Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
When I was at school our headmistress always told a story at the assembly on the last day of term, they were known as 'Miss Potter's 'Just so stories'. She told the same story to the five year olds in the reception class and the 18 year olds in the upper sixth and everyone listened with rapt attention - that is the power of story telling.
This mornings Gospel reading from Matthew contains five of Jesus' stories; we can perhaps imagine the crowds listening with the same rapt attention to these stories known to us all as parables. And these parables of Jesus remain among the most beautiful and memorable works in the history of literature.
Most of us have heard these stories so many times that we may be tempted to gloss over them without really taking them in, so I would like us to think about the parables and what they mean.
The Theologian, Madeleine Boucher writes that the importance of the parables can hardly be overestimated and they are generally regarded by scholars as, for the most part, authentic words of Jesus. They still present us with the questions with which Jesus challenged his listeners in first-century Palestine.
When Jesus used parables for teaching, he didn't create a new type of story, rather, he made use of a style which was already a traditional way of teaching and which was familiar to people throughout the Mediterranean world. The parables which most closely resemble those later told by Jesus' are those we find in the Old Testament. They were used by Jewish rabbis who expected their listeners to bring their own faith, understanding and imagination to what they heard. After the parable had been told, it was up to the seeker after the truth to reflect on it until the message concealed within it was revealed.
The great broadcaster, Rabbi Lionel Blue once pointed out the difference between this rabbinical approach and that of many Christian preachers who spoil the impact of the parable by explaining it. That was not the way of Jesus or the rabbis who told the story and then left the listener to reflect upon it until they grasped the meaning,
The trouble for us as we read the Bible is that we want the Gospels to be practical and instructive, but that is not what the parables are about. We want explanations that can be easily understood, prescriptions we can simply follow, promises we can claim. We don't like having to do the work to understand them which is what Jesus expects of us.
The parables are told in the form of a story and show us pictures so simple that a child can understand them and yet so profound that we can study them for the whole of our life without exhausting the truths they contain.
A New Testament scholar M.- J. Lagrange, writing at the beginning of the 20th century, noted that 'the meaning of the parable is not always absolutely clear; that the purpose of a parable is to strike the imagination, to catch the curiosity, to make the listener reflect and work to arrive at the meaning, so that the lesson will be remembered.'
So what about the parables we've heard in today's gospel reading? They all begin with a simile, in which a comparison is drawn between one thing with another of a different kind; this is a literary device that is used to make a description more emphatic, such as brave as a lion, or as hard as nails.
The parables from Matthew Chapter 13 are the shortest and most concise . They briefly narrate a typical event from real life; a story which everyone from Jesus' time would recognise as a familiar experience and which most would acknowledge as true. Just as most of us today resonate with the joy of finding a coin we've mislaid.
Parables are full of images. For people living at the time of Jesus, these images would have be well known and understood, for us the meaning is not so familiar so it may be helpful in understanding the parable to learn that God was often represented as a ruler, a judge, a parent, the owner of a vineyard or field; the people of Israel were depicted as servants, children, a vine or a flock of sheep; the future judgment was represented as a harvest or a reckoning; and God's reign as a feast or wedding. Jesus' audience would immediately have recognised these images.
The five parables in the gospel passage together with a number of others are known as 'the kingdom parables' because they all begin with the words 'the Kingdom of Heaven is like... When Jesus announced at the very start of his public ministry that 'the kingdom of God has come near', or 'is at hand', he is saying that the kingdom is not still to come, but is already here. During his life on earth, from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus announced that the Kingdom had come near. He was saying that the Kingdom of God was not something to be searched out, but that it was close at hand.
These parables are about the kingdom. The kingdom as Jesus understands it is a whole new way of living in which many, perhaps all, of the world’s values are turned upside down. In the kingdom world, we see things very differently. The poor in spirit and people living in poverty have priority; justice is universal; women and children are respected; the kingdom values, love God and love neighbour are primary. The more we read about Jesus and listen to his teaching the more we realise how radical he was and still is.
One of the most regular times we think about the kingdom is when in Church and in our private prayers we say these words from Lord’s Prayer: ‘your kingdom come’.
What do these words mean to us? They are a call to live out our lives in accordance with kingdom values. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is a framework for kingdom values and what the kingdom should look like. Jesus promises the kingdom to the poor in spirit, to those who mourn, to the meek, to those who seek righteousness, to the merciful, to the pure in heart,
to the peacemakers and to the persecuted. We often see the absence of these values in the world we live in today. Sadly we often witness the exact opposite of kingdom values.
The parables in today's gospel reading are stories that Jesus tells to capture the attention of his followers. They are symbolic word pictures; tools he uses to help them understand the truth about the Kingdom of Heaven. He deliberately hides the truth in parables so that only those that have 'ears to hear' and whose hearts are open to him can grasp the full power of his teaching to change lives.
In future when we read and reflect on the Kingdom parables that Jesus uses to teach us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like – mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl of great value and the fishing net that was thrown into the sea to catch fish of every kind – let us pray that God will open our hearts and minds to the truth they reveal about the Kingdom of Heaven, and that we may learn to apply these kingdom values in our lives.
To end with a prayer
Send us out, Lord:
to love and to live,
to act and to give,
to pray and to serve.
In Jesus’ name.