Matthew 13: 31-33; 44-50
In 2017, the world learned a secret that seemed to be hidden from our eyes as the award-winning film “Hidden Figures” hit the screens. In its magnificent true story, it was revealed that three women of color—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—did the hard calculations at NASA in the 1960s, with pencil and paper, figures that cumbersome computers were not yet trusted to produce. Even John Glenn, it was said, did not trust the NASA calculations until Katherine had said they were right. Who knew? These were hidden figures in history, until, in this case, a film brought the story to light. Another story recently was brought to my attention by the death of Congressman John Lewis: that the bridge in Selma, Alabama—where police clashed with marchers intending to walk from Selma to Montgomery—is named for a man who served as the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. This time in history has brought that fact to the surface. I just knew that he had been a Commander in the Confederate Army. Sometimes it takes action, or a deliberate revealing, for important information to be heard. As I was working on my Doctoral Thesis, “Discovery in the Dark Night of the Soul” I came upon the concept of the “Divine Hiddenness” of God: Quoting from my thesis:
Robert Oakes argues for the idea that if we have a God who at times is hidden from us, it is something of a paradox. As he puts it, ‘Might there not, after all, be something odd about the view that there can exist a Being who is both omniscient and hidden?’ Those who cannot find or hear God for a period of time are not, in their anxiety, denying the existence of God; they are alarmed by a sense of the absence or silence of the Divine. John of the Cross, in one of his other works, Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom of Christ writes, ‘Where have you hidden Yourself, and abandoned me to my sorrow, O my Beloved? (as he cries out to God.) [Jeffrey Alan Sumner, Columbia Theological Seminary Library, p. 14]
God even seems hidden at times for those who seek that Holy Presence. Some even wonder where God is now. Our Lord Jesus certainly had insights into the intricacies and mysteries of God, and the Kingdom. Here’s one more fact that you might not know: whenever Matthew writes about the “Kingdom of Heaven,” the original Greek has “The Kingdom of God.” Matthew, a Jew, believed it disrespectful to say or write the name of God, so he used a euphemism, “Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus in Matthew, is not describing the hereafter; they are describing the “here and now.” So today, in the next set of parables, we learn that they contain mysteries, secrets, and hidden treasures for living on earth. The Psalmist, long before Jesus shared parables, the Psalmist wrote these words in Psalm 78:2, in the NIV: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old.” Jesus even quotes it in Matthew 13:35. Parables, then, were not cute stories for slow learners; they were designed for insightful people to grasp; for those who had eyes to see or ears to hear. Parables are not about Heaven; they are clues about how God wants mortals to live in the here and now. Parable wrap stories like a mantle (or a cloak,) around the listeners, sharing meanings and secrets sparingly. So we will not be surprised if some come away from hearing parables scratching their heads.
After hearing two parables that seemed like they were about farming, we learned they were about the Kingdom instead. Now we move into staccato presentations of new parables. Wise listeners will have their ears tuned for hidden meanings. The first has to do with a mustard seed. Although small, we must acknowledge they were not the smallest seeds around. And we must acknowledge that mustard shrubs can grow large, but hardly into trees. Birds cannot actually build nest in its branches because they will not support the weight. And this parable is paired with the parable of the leaven, (or yeast) comparing things big with things small. So, like with all parables, we cannot read them with flatfooted literalism. The late Biblical scholar Douglas R. A. Hare says this about these parables:
The two parables are not “teaching” but “preaching”; they do not give instruction about what the kingdom is like but call for faith in God who is active in the tiny movement initiated by Jesus. … The twin parables challenge the hearer to leave behind the pedestrian, pragmatic everyday world that treats God as irrelevant and enters a new world where God is the primary reality. [Interpretation: Matthew; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993, p. 156.]
