Preachers, politicians, and parables

In St Paul’s finest moment, he asserts that “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So let’s not let parables, preachers, or politicians divide us, either. (Romans 8:38-39)

The readings are for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A Proper 12)

Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they answered, “Yes. Got it.”

The consensus at Tuesday’s Bible Study was that they might have been trying just to stop Jesus telling them more parables because their heads were spinning, but perhaps that’s unfair. Each parable is a pearl in its own right, but when they are strung together like this, they make something else, a pearl necklace perhaps; something more personal than commercial.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they said, “Yes;” and if they meant it, then honestly, they were wiser fishermen than I.

But when we look at the parables as a set, we find patterns woven between them. Nothing is clear in itself, and yet we hear, between the lines and between the riddles, intimations of the kingdom of heaven, and how it might relate to us, and to Jesus.

Taken together, the parables are like a net, knit together and cast over the crowd, pulling in the hopeful, the weary, the obtuse, and the understanding. All of that can be sorted out later.

I admit, I find the treasure parables problematic. A man finds treasure in a field, and instead of running to his neighbours, shouting for them to come and see what good fortune is lying on their doorstep, he reburies it, deceives the landowner of its value, and keeps it for himself.

This is not an appropriate way to approach the kingdom of God. Don’t be that guy.

The merchant is looking for pearls to buy and sell; he, too, thinks that the kingdom of heaven is a commodity that he can possess. Don’t be that guy, either. Perhaps they are bad fish; something about them smells a little.

We see around us too many people who claim to have found the kingdom of heaven, to know the mind of God, and who yet want to keep it for themselves. They judge themselves to be worthy, and treat others with contempt. They celebrate the chance to exclude swathes of God’s children: transgender children, poor children, immigrant children, gay children, black children, unarmed children, female children. We find them in the comments sections of the online news, and in the media, and in the churches, and in the government. Whenever they turn their judgement upon someone we love, we notice them, and we are afflicted.

But are we so indiscriminate in deciding with whom we share our hidden treasure? Or are we dealing in grace like merchants buying and selling pearls? Are we cheating on our disclosure statements regarding the treasure that we hold, and hide? Whom do we exclude, in the secret hidden thoughts of our hearts?

Speaking of cheating, the saga of Jacob continues this morning with that trickster finding one of his own in Uncle Laban. The first family of God is full of surprises, and secrets, and side-deals; and yet God remains faithful throughout all of our sins and stumblings.

As Paul writes centuries later, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Not the church, not the media, not the government, not even we ourselves.

When Jesus began his ministry in the regions of Galilee, the gospels agree, he told the people two things: to repent, that is to be turned and transformed by their response to the gospel; because the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God is at hand.

Repent: turn away from sin and stumbling, and towards God, who is already close at hand, to catch us up and sort us out. This is the good news of God in Christ: that the kingdom of heaven is already at hand, whether we notice it or not; God is already here, with us, waiting for us. The kingdom of heaven is something like a sinner who stumbles across something wonderful, or a seeker who finds perfection, in the midst of the fish market.

Actually, if we’re going back to parables, I’d prefer the aroma of fresh baked bread from the woman with the yeast. You could spread it with mustard to make a sandwich.

The mustard seed is an interesting illustration. It isn’t really, I am told, the smallest of all seeds and it doesn’t really, I am further informed, become that great of a grown-up plant; but it does of course undergo a transformation. If it is to grow, it must first be buried in the dirt, and broken up, broken open, before it will embark upon its new life above ground. When it does, that formerly self-contained seed is now part of a greater system, giving food and shelter to the birds, cleaning the air that we breathe. From something dead and buried, it has transformed into something life-giving.

It is possible that Jesus is speaking of his own death and resurrection?

The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who hides starter yeast in a whole heap of flour, so that it blows up the whole bunch. Did you know that in first-century Judaism, there existed an idea that bore a distinct resemblance to our own expression, “She’s got a bun in the oven”?[1]

Is it possible that in telling this parable, Jesus is referring to his own advent; that the kingdom of heaven is like one born of a woman? That the kingdom of heaven is like a bun, born of an oven, who is called the Bread of Life?

Fun fact: if you put the yeasty bread parable together with the net full of fish parable, you end up with loaves and fishes, feeding the thousands on the hillside.

If we are the fish, caught up in the net of the kingdom, all sorts and conditions; if we fish are gathered together with the bread that is Jesus, then we are enough for thousands. We are enough to satisfy multitudes. We can perform miracles, extending the feast, the treasure, the grace across those who are hungry for a word from God, a crumb of comfort, a solid meal, something that doesn’t taste sour.

Or at least we can proclaim the miracle: God loves you, no exceptions. And we can assure every child of God that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,”

[nor preachers, politicians, Popes, or people]

“nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”



[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (HarperOne, 2014), 124

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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