Proper 12(A): Leaven for Our Hearts
By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer
Chapter 13 is a hinge-point in the Gospel of Matthew, and our lectionary devotes three Sundays to working through this chapter. In today’s portion, we are treated to no fewer than five images to which Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven: a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a searching merchant, and a dragnet. After offering these provocative, challenging and, at times, problematic images, Jesus asks if those listening “understood all this,” to which they respond “yes.” Really? Their confident “yes” seems comical given that scholars and faithful Christians alike struggle to articulate just what Jesus meant in his own context, much less how the Spirit might work with us today to draw forth the Living Word from these images.
It is very tempting to preach a sermon picking one of the major themes from these images. No doubt traditional interpretations can yield relevant and inspired sermons.
- Yeast and mustard seeds are small things that, with time, can yield big consequences. The preacher might easily identify projects in the community or ministry initiatives in one’s parish that seem insignificant but have the potential to make a big impact. At my former parish, three lay people committed to offering Morning Prayer each day. Often only the prayer leader attended and spoke the words aloud, alone. I called their effort a “mustard seed ministry” and was curious as to how it would grow. Several years later, they’ve never attracted a crowd, despite the church’s location in an urban area with lots of street traffic. But there have been a handful of people without homes and those living with mental illness for whom attendance has added structure and beauty to their day. Sometimes kingdom work can be small in stature but big in meaning simultaneously.
- The next two parables about hidden treasure and valuable pearls might lead the preacher to offer a traditional sermon about how the kingdom of heaven is of infinite worth, something which we must seek and for which we must sacrifice. I am reminded of an essay that recently appeared in the Christian Century in which The Rev. Sam Wells asks: “What’s the one thing that really matters?…So why aren’t you filling all your time with that?” This line of questioning could be interesting to pose to the church’s governing board, and the preacher could reflect on that conversation from the pulpit. Or the preacher might guide parishioners on spiritual practices, like the daily examen, that reveal the disparity that often exists between what we might identify as the most important thing and the painful reality of how we actually spend our time and energy.
- The drag net image may well be the least preached on in this selection among Mainline Protestants. Just a hunch. But I would challenge us to take this image seriously. For one thing, the drag net is inclusive – everything is pulled in: good, bad, and ugly. And we human beings aren’t the ones tasked with sorting things out—that job has been assigned to the angels. In an era where we are quick to self-identify as liberal or conservative, red or blue, progressive or traditional, perhaps we are being cautioned against this tendency to self-segregate into mutual admiration societies that function implicitly to reinforce our superiority to the “other.”
New Testament Scholar Amy-Jill Levine, however, cautions against relying on traditional interpretations that don’t yield an element of surprise. Her book Short Stories by Jesus is an excellent source for shaking up the parable interpretations you’ve heard since your Vacation Bible School days. She suggests, for example, that we consider how both yeast and mustard seeds are rather ordinary objects, found in domestic settings. The arrival of the kingdom of heaven, on her readings of these parables, isn’t a cataclysmic earth-shattering event. Rather it is “present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do – to go out on the limb and provide for others, and ourselves as well.”
With the second set of paired images, perhaps the preacher might wonder just who is the agent of the seeking and finding. The hidden treasure is only revealed because someone is out there digging in the mud. We have no idea if the digger expected to find a hidden treasure or if she was even looking for one. But she was busy in the trenches, digging deeper and deeper. The merchant is searching for fine pearls, presumably to sell them, turn a profit and search for some more. But all of his selling and buying presumably ceases when he finds the pearl of grave value is discovered: he has no more capital to invest. The merchant stops being a merchant. There is total identity shift.
As a practitioner of Centering Prayer, these images of someone digging or searching are helpful. Often my 20-minute prayer periods just feel like digging in the mud: thought after thought arises; feeling after feeling. But what if the one digging through my mud is the Holy Spirit yearning to make contact with my spirit? What if we are not the agents (the digger or the merchant) but are instead the recipients of Divine digging and searching? That sounds like grace to me.
So how would you respond if Jesus asked you if you understood these parables? If he asked me surely I would want to say “yes,” but at best it would be an aspirational “yes.” But perhaps the aspiration is worth celebrating; the striving itself is a privilege:
“…what a wonderful thing it is to be made part of that striving. The parables of the kingdom of heaven make clear that the kingdom of heaven is not “up there,” but rather is a kingdom that creates time and constitutes space…Jesus teaches us through the parables so that we might be for the world the material reality of the kingdom of heaven, for in Jesus we see and hear what many prophets and righteous people had longed to see and hear.”
As we prepare to preach this week, perhaps we can ask the Spirit to guide us to become like those scribes mentioned in verse 52, able to find treasure in both traditional interpretations as well as newer ones that might leaven our imaginations and our hearts.
 Wells, Samuel. “The Refiner’s Fire,” The Christian Century. 17 May 2017: 35. Print. Also accessible here: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/chat-refiners-fire.
 Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. New York: HarperOne, 2014. p. 182.
 Ibid., p. 152.
 Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006. p. 135.
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as the Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. She completed a Master of Theology at the University of Edinburgh and a Master of Divinity at Episcopal Divinity School. She spends her “free” time chasing a toddler and shuffling a soccer-playing son to and from practice.