry that Jesus didn’t box as I think we would have ended up with another wonderful set of parables.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a fighter who gets his shot at the world title, so he gives up his job and sells everything he has so that he can devote all his time to training for that fight.

And when the fight takes place our boy takes nothing but punishment, round after round, until suddenly … his opponent slips and hits his head and you’re heavyweight champion of the world!

The seed will become a bush and the dough will rise, just as the treasure will eventually reach the surface! We don’t know exactly how or when this will happen. It’s all quite magical and mysterious, but we know that it will happen and so we keep planting those little seeds and kneading that dough and digging those holes because we believe that one day … the Kingdom comes!

Is that Good News? I hope so.

Perhaps it’s not news. Perhaps you knew all that already. That’s OK.

“Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

God knows that we need fresh perspectives on life and ministry, but we need too the old, old story, and we need to keep being reminded of the fundamental truths contained in the MacDonaldtown Parables – that we knew the job was dangerous when we took it, and that we know we can’t count on tangible short-term results for our efforts.

Even so, we can be confident that our work is making a difference. As sure as there is a gala for every mustard tree, we can be sure that one day … the Kingdom comes!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 27th of July, 2014.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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