Our Gospel reading this week confronts us with a series of parables – the sort that my dad (if he was still alive) might well have referred to as MacDonaldtown Parables.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with MacDonaldtown Station. It‘s not far from our church building. I don’t believe there’s actually a place called MacDonaldtown. There’s just the station. It is a rather small station that was built initially to drop off workers at the large rail repair yards that used to be located there. The yards are long gone. The station remains, nestled between Newtown and Redfern – two major stations that feed large residential areas.
Reading through the Gospels can be like – moving from one significant parable to the next – theParable of the Sower (that we heard last week), the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. When we come to this small group of parables though, we have reached a station where few people get on or get off. These are the MacDonaldtown Parables. They’ve always been there. We‘ve noticed them before in our passing., but they’ve probably never seemed significant enough to hold our attention for long.
I have yet to visit anyone in hospital, and have them ask me to read to them one of these parables – ‘Father, before I die, read to me again the parable of the mustard seed.’ No. These are theMacDonaldtown Parables – familiar, but not overly exciting.
Let’s see if we can come up with some fresh insights into them today.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (vs. 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. We didn’t. We had this – a jar of Keen’s mustard. The problem is that when I picked it up I had a sudden case of Dijon Vu. I could have sworn I’d had this mustard before
I hope I don’t seem too irreverent. The truth is that parables are often intended as jokes, with camels going through the eye of a needle, 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 developing into a magnificent piece of foliage.
True? Well, from what I understand, the mustard tree is hardly an impressive plant in its adult form – more like an oversized weed from the descriptions I’ve been given.
‘And birds of the air come and build their nests in this oversized shrub’, Jesus says. ‘Very small birds’, he neglects to add.
And what about this woman?
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (vs.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 a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (vs.44)
I remember as a young guy, enthusiastically digging holes in the family backyard, hoping that I might uncover some buried treasure. I uncovered a gas pipe once.
I accept now that there’s not a lot of pirates’ gold buried in the backyards of suburban Australia. Even so, in the Middle East, in areas of land where Jesus was, where numerous tribes, peoples, and civilisations had fought over the same plots of ground over many generations, it was always possible that one of the previous owners of your property had stashed his treasure deep in the ground when he saw the enemy coming, and didn’t get 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 had know this, my parents’ back yard might have been saved a lot of trauma. On the other hand, Newtown would probably not enjoy the wonderful underground rail system that it has in place today either.
In Jesus’ story, at any rate, there’s no such clause in operation. The treasure belongs to the owner. And so this worker, who accidentally stumbles across this unexpected bounty, starts scheming as to how he can buy the field, and so become the owner, not only of the field but of its subterranean contents.
Jesus tells 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.”
Now I know nothing about pearls. I’m rather uncultured (and I think that joke is part of the original parable). I don’t know if pearls are valued today as they once were.
Legend has it that 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! The Kingdom of Heaven costs! That’s a large part of the thrust of these parables, isn‘t it. The Kingdom of Heaven will cost us. ‘Grace might be free’ as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, ‘but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap!’
And the other side of that of course is that, despite all our efforts, our achievements in Christian ministry may well seem to us to be miniscule.
15 years of hard work, and all we’ve got to show for it is this damn mustard seed!
Where are the results? Hidden! Like yeast that’s hidden somewhere in the dough! Oh yeah, the Kingdom of God is doing its work, you can be sure, but don’t put a timeline on exactly how long you think it’s going to take before you see tangible results!
One day … you’ll be able to put that magnificent pearl around your neck! One day you’ll be able to cash in your treasure! One day you’ll see how that mysterious and invisible yeast has transformed the whole enormous lump. One day … that tiny seed will become a huge oversized bush full of galas! (now there’s a powerful image for the church).
In the meantime, we pay the price, we give up everything we have, we hang on to the mustard seed, and we keep on kneading, because we believe that one day … the Kingdom!
Well … what do you think?
Was it worth getting off at the MacDonaldtown Parables? Did you perceive anything new in them today? Quite possibly not. That’s OK. Jesus said,
“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 insight into the Scriptures and into our world, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the old truths either. The godly scribe needs treasures that are new and old.
We need fresh insight. 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 – that following Jesus is going to cost us all that we have, and that we can never count on seeing tangible results for our efforts. Yet we can be confident that our work is having its effect, and as sure as there’s a gala for every mustard tree, we can be sure … that one day … the Kingdom.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.