Parables, rather than being simple stories with one point, are complex scenarios that can evoke all kinds of connections, not only with daily life, but also with other texts. So the humble mustard see that becomes a shrub could make us think of God's care for us like a flourishing tree, or it could turn our minds to the fact that the mustard shrub is not going to be like the mighty trees or empires of former times, which grew through military power and violence. Though small and insignificant, the mustard seed is not to be underestimated. Its power to nurture and sustain far exceeds expectations. Mustard seeds are not just a phenomenon of the past; they are sprouting all around us. Jesus himself is a mustard seed, discounted and discarded, entombed in darkness, sprouting to new life, not only for himself, but for all of us who make our nests in his branches.
The strange element here is the widespread, extravagant effect of the mustard seed/shrub compared to its being dismissed and discounted by the world. A cedar of Lebanon, surely, would be a better metaphor for the kingdom of God. Or maybe not.
The Leaven (Yeast)
Matthew's version of the parable of the leaven (as does Luke's) contains the surprising note that the woman hid the leaven in three measures of wheat flour. This is a huge batch of dough made from approximately 50 pounds of flour! This would be enough bread for over 100 people. We are probably to see here an allusion to Gen 18:6 where Abraham instructs Sarah to prepare cakes from three measures of flour for his heavenly visitors. The quantity of flour in both passages suggests a festive occasion. Perhaps we are to think of the final outcome of God's hidden activity as the Messianic Banquet at which the heavenly Lord Jesus will dine with his people. The fact that human eyes fail to perceive it does not change the fact that God is at work (Hare, 157).
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 wouldsomeone 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).