Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 13:31-35
Breaking up the parable and interpretation of the Sower, Jesus powerfully depicted the utter blindness of those who lived according to the dominant order, and the ironic wisdom of those on the underside (Mt 13:10-17). Here, in between the parable and interpretation of the Weeds, Matthew’s Jesus continues this theme.
The image of a mustard seed growing in a garden would seem an odd illustration of God’s kingdom. In the Hebrew Bible, great kingdoms were depicted as mighty cedars, not garden plants which were considered weeds.1 Furthermore, a mustard seed would not normally be sown in a field used to cultivate wheat or other crops—to do so would violate Deuteronomy 22:9, which states: “You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, or the whole yield will have to be forfeited, both the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard itself.”
Jesus’ image, then, at one and the same time caricatures the imperial rule of Rome and subverts notions of purity held by the Jerusalem elite.2 Reality as God wants it to be, the parable invites us to imagine, is found not in the visions of those living in palaces, or in the piety of those who controlled the Jerusalem temple. Rather, “the parable tells of a kingdom where God is associated with uncleanness, where boundaries are porous, and where separation cannot and should not be maintained.”3
Similarly, the image of the leaven spreading through dough pictures God’s activity amongst those looked down upon by the dominant order. Leaven (yeast in some translations), because of its propensity to become infected and contaminate a whole batch of dough, became a symbol “for the infectious power of evil.”4 Garland goes on to note that Jesus’ saying “would be like saying that the kingdom of heaven is like ‘rust’ or a ‘virus.’”5 It is a picture of God’s presence and activity among the marginalised and those who were despised by the dominant.
For those on the underside, speaking of such subversive realities is a dangerous act—one rarely done so in public view. Rather, speech which is critical of the dominant order is usually done through “[r]umor, gossip, folktales, jokes, songs, rituals, codes” in order to convey messages which seem innocuous but are heard by those “in the know”—that is, those on the underside—as subversive. This “hidden transcript” allows the less powerful to critique the dominant order while maintaining a veneer of compliance.6 Jesus’ parables belong to such speech. Using images and stories, Jesus invites his hearers to imagine a new world. It is one hidden from the dominant order, whose creation stories and foundation myths imagined the world being formed out of violent conquest which legitimated domination by the powerful over the powerless (Is this what Matthew had in mind in adding “foundation of the world” to Psalm 78:2?). But to those on the underside, it is good news.
- How do you imagine that God’s reign being like a mustard seed or leaven?
- In what ways do these images help you to imagine God’s reign in your neighbourhood?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
1 For example, Ezekiel 31. See also Daniel 4:9-12, 20-22. See David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 151.
2 Ernest van Eck, The Parables of Jesus the Galilean: Stories of a Social Prophet (Eugene: Cascade, 2016), 77-79.
3 van Eck, Parables of Jesus the Galilean, 83.
4 Garland, Matthew, 152.
5 Garland, Matthew, 152.
6 James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale, 1990), 19.
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 13:44-50
Living under the reign of God—in generous and just community in loving resistance to unjust powers—is something of great joy and beauty. We have seen pictures of the kind of community which Jesus envisages when he speaks of God’s reign—where brothers, sisters and mothers are are all included and cared for and where everyone has enough. Significantly for today’s reading, it is just this kind of community which a rich young man later in the narrative will not be able to participate in because of his inability to “convert” from being a member of the wealthy and powerful to the underside (Mt 19:16-30).
In today’s reading, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven firstly to a treasure hidden in a field. Life as God wants it to be is precious—something of infinite value. In the second picture, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a merchant looking for pearls. Notice that here the focus is on the merchant rather than the pearl that he finds. In Matthew’s world, merchants were viewed negatively:
Because of the perception of limited good in advanced agrarian societies, and the conviction that production was primarily for use rather than exchange (i.e., supporting immediate families and the village), the profits made by merchants were perceived as a form of usury and as unnatural. Their trade was socially destructive and a threat to the community. In the eyes of the peasantry, merchants were evil and considered thieves.7
Yet, surprisingly, this merchant can see the value of the kingdom of God— he “does what the young man cannot, but the disciples can—he divests from everything he owns for the new treasure whose value perhaps only he can see…”8
The images of the treasure and the merchant looking for pearls might help us see that, like the rich young man, we cannot find the joy and life of God’s reign without “selling all” that we have. This is not because it costs a lot of money to buy our way into God’s reign, as if we are buying our way into an elite gated community. Rather, it is because our wealth will stop us from ever knowing the richness of generous community on the underside—the only place, according to Matthew, that God’s reign can take root.
Yet not everyone, Matthew’s Gospel affirms, will want to participate in such community, or even acknowledge its value or goodness. God’s reign, therefore, involves judgment, separation of “evil” from what is just. As John announced earlier, and as Jesus told in the parable of the weeds, the image of “good” and “bad” fish again affirms that everything will, eventually, in God’s time, be revealed for what it is. And again, for Matthew’s community on the underside at the mercy of exploitative powers parading as upholders of justice and peace, this is a welcome, and subversive, encouragement.
- Why do you think the Jesus uses the images of the treasure and the merchant?
- What challenge or encouragement do you hear in today’s reading?
Pray for one another
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
7 van Eck, Parables of Jesus the Galilean, 222.
8 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. EPub edition (HarperOne: 2014), 158.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 13:51-53
The series of parables here concludes as Jesus describes an image of treasure made up of “what is new and what is old.” We cannot understand the present (let alone the future!) unless we understand the past. A scribe, to be faithful to God’s reign, must interpret the past well, then she/he can interpret the present and future well. Perhaps Matthew sees himself in this role.
The story of Israel which Matthew’s Gospel stands upon is a story of faith and resistance, of struggling to live as a just community and calling out its rulers when they don’t, of a precarious people living in the midst of world powers, and of a people eventually conquered and subjugated by those powers. It is a story of hope in darkness and a tenacious belief that God will act to liberate and restore. Matthew, in telling the story of a peasant prophet from Nazareth, continues this old story. Yet it is also a new story. It is a story that God is acting not only to liberate Israel, but other subjugated nations as well—a story of radical inclusion of “others” into the life of God’s people. It is a story of God acting not by coming in power to wipe out the enemies of God’s people, but through the faith of one who spoke truth to power and took upon himself the consequences of death on a Roman cross—a story of peacemaking and reconciliation through loving even enemies. And it is a story, as we shall see, which doesn’t end in state sponsored execution as a criminal, but continues in hope and faith.
- Take a moment to reflect on you own life. What stories do you stand in?
- Where do you see continuity with the “old” and “new” story of Matthew?
- Where do you see discontinuity?
- Are there ways in which the Holy Spirit is inviting you deeper into God’s story?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Advocacy
Read: Proverbs 31:8-9
Ask: How might we amplify the voices of the poor and oppressed this week?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer