Scripture: Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52
This summer was the fifteenth time to be part of a camp directing team for church camp. One of the things that I think is kind of neat is how every year the general vibe and culture that a week of camp generates is different. Even though there can be returning campers, counselors, or directors the unique make up of individuals that creates every year of camp creates a wholly unique feel for that particular year. Even though every year of camp is its own thing, I have put enough years in to see some patterns repeat. One of those pattern is that every few years riddles become a big thing at camp. Typically the way this starts is a counselor, as a way to fill some time, will ask a small group of campers a riddle. This riddle then passes around the camp, and others start sharing riddles that they have collected and within a day entire cabins are very focused on sharing and solving riddles. This last happened at camp in 2022. There was one particular cabin that came together, not only were they all in the same room at evenings but a lot of them tended to sit at the same table for meals and they spent a lot of time on riddles.
Here is an example of one of these riddles: “The more you take away, the bigger I become. What am I?” So that you do not spend the next fifteen minutes just trying to figure out the answer, I will tell you that the answer to that riddle is a hole. A riddle is a statement, question or phrase that often takes advantage of double meanings, and riddles are always presented as a puzzle to be solved. That is a description that seems to fit this morning’s scripture. This morning’s scripture is a collection of different parables. Each one is full of veiled references and double meanings where the mundane seems to be pointing to something greater. Each one seems to challenge us to try and solve the mystery being presented within the parable. The challenge to solve seems to be present in the scripture, when in verse 51 when Jesus ask “Have you understood all these things? The disciples, of course respond with yes. But I have to really wonder, did they? Did they really? Because it seems the main difference between a riddle and a parable, is that a riddle has an absolute right or wrong to solve, but no such answer is ever given for any of these parables. All of these parables are told to reveal what the kingdom of God is like. So the final riddle this morning’s scripture leaves us with is what do these stories reveal about the kingdom of heaven?
This is actually a harder to question to answer than it might first appear. For instance, the parable of the mustard seed found in verse 31-32 is a go to children’s message scripture. This is because it is a great visual, because mustard seeds are indeed small and it can be shown to children before revealing to them just how big a mustard seed can get. It is honestly a bit of a stretch to call it a tree, but the mustard plant was the biggest garden plant and it was not uncommon for them to get 6 to 8 feet tall. It is a lot of plant to come from such a small seed. So in these children messages the seed is typically shown to the children, the size of the tree is revealed, and then the children’s message wraps up with a take-a-way, but what is it? That is where it gets interesting, because that largely depends on where the children’s message comes from! One book of children’s messages conflates the kingdom of heaven with the church and states that the church started with twelve followers (the mustard seed) and has grown into a big tree with a lot of disciples today so we should continue to tell others about Jesus. Another book of children’s messages I have has a different takeaway by stating the mustard seed is like our faith. It starts small but the more we seek God and follow Jesus the more our faith grows until it is like a big tree. Then I found a children’s lesson on line that uses this scripture, but takes a completely different spin. This one pointed out how miraculous it was that something so big could come from something so small and claims this story is an illustration of the power of God that makes something so amazing happen.
So which one is it? Which one is the right understanding of the parable? The fact that this one simple story can be presented in three radically different ways to children shows how beautifully infuriating Jesus’ parables are. The set up clearly feels like an analogy because each time Jesus states “the kingdom of heaven is like” and then uses common items. However, unlike an analogy Jesus never gives and explanation of how a mustard seed is like the kingdom of heaven. This makes the whole set up feel more like a riddle, where there is a double meaning for us to figure out. But this is where parables differ from riddles. Riddles have a single right answer, and parables do not.
We can honestly find this a little frustrating because we tend to prefer it when there is one right answer. We like to be able to claim we know we have it all figured out. When Jesus asked the disciples “Have you understood all of these things?” in verse 51 many would prefer it if instead of letting the disciples skate by with a simple yes, Jesus had asked them to explain what they thought they understood and then told them if they were right or wrong. Many of us would probably prefer if this morning’ scripture consisted of a bunch of riddles instead of parables because a riddle can be solved but that is not necessarily true for a parable. People often like to claim that the bible is a book of answers, but this morning’s scripture shows it really is not that cut or dry. The bible is not a google search. We cannot enter a question and in seconds get the answer with a chapter and verse. The bible is not a book of answers, but it is a book of truth. This morning’s scripture are a set of parables that reveals the truth about the kingdom of heaven.
For us to come to any understanding then, about what these parables are talking about then we should have some understanding of the Kingdom. In Matthew’s gospel the kingdom of heaven is commonly used while in other gospels the common phrase is the kingdom of God, but in either event the Kingdom is the topic that Jesus talks about the most. The kingdom is in itself a bit of a riddle. God’s kingdom is more than just the heavenly realm, because often in scripture the kingdom is talked about in the present tense with implied immediacy. Yet at the same time, the Kingdom is more than just the church, because the Kingdom described in scriptures as an eternalness and divinity to it that no human institution could fully embody. The kingdom of God is both here and now and it is yet to come.
Perhaps a way to think about God’s kingdom is that the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is where God’s love is known and experienced. This is clearly the case in God’s heavenly kingdom where people are fully reconciled with God. But wherever those who seek to earnestly follow Jesus gather humbly to worship in Spirit and truth, there also is God’s kingdom. Wherever grace breaks through, hearts are changed and lives are transformed by believing in Christ then there is God’s kingdom. Wherever the darkness and evil of this fallen world are pushed back by selfless acts of love and faithfully caring for the least of these, then there is God’s kingdom. It is likely an over simplification to describe the kingdom of heaven as wherever God’s love is known and experienced, but it is a starting point and Jesus gave us dozens of parables full of truth about what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Going back to the children’s messages about the mustard seed and the question, which one is the right understanding? Perhaps the answer is all of them. Jesus tells us the parable is about the kingdom of heaven and perhaps all three understandings reveal to us what the kingdom of heaven is like. The parables of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast are related and they are meant to make the same points about what the kingdom of heaven is like. In both parables, something small- a mustard seed and yeast- lead to something far greater. The truth being pointed here to is the nature of the kingdom of heaven can bring something incredible from the smallest of starts. It is also worth noting that in both of these parables the incredible growth is not the result of the person involved. The parable of the mustard seed starts with a man planting a seed, but the man does not make the seed grow into a tree. In the same way, the woman adds yeast to the flour. The parable does not state that the woman kneaded the yeast into the dough, rather it is structured in such a way to emphasize it is the work of the yeast that causes the bread to rise. In both events the truth being communicated seems to be that the growth found in the kingdom of God is not driven by our actions, but rather it is a work outside of our control, that is it is the work of God.
If the truths the two parables communicate are that the kingdom of God can grow from the smallest of beginnings and that God is the one who behind this growth then all three children message understandings are valid. All three of them, whether it be about sharing our faith to grow the church, seeing our faith grow from being more Christ like, or acknowledging the power of God to make things grow, are valid applications of the truth the parables communicate.
We can take a similar approach to the group of parables found in verses 44-45. Just like the parables of the mustard seed and yeast are linked together, so are the two small parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl. Again, we are told that these parables reveal to us what the kingdom of God is like. Both of these stories have similar outcomes but very different details. In both stories someone find something of immense value and gives up all they have to acquire it. One person seems to stumble upon the treasure of value by accident and the other is purposely seeking it out. The truth these parable seem to communicate is that being part of the kingdom of heaven is more valuable than all that we possess, no matter how we come to find it.
That is the truth within the story, but what is the application? Perhaps it is best left for you to think through. Because that is after all the nature of a parable, it is meant to be wrestled with and thought over as we come to an understanding of the truth within and how that truth applies to our lives. The parables are not meant to be stories where we find easier answers, they are meant to be more like divine riddles that help us come to a deeper understanding about the widths and depths of God’s amazing, eternal kingdom.
I think it could be argued that Jesus makes a similar point in his final statement from this morning’s scripture: “Therefor, every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of the house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” The teachers of the law had their own understanding of God, they thought they had all of the answers, but when they become a disciple they begin to learn that the kingdom of God is bigger, more grand, more inclusive, and more wonderful than they had ever thought possible. The new treasures, the new understanding of God, is added to the old. Perhaps that should be our approach as well. When we come to the scriptures seeking a book of answers, then we might find our answers but that is all we find. However, when we approach the scripture as a book of truth, then we find the truth continues to speak to us, it continues to be revealed to us. We do continue to grow like a mustard seed or yeast in bread, we do continue to discover that knowing God and experiencing God’s love surpasses all other things, and we continue to add new treasures of wisdom and understanding to those we have already gained.
So may you continue to seek the truth of God, God’s heavenly kingdom, and the grace of God’s son Jesus through the scriptures. May you be willing to consider the truths contained within the scripture, may you think on them, may you wrestle with them, and may you come to better understand and know God through them. May your faith be one that grows like a mustard seed and may it have so much value in your life that you are willing to give up everything else for its sake. May your faith continue to acquire new treasure to go with the old as you faithfully come back to again and again to the divine riddles Jesus told.