The Common Cold

      ...and the Kingdom of Heaven

Week of Sunday 27 July - Pentecost 7
Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31 He 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.’

33 He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with [hid in] 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.’ 53When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

Tanakh: Isaiah 11

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. 

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear; 
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them. 
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
9 They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea. 

This is a late post. I have the mother of all colds. But finally… some words:

The kingdom of heaven is what you would give everything for. And why not. It is a world of justice and peace. A world where even the fundamental enmities of leopard and lamb, wolf and kid are overturned. Even the most basic enmity of all: Genesis 3:15 says to the serpent,

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
   and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
   and you will strike his heel.’ 

But now

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
9 They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain

This is not about my salvation, as such. The kingdom of heaven is not about me. I might give everything I have for it, but it is not for me; it is for us. The kingdom of heaven is about us, together. The whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord. If I am worried about my salvation, but not also yours, I have lost the kingdom and am heading in a different direction. I have decided I am more important than you. I have chosen enmity over amity.

Therefore the net thrown into the sea is like the field growing wheat and weeds. Not all that seemed to be wheat was wheat and what had seemed to be weeds was sometimes wheat. The kingdom is indiscriminate. All kinds of fish are caught. All the birds of the air come. There is an enormous gum tree at the end of our street. At dusk, if you search carefully, all manner of birds can be seen. There is a kind of truce, a letting be for the night, as friends and strangers, even enemies perhaps, take shelter. In the date palm next door are pigeons, rats, even feral cats in the shelter offered by the base! They are not always friends, but they are all there.

But that's a gum tree; the text says the kingdom is like a mustard seed!!? Mustard is a weed. It's irritating. It grows everywhere, it's coarse, scratchy, stinky, hard to dig up, difficult to eradicate. It doesn't grow big. All it shelters are rabbits and sparrows; more pests.

 Obviously, what we call mustard weed here in 'Straya will be different to what grew in Jesus' land. But as we struggle to survive as church, perhaps our mustard seed offers a picture of hope. It grows everywhere. It doesn't get wiped out. It seems to thrive in and even colonise bare places. Our little local churches, struggling to survive, are doing the mustard seed thing— hanging on, colonising, persisting.

This is a treasure worth selling everything for? Is the little church at Spalding, or Yilki, or Hare Street— tiny places— is this an outpost of the kingdom? These parables call us to consider what is truly important.

Perhaps the most challenging of these little illustrative nuggets is the story of the three measures of flour in which the yeast is hidden. When the yeast is mixed into the dough it disappears. It becomes invisible, indistinguishable from the dough. It appears to be taken over, subsumed, syncretised. This is no message of good news to those of us who want to stand apart and stand out because of our "holiness." But the apparently diluted and disempowered yeast leavens the whole loaf.

Are we a yeasty foretaste of the kingdom of heaven?  Sometimes I look at the church and we are more like oil added to the water of society. We cloud the issues, emulsifying Jesus' clear call to mercy and compassion with all sorts of puritan hang-ups about what we think God wants, while not helping the sick and the poor and the oppressed. Some Christians seem like a flavour suffocating gloop of sour mayonnaise upon society as it struggles towards being something like the kingdom of heaven.

The other side of this parable is that in its original location, yeast was a contaminant. Yeast was suspect. "In the Jewish faith leaven is the thing to be avoided at the holiest time of the year, Passover.  To the nomad yeast is a difficult thing, it oozes and bubbles and collapses, it's hard to handle when you need to be ready to follow the animals quickly."

Finally there is the scribe: 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 scribe is the interpreter of the Law. We are all scribes in the sense that we interpret the words God has given us. But for the ones called as clergy and teachers there is an imperative here. We do not merely repeat the old treasures. We are not called to be traditionalists. We are to interpret the tradition and find new insights for today.

The kingdom of heaven is like the common cold. It is invisible, mutating, spreading on its own terms, indiscriminately, in waves, missing some, bringing others to their knees. It disrupts life and forces us to stop and take stock. Or will we soldier on with Codral because life is more important? What does presenteeism mean when we are speaking of the kingdom of heaven?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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