1 KINGS 3:5, 7-12 | ROMANS 8:28-30 | MATTHEW 13:44-46
We’re concluding our reading of the 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel today which consists of a string of seven parables each imaging the kingdom of God. This week we’re reflecting on the last three in the series. Let’s get right into them.
1.“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and goes out and sells all that he has and buys that field.” It has been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of lounging on the beach. But I remember, from the olden days, seeing beachcombers wandering along the beach with electronic metal detectors. They were looking for things like lost wedding rings or gold earrings – anything of value.
Well, in Palestine, at the time of Jesus, it was not unheard of that someone found a real treasure buried in a field. Palestine was in itself an unimportant country on the coast of the Mediterranean. Because of its geography it suffered, but survived, countless invasions.
The powerful countries of the north and the west like Assyria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt frequently engaged in wars among themselves and other smaller countries. The main roads that connected these countries snaked through Palestine. So, it was common for families to flee the advancing armies with the hope of returning after the armies marched through. Families would sometime bury their valuables before fleeing. Sadly, some of them never returned. Like today’s beachcombers there were always people who wandered around looking for a dent in the soil that might signal a buried treasure. From this common phenomenon Jesus spun his parable.
(Focus Thought) Many of us carry the hope of discovering a treasure and, with it, a new life. Are you searching for a treasure, temporal or spiritual? What do you think about letting go of everything you value in order to buy the field with the buried treasure? What are your thoughts and feelings about letting go of the things you value?
2. “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that pearl.” In the Roman Empire, and throughout the Middle East, pearls were highly valued because of their delicate beauty. They came from the sea which was considered the source of all life and therefore had a mystical quality. Pearls aren’t like gold or silver that’s mined from the earth and must go through a series of processes to become the valued coin or the piece of jewelry. A pearl is beauty itself.
(Focus Thought) Are you searching for a deeper meaning to your life? What is the pearl that, if you possessed it, would put your soul to rest? Take special note of your feelings as you think about the meaning of this parable.
3. The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into baskets. What is bad they will throw away. Hmmmm. This sound a little bit like last week’s parable of the wheat and the weeds. They grew together only to be separated at harvest time. Here the image is more aggressive. Fisherman cast their nets when they see the water moving, bubbling in a way, because a school of fish is swimming just below the surface. With strength and precision, the nets are cast over the school and immediately yanked back to the boats to catch as many fish as possible. After the haul, the catch is separated. The fish are kept. What’s unwanted is thrown back into the sea.
(Focus Thought) Have you ever experienced the excitement of hope? I’m thinking of a song from West Side Story that poetically catches that excitement: Something’s Coming. “Could be, who knows? There’s something due any day I will know right away soon as it shows. It many come cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose. Who knows?” What are you hoping for? What’s just under the surface? You can almost see it. You can almost reach out and touch it. You’re not sure what it is – but you know – it’s there. Don’t be afraid to think about this. It can bring up feeling. Don’t be afraid of thoughts that seem illogical or off the topic. Respect every thought and feeling. Don’t be afraid to cast the net out onto the unknown.
Matthew concludes this chapter of parables with an important maxim. “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”
Through the Focus Thoughts we’ve been looking inside ourselves. These parables are symbolic maps meant to guide us as we travel the inner path. Our fears, hopes, dreams and even our style of living are the things that can inhibit or help our spiritual development. This is what Jesus refers to as “the old.” When we recognize them, we can be more prepared to begin a new way of living – a spirit filled way of living. This is the foundation of new life in the kingdom of heaven.
WISDOM 12:13, 1619 | ROMANS 8:26-27 | MATTHEW 13:24-43
Today we’re thinking about the kingdom of heaven, the central theme of Jesus’ ministry. Sometimes, as in the passage we’re reading today, Jesus spins a parable that delivers an impression of the kingdom. What makes the kingdom difficult to describe is that it’s not a concept; it’s also, and primarily, an experience. As we walk the Christian journey, the kingdom will intersect our lives. Sometimes it may come as a flash of lucidity – but a definition may elude us. Sometimes it may not be a thought at all, but a feeling – a deep, down in the heart experience that’s difficult to describe I wish I could share with you a precise definition of the kingdom, but I can’t. What I can do, however, is focus the images Jesus uses to describe it. From that point on, I will leave it to you to form your own idea of the kingdom. There are three images of the kingdom in the gospel today. The first is a field of wheat that has lots of weeds. In the story the landowner declares that an enemy has planted these weeds. He can’t pull the weeds up because he’ll pull the wheat up along with it. So, he’ll let them grow together and separate them at harvest time. (Focus thought) There’s tension built into the story; an enemy has planted the weeds. It seems there’s opposition to the flourishing of the kingdom. What does this image teach us about the dynamics of the kingdom? The second image is that of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree. (Focus thought) What power is hidden in that tiny seed that transforms it into a tree? Power that manifests the energy of the kingdom in our midst? How? The third image is a lump of yeast that mixes with flour. (Focus thought) When yeast is mixed into flour, there is no longer yeast nor flour – combined, they become dough. What can this teach us about the kingdom? These little parables are meant to be pondered and prayed over. Let your heart guide your thoughts. Feel free to let your mind wander about with these images. All kind of ideas might surface. Respect them. As you reflect don’t ignore your feelings; they’re connected to the heart. We want our reflections to be thoughtful and personal – heartfelt. The Spirit works through the heart as well as the intellect. While reflecting, keep in mind what Jesus taught us: “The kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:21)
ISAIAH 55:10-11 | ROMANS 8:18-23 | MATTHEW 13:1-9
The message Isaiah delivers to us today, and the parable Jesus spins, need to be stamped in our minds and hearts. They remind us that God’s word is always productive, whether it comes to us like gentle rain or like seeds tossed over the soil. We’re reminded that God is always reaching out to us. God is continually communicating with us. God is never silence.