Even a kernel of faith in God can bring about generous outcomes! Insignificant items or people bring about amazing results! God is extravagant, casting Gospel seeds without a care about where they land. God is extravagant, taking a small seed and creating a large shrub (or tree!) Like leaven (or yeast) can change bread, God can change our world with the stories of people reaching out to others. The yeast story tells about three measures of flour, indicating the baking of three loaves of bread, enough for an extravagant feast! Listeners in Jesus’ day would have remembered when Abraham instructed Sarah to prepare cakes from three measures of flour for their heavenly visitors in Genesis 18:6. Like Abraham and Sarah, might we prepare the table of our hearts too for visits from God’s angels unawares, pulling out the good china and fine silver to welcome holy guests in our midst? Who knows who our extravagant actions might touch others?
For years I would find uplifting stories in Guideposts magazines or in the “Chicken Soul for the Soul” books. Now the internet brings hidden stories to light and onto our news feeds almost instantly. Take, for example the amazing story of Captain Tom Moore in England, a very old man who wanted to raise awareness of and support for England’s National Health Service. To do so, he used a walker with wheels since breaking his hip, and set himself the target of walking 25 meters around his garden 100 times by his 100th birthday which was on April 30th. His hope was to raise 1000 English pounds. He finished his mission, but instead as the word spread, people he didn’t even know donated to his cause, raising 33 million pounds, (or 40 Million dollars.) Queen Elizabeth II knighted now 100-year-old World War II Captain Tom Moore on Friday in an outdoor ceremony at Windsor Castle. Sometimes a small act of kindness can be turned into a profound, extravagant gift. You may have also heard about Chris Evans, the actor who played Captain America in the films, who sent a special video message and gift to a brave 6-year-old boy named Bridger Walker, who saved his four-year-old sister from a dog attack. The boy was badly injured, requiring a two-hour surgery and 90 stitches to his face. Chris Evans decided to contact Bridger and his family, giving a special gift that very brave boy. When he called, Chris went into character saying: “Captain America here, Bridger! I read your story, I saw what you did …and pal, you’re a hero! What you did was so brave, so selfless; your sister is so lucky to have you as a big brother! Your parents must be so proud of you. I’m going to track down your address and I’m going to send you an authentic Captain America shield because pal, you deserve it.” When some asked Bridger why he did what he did, the boy answered: “If someone had to die, I thought it should be me.” What extravagant brotherly love.
Now on to the next parables! Jesus came back on land, went into a house, and began addressing only his disciples. He shared another pair of parables, one about a hidden treasure, and one about a valuable pearl. They might be boiled down to a song we sing as new members join this congregation: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness. And all these things shall be added unto you. Alleluia!” People may seek the Kingdom all their lives, but once they find it, like those who have find a hidden treasure, or like those who find a pearl of great price, there is great rejoicing! Perhaps they use their extravagant treasure to help save their business or family from huge debt; or perhaps to help neighbors. Perhaps a parallel story was when Jesus came to the house of the tax collector Zacchaeus, who earned lots of money and tucked it away, being despised by others for his miserliness. But in Jesus’ presence, Zacchaeus had a change of heart, and pulled his money out of its hiding place, promising to compensate anyone he cheated and to give even more for the insult! Finding a treasure or a pearl gives one the chance to decide what to do with them. A child -like response was my young decision to save my 4 old pennies, holding onto them and keeping them hidden, letting them not help others. A mature Christian response might have invested or sold them as a way to lessen debt or help others. What might your extravagant Kingdom response be?
Finally, this is the third parable in this set—after the sower, and the weeds and tares, to talk actually talk about the end of the age. It means that God fishes with a big net, pulling in “rotten” fish with good fish, only separating them once they are in the boat.
Listen to John Calvin’s comments as we conclude: “We commonly set a high value on what is visible, and therefore the new and spiritual life, which is held out to us in the Gospel, is little esteemed by us, because it is hidden ….One pearl, though it is small, is so highly valued, that a skilled merchant does not hesitate to sell houses and land in order to purchase it. The excellence of the heavenly life is not perceived by the sense of flesh; and we do not [value] its real worth unless we are prepared to deny, on account of it, all that glitters in our eyes.”
[Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XVI, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005, p. 131.]
Let us pray: God who is sometimes hidden to us: you remind us that you are, nevertheless, present. Help our eyes see, our ears hear, and our hearts grasp the Kingdom as Jesus continuously sought to live it and describe it. In his name I ask this. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner July 26, 2020