This was originally drafted as a sermon for Redemption Church on July 27, 2014. I rely heavily on a chapter from the book What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell, Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information by Gregory Treverton, and The Seeds of Heaven by Barbara Brown Taylor (who is savant-like at sermon writing). If you are a pastor, feel free to copy and steal everything (w/attribution).
2014.07.27 Parables & Mysteries
Matthew 31-33; 44-52
There’s a man named Gregory Treverton who lives & works in D.C. He’s been a staffer in different segments of the intelligence community, working as senior staff for the Senate Select Committee & and the National Security Council. He wrote a book right after 9/11 recommending sweeping changes to the way National Intelligence is done. His argument is that during the cold war, U.S. intelligence was like trying to solve a puzzle without all the pieces. Soviet Union was closed off, so we had limited access to information, only what our spies and informants could gather, which was not much. With the limited information they had, they pieced together a picture the best they could. There were so many missing pieces that every new scrap of information was precious. Much of the money & manpower went into generating new intelligence.
But now the world has opened up and is wired together. Today’s intelligence agencies have way more information than they can handle. It’s not like solving a puzzle anymore, it’s more like solving a mystery: making sense of a mountain of clues, information, and data. Some intelligence issues are still puzzles, but increasingly the most important ones are mysteries—interpreting of a mountain of information in meaningful or accurate ways requires incredible insight.
Treverton’s argument is that the switch U.S. Intelligence agencies had to make was from solving puzzles to solving mysteries. His advice (which the gov’t followed), was to switch from gathering intelligence & solving puzzles to interpreting it better and solving mysteries.
The radical piece of it was that he said in order to do this they would need to hire completely different kinds of people with different skill sets. Malcolm Gladwell, who has written a bit on this subject, says that what you’re after is the eccentric genius, the brainiacs who are crazy-smart & maybe just a bit plain crazy. They’re genius-smart, but because they have these incredible imaginations they are bound to be a little a bit quirky or colorful. These are the guys you want because they can see things other people can’t see. Their imaginations work differently from most people. These are the guys that can solve your mysteries. Most of the national intelligence business has gone this direction, and it’s largely based on this analogy that they are no longer solving puzzles, they’re solving mysteries.
This distinction fascinates me, the difference between a puzzle & a mystery.
This distinction fascinates me, the difference between a puzzle & a mystery.
With a puzzle, the problem is you need more information. With a mystery, you have plenty of information; the problem is figuring out what all of it means.
A puzzle is a problem that can be solved with a few more pieces. A mystery is a problem that can be solved only if you learn how to interpret the pieces you already have. Puzzles have appeal because there’s always a right answer. Even if you can’t find it, you at least know it exists. Mysteries are different, they may not have an answer (or more than one) and you can’t always solve them.
With puzzles, more information is good. Each piece of info gets you closer to solving the problem. With mysteries, more information isn’t necessarily good. More information can actually obscure the solutions, taking you farther away from solving the problem. So, a puzzle gets simpler with each new piece of information, while a mystery gets more complicated.
Gladwell notes that puzzles are transmitter dependent: they turn based on the information we are given. Mysteries are receiver dependent: they turn based on the ability of the listener to interpret the data.
So as I’m prepping this message to give at my church this week, I’m reading about this national security guy & how he helped transform the intelligence community. At the same time I’m also reading Matthew 13 and considering Jesus’s practice of speaking in parables. So I started to use the puzzle/mystery paradigm to consider these parables. And it struck me, “Oh man, I think most people read the parables like they are a puzzle to be solved. I think Jesus intends them as mysteries.”
Jesus isn’t giving us coded information about the kingdom of God.He’s not giving little pieces to a puzzle we all have to solve later on if we want to go to heaven when we die. Honestly, he’s not even giving a ton of new data or information. For the most part, Jesus is just reinterpreting the data/info they already have from the Torah, the prophets, the writings… trying to help them see these things in a new light.
So, as we consider these parables, we need to have this understanding up front. As he teaches, Jesus is trying to shape our imaginations in a particular way so that (much like the eccentric intel-geniuses), we’ll have the ability to see things other people can’t see about our world, about what God’s doing to redeem it. When Jesus told parables, he was trying to provoke his audience to see the kingdom of God as a great mystery, and this is a move we all have to make. This process of moving from puzzles to the great mystery of the kingdom is an essential part of our discipleship.
If the parables Jesus uses aren’t pieces to a puzzle we have to solve in order to take part in the kingdom, then what are they? What if they are metaphors that are meant to shape & form our imaginations so we can begin to see & experience the mystery of the kingdom?
(Aside: everything that follows has discipleship in view. If you read it as a treatise on justification, it won’t make sense. This is about discipleship).
The Jewish Puzzle is a Mystery
Now, the Jewish people basically agreed on what the problem was in the first century. They were under foreign occupation in their own land. YHWH didn’t seem to be as powerful as the Roman gods. How would YHWH vindicate his people & bring about his kingdom? That was the question.
The traditional Jewish approach was to treat the problem like a puzzle to be solved, & each Jewish sect thought they had the missing piece. The Pharisees though the missing piece was perfect obedience to the law. The Sadducees thought the missing peace was political and economic power. The Zealots thought the missing piece was holy war & revolution. The Essenes thought the missing peace was a kind of extreme aestheticism.
So when he taught, it’s important to note that he wasn’t arguing for his own special brand of the missing piece. He was saying the kingdom isn’t a puzzle. You can’t solve it. It’s a mystery. Jesus believed YHWH was on the move, and the kingdom of heaven was coming. But, he thought it would be hard for most of his Jewish brothers and sisters to see it, because it wasn’t going to look anything like what they had come to expect.
So—and this is extremely important to notice if you are at all interested in evangelism—Jesus found followers not by making at argument, or polemics of any kind. He found followers by provoking them to a new imagination, messing with their old categories of thought, and challenging their beliefs & actions.
He did this by using these rich metaphors & images imbedded in parables. Over time these stories began to shape the imaginations of his followers. They became the kind of people who could see things other people couldn’t see. In particular, they could see that God was in Christ, reconciling all things to God’s self.
Oddly, Jesus’s pedagogical method seems to irk his disciples. Earlier in Ch. 13 they say, “Why do you always speak in parables? Can’t you just give us the bullet points? Just come right out and say it man!”
Jesus replies “My followers can understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. But not everyone has this gift.” (Mt. 13:10) He actually uses the word mystery. The Greek word in the text is recognizable to us: mysterion (mü-stā’-rē-on). It’s the same word from which we get the word mystery. This word comes up in the New Testament almost 30 different times—always in reference to how God is acting to fix the brokenness of the world through Jesus, and how many people just didn’t have the imagination for it.
Mystery is one of the ways New Testament writers (especially Paul), talked about the fact that some people could look at Jesus and see the Messiah, while others saw something very different. It was a mystery. Some people just couldn’t imagine how God could become incarnated in human flesh; some people still can’t see it. They simply do not have a category for that thought. So his teaching was nonsense to most people… even kind of irritating.
In The Message version Eugene Peterson says it this way—as you read this, notice how he uses the word ready/readiness:
“Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.” (Mt. 13:12-13)
When Jesus spoke in parables, it wasn’t to obscure the kingdom, or to create a puzzle. He’s not messing with people. He’s trying to “create readiness, to nudge people toward receptive insight.” The kingdom of God is a mystery. Most people can, “stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.”
So Jesus could try and give us the bullet points, but it wouldn’t matter. The information is out there. The bullet point, or the sales pitch isn’t going to get us where we need to go. We don’t need information or motivation. What we need is a new imagination; a receptivity to God; a vision of the kingdom.
Jesus could try and give us the bullet points, but it wouldn’t matter. The information is out there. The bullet point, or the sales pitch isn’t going to get us where we need to go… what we need is a new imagination; a receptivity to God; a vision of the kingdom.
We may, by the way, need to stop demanding more pieces, more information, more proof—demanding that God dance to the tune we’re calling and answer our questions, and instead learn to embrace the mystery. Annie Dillard says it this way:
“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery… we must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”
– Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I sometimes think God is okay with either response. You can wail the right question or choir the proper praise. What you can’t do is pretend to have all the answers, or that your questions are definitive. For those things, God seems to have little patience.
31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened…”
44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
The first parable says the kingdom is like a Mustard Seed: You’ve probably heard this taught like a proverb—“big things often have small beginnings” –so don’t overlook small things. Every single commentary I read about this passage warned not to do that. They all agreed, that’s not what Jesus is saying here. The giveaway is that the mustard plant was considered to be a noxious weed that farmers dreaded, and it didn’t grow into a tree. It grew into a bush, sometimes overgrown and gnarly (picture).
The tree Jesus speaks of is actually an imperial image—it symbolizes empire—and it has a rich history in the Hebrew scriptures.
In Daniel 4, king Nebuchadnezzar has a dream about his empire:
“There was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed.” (Dan 4:10-12)
Ezekiel uses the same imagery about the Assyrian empire:
“So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long, from abundant water in its shoots. All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs.” (Ezekiel 31:5-6)
Ezekiel also used it as an image of the future kingdom of Israel:
“On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.” (Ezekiel 17:23-34)
This seems to be the image Jesus is tapping into, & his Jewish hearers knew those passages from the prophets. Someday God’s kingdom would be like a tall tree where the birds can nest. Birds often signified the Gentiles. But right now the kingdom is more like a little seed, or a tiny herb bush… even a little bit annoying. So it can be easily overlooked. In fact, one can look right at it and completely miss what it’ll one day become.
He’s trying to get them to see the old stories in a new way.
He’s trying to build in them an imagination that can see the later tree in seed.
Leaven is a similar image: You’ve probably heard this taught proverbially as well, “yeast working through the bread dough is a picture of how Christianity will spread slowly throughout the earth.” Again, every single commentator I read warned against this interpretation. In fact, Jesus uses the image of yeast or leaven very strangely.
For one thing, yeast is almost always used as a symbol of corruption (beware of the yeast of the Pharisees).
For another thing, the measurements are off here. He says this woman is working with 3 measures of wheat. That’s about 10 gallons (60 lbs.)—easily enough to make bread for 150 people. This is way too much for one woman to mix in by herself.
Lastly, the verb usage is peculiar. This verse is actually a sore spot for some bible scholars. There’s a big nerd fight over the translation. Many think the NRSV & NIV botched the translation of the verb. In every other English version it’s xlated “hid” – she hid the yeast in the dough. In the NRSV & NIV say she “mixed” it into the dough. The Greek word is egkryptō (en-krü’p-tō), where we get encryption. It means “to hide,” or “to conceal.” It’s not a culinary word at all (I’m with those who say they botched it. I don’t know how they got “mixed” from this word). It literally says she hid the yeast in the dough. It’s odd phrasing & it seems Jesus meant for it to be odd.
He meant for it to seem odd because he’s trying to say the kingdom of God is powerful, it can change the whole deal—but it is hidden. Again Jesus seems to be drawing upon an important Old Testament theme. Remember the story in which the angels come to visit Abraham & Sarah, and they promise them a son, and Sarah laughs? Well in that story when the three mysterious men show up, this is what it says: “Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” (Genesis 18:) It’s the same exact wording Jesus uses here: three measures of flour, way too much for only 3 guests.
So it’s likely Jesus is tapping into that old narrative hoping to get them to see it in a whole new way… that the kingdom emerges from unlikely places, like barren women, or Galilean carpenters. That’s why it remains hidden for most people. It’s somewhere in a huge 10 gallon mess of bread dough. For those who can see the mystery, they know that the kingdom, at this point in the story, is raw potential (like yeast); it’s appearing slowly & quietly & humbly in & through this humble man.
The next two parables are complicated as well: The kingdom is like a man who finds a treasure buried in a field, covers it back up, sells all of his possessions & comes back to purchase the field. The kingdom is also like a merchant who buys and sells fine pearls, who one day finds a pearl so precious, he sells out his business just to buy it. In each parable a man discovers something so amazing & so valuable that he doesn’t think twice about giving up all he has to receive it. If the kingdom is like this, then the kingdom is rare and valuable and, it seems, attainable for pretty much anyone… if they are willing to let go of all that they hold so tightly.
The last parable here is the net thrown into the sea: It gathers every kind of fish imaginable—good and bad alike—and they are all brought in together, but they aren’t sorted until the net is full. It uses the word “bad” here in the NRSV. The Greek word is sapra, it literally means rotten, or putrefied. It’s bad, not like naughty, but like food that has gone bad. These fish are already dead & rotting. They are threatening to spoil all the other fish. The live fish are put into vessels, the rotting ones go on the fire. So, when the kingdom comes, God will protect the things that are living, from the things that are dead & threatening to kill us all.
Why the Hiddenness?
So what do we make of these? It’s a lot to take in from one chapter, which I think is by design. When you read down through them the common link they share is an essential hiddenness. The mustard seed hidden in the ground; yeast hidden in the dough; a treasure hidden in the field; a pearl hidden among all those other pearls; the net hidden under the surface of the waters… the kingdom is like these things. It is hidden in some way. And if you want to find it, you have to go searching for it. The kingdom of God is reserved for the committed, who sell out and go on their quest to find it.
There’s this phenomenon that I’ve noticed over the years. There are two kinds of people in the world. 1) Those who look for reasons to believe. 2) Those who look for reasons NOT to believe. I think you can switch categories, but at any given time, we usually fall into either one or the other.
When those who look for reasons to believe are faced with the hiddenness of the kingdom, it fires them for the quest, they press into it. When people who look for reasons NOT to believe face the hiddenness of the kingdom, they tend to say, “I knew it. It’s not real.” Or they’ll interrogate God, demanding that God give answers to their questions. And when God is silent (because God doesn’t play games like that), they say, “See, there is no God.”
I think the hiddenness of the kingdom is really hard for those looking for reasons NOT to believe – especially if they are proud or dig their heels in. You can be many things & still see God. You cannot be proud & expect to see God. And this is maybe the deepest reason for the hiddenness of kingdom …because the quest is important. The fact that it’s hidden tells you something about the nature of the kingdom, and the nature of our lives. It’s not hidden because God is jacking with us, or making us solve a puzzle. It’s not cosmic Geo-cashing or something like that.
The kingdom is hidden because the quest or the journey you have to take in order to find it is actually what will transform you into the kind of person who can see the it in the first place, and then participate in it.
The kingdom is hidden because the quest or the journey you have to take in order to find it is actually what will transform you into the kind of person who can see the it in the first place… how we get there is where we are going.
Another way to say it is: How we get there is where we are going… the quest is what will transform us & give us the imagination we need to see things others can’t… the kingdom in a tiny seed, or bit of yeast.
The twist in the story, the reason Jesus seems to be telling these particular parables, is that nearly everyone who goes off questing for the kingdom of God (which is just another way of saying discipleship), they will usually start someplace spectacular. That’s where everybody starts their quest: a monastery, the Holy Land, the Vatican, or the National Cathedral… off to serve Aids victims in Africa; to smuggle bibles into China; to some extreme or radical environment.
There’s nothing wrong w/those things. It’s a natural part of the process. When you start to become a pilgrim in search of the hidden Kingdom, it’s cliché to think you’ll have to go to extremes to find it. That’s where all the action is right? Sure it is…
Unless of course, and I’m quoting Barbara Brown Taylor now, “Unless of course, God has resorted to the oldest trick in the book and hidden it in plain view. There is always that possibility, you know—that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look, namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives.”
What if the Kingdom of Heaven is hidden in the conversations, and food, and music, and friendships; the books, and music, and films and artwork; the faces of our kids; in the joys of life, and in the sorrow, the healing and the brokenness, in the normal everyday work and rest that fills our daily lives?
Maybe that’s why Jesus told these parables about ordinary people doing ordinary things: farmers & fields, women & bread, merchants buying & selling, and fisherman sorting fish. Maybe he’s trying to tell us that our treasure isn’t buried in some far off exotic place at all. We’re not searching for the last piece to the puzzle. We are facing a great mystery, and everything we need to be at peace with God, with the self, with other, & with the world is already here.
We have all of the data & information & raw materials we will ever need. Now all we need is the imagination to recognize the mystery. Chances are we’ll have to travel a long distance to learn, that everything we ever needed to be at peace is right here.
The parables teach us that (and I’m quoting Barbara Brown Taylor again):
“If we want to speak of heavenly things, he seems to say, we may begin by speaking about earthly things, & if we want to describe that which is beyond all words, we may begin with words we know, words such as: man, woman, field, seed, birds, air, yeast, bread; words such as: pearl, net, sea, fish, joy. The kingdom is like these things; the kingdom is found in these things.”