We’re reminded, too, that we often don’t hear God’s word. Sometimes we’re only ready to hear a part of the message, or we hear it and then forget it. The parable of the sower presents the various ways we might miss hearing God’s word, ignoring it, not taking the time and effort to come to understand its meaning for our lives, or being so distracted by the lives we lead, that we don’t even realize that God’s speaking to us. Today’s message is clear: stop, be quiet, listen. God is speaking to you.
There’s an additional teaching in today’s scripture that we shouldn’t overlook. We’re disciples of Jesus, and so we’ve committed ourselves, like he did, to share the word of God. What we’ve heard, what we’ve understood, what we’ve integrated into our lives must be shared. Don’t forget what Jesus told his disciples as he sent them out on their mission. “Make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”
We’re open to the word of God. We listen for it; we take it to heart. But we’re also asked to share what we’ve heard. We do this by the example of our lives, by the advice and guidance we give, by preaching in whatever way we might preach. Sometimes we’ll be heard but not understood. Sometimes we’ll be ignored. Sometimes the word we share will touch a heart, and that word will yield “a hundred or sixty, or thirtyfold.”
ZECHARIAH 9:9-10 | ROMANS 8:9, 11-13 | MATTHEW 11:25-30
Today, we’re asked to reflect on the most famous invitation Jesus extended. “Come to me all who labor and are burdened, and I will give your rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
We’ve been reading chapter ten of Matthew’s Gospel for the past few Sundays. In that chapter Jesus was instructing his disciples in preparation for the preaching ministry they were about to begin. His invitation to “take my yoke upon you” was extended first to his apostles, and then to all disciples who would come after them. That’s all of us. Let’s think about this call.
Let’s look at the invitation Jesus extended to his apostles. They were his co-workers, his laborers. They accepted his call and carried the burdens his ministry demanded. Remember he told them not to take money with them or a change of clothes. He warned them that they wouldn’t even have a place to rest their heads at night. This was difficult stuff. Jesus was calling them in a radical way. But perhaps the most difficult part of the ministry would be the rejection that would come with it, a rejection Jesus himself experienced. Their teachings were condemned. They became social pariahs. They were arrested, some of them scourged and some executed.
The image of the yoke that Jesus used was well known to them. A yoke was a finely sculptured wooden beam that was secured over the shoulders of the ox. The plow was attached to the yoke so that the ox could painlessly lean into it to pull the plow. The yoke had to be precisely and uniquely shaved to fit perfectly so that the ox wouldn’t be bruised or chaffed. The yoke Jesus offers is his special care he gives to each one of us so that we might assist him in his ministry.
Most of us live securely within the structures of our society. We don’t fear the dangers that the apostles and early disciples did. Yet, we don’t seem to be as dedicated as the early disciples. We tend to hesitate taking on an active role in the ministry of Christ. I think that, deep down, we’re afraid of being rejected or threatened if we were to engage in his mission more publicly.
I think today’s gospel is asking each one of us, regardless of our age or social status to consider putting on the yoke of his ministry. To really be a Christian we have to discover when he meant when he said his yoke was easy and his burden light. That can only be achieved when we accept his yoke and begin plowing the field with him.
2 KINGS 4:8-11, 14-16A | ROMANS 6:3-4, 8-11 | MATTHEW 10:37-42
As a teacher and preacher, Jesus often used the tool of exaggeration to get the attention of his audience. I’m sure his message today got the attention of all of us.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” I’ve lost track of the number of people who have questioned me about this sentence. How could Jesus possibly ask that of his disciples? I always bring up the following sentence to add more stress to their question. “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”
We don’t hear this sentence like the people who first heard Jesus deliver it. During Jesus’ lifetime, when he was around eight years old, there was a revolt in Galilee lead by Judas, a zealot. In retaliation, Varus, the Roman general who squelched the revolt, lined the roads leading to Galilee with the crosses of 2000 Jews. The memory still haunted people’s minds. Why would he dare say something like this? His first demand to love him more than our fathers and mothers is clearly exaggeration. The second image would have sent chills down the spines of his listeners.
We Christians speak a lot about love, and much of our talk is warm and cuddly. That’s fine. A commitment to love should have the benefit of loved returned. Jesus loved his apostles, his special group of twelve disciples, and they loved him in return. We know that their love crumpled horribly during the last day of his life. All but one, the young man, John, abandoned him. They feared for their own lives, so they ran away and let him die alone.
Jesus’ teaching is so very important for our reflection. His command to “love one another as I have loved you” isn’t to be taken lightly. The love Jesus models is a sacrificial love. It’s love that gives without expecting to be loved in return. It means loving others even when they act unlovingly. It means carrying the cross of love.