Strange Scripture: Reflections on the Five Parables in Matthew 13
The strange thing about the use of leaven as a positive symbol for the kingdom of heaven is that it was widely regarded as an agent of corruption (fermentation) in the ancient world. The "strange" aspect of parables is often their paradoxical nature. They present as good something commonly regarded as bad (leaven as metaphor for kingdom of God, a "Good" Samaritan) or they present as bad something we regard as good. An example would be the negative portrayal of the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14a. First century Jewish audiences would have expected righteous behavior from a Pharisee, not from a tax collector. Another example is the Vineyard Laborers. We would interpret the vineyard owner's behavior as unfair in paying everyone the same wage regardless of how long they worked. The parable portrays it positively as the ethic of the kingdom of God.
So, to summarize the strangeness in these first two parables that deal with God's action in the world:
God is at work in people, events, situations (mustard seeds) we regard as insignificant and
God's actions have results wildly beyond our expectations.
God is at work in people, events, situations (leaven) widely regarded as subversive of the status quo and counter to standards of worldly success.
Now we turn to two parables that point toward our response to this persistent activity of God.
The Treasure and the Pearl
The strange element in the parable of the treasure is the behavior of the seeker. Why would someone give up everything to have access to a treasure that, by the laws of the day, he could never possess?
Likewise, the parable of the pearl—if you sell everything you have for it, what do you have except it? Then again, what do you need besides it?
The second pair of parables stresses the human response to what God is doing. Like buried treasure, God's activity is hidden and must be discovered. Like a pearl of immense value, it must be sought in order to be found. Paradoxically the kingdom, since it is God's doing, is a gift as well as a search. The emphasis in these two parables is not on the need for perseverance, but on the overwhelming, extravagant response to finding what has been sought. In each case the finder sells all he possesses in order to have access to what he has found. Our response to the gracious gift of participation in God's rule must be total. Those whose eyes have been opened to see what God is doing in Jesus must commit themselves wholeheartedly in faith and obedience.(Hare, 158).
Our lectionary text for this week contains a fifth parable, the parable of the net. It serves as an exclamation point to the first four.
The parable of the net is an allegory, a story in which every element stands for something beyond the story. (Hare 156) As in the earlier parable of the weeds and the wheat, Matthew here is expressing his concern at the mixed state of the church. The intention of the parable is not to assure good Christians of their predestined salvation as good fish, but to warn them that they must persevere in doing what Jesus teaches. Not lip service but living faith is required of Jesus' followers (Hare 156).
So, four strange parables, the first two about what God is doing in offering the gift of the kingdom (mustard seed, leaven), the second two, about how we are to seek and accept that gift (treasure, pearl). They are followed by an allegorical parable (13:47-50) that serves as an exclamation point to all four of them. Its message seems to be: better recognize the gift and work at accepting it or face the consequences.
This reminds me of the graduation ceremony in which the President of the University stood on the stage, handing out diplomas as the large group of graduates paraded by, one by one. If you were close enough, you would have heard him say to each graduate, "Congratulations" (as he handed them their diploma) and then "Keep moving" (as he shook their hand). He meant it literally—the event was on a schedule. But it's got a good metaphorical meaning, too.
"Congratulations, and keep moving." Matthew is saying the same thing as he hands his community (and us) these five parables from chapter 13.
C.H. Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, 1935, 2nd ed., rev. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961).
Douglas R. A. Hare, The Interpretation Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew
Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.