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.” 34Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
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.”
What I am Learning:
Jesus was in quite a pickle, but he was up to it.
At this point in his ministry he had begun to gather quite a following. And his following were beginning to feel hope that they could take part in the kingdom of God (God’s way of mutuality) that Jesus was proclaiming.
Then they began to see and hear the resistance of the religious leaders, some of whom decided to assassinate Jesus in chapter 12. This, no doubt, led to very high passions among his followers. They saw that Jesus was leading a movement to set right many wrongs done to the people of Israel. They were angry at Romans and their Jewish collaborators.
Jesus had to decide how his movement was going to go. Would he encourage his followers to
1) use violence to gain power
2) withdraw from the public sphere to a place of safety
3) use active nonviolent resistance methods transform the empire from within
I believe these parables about the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew propose the 3rd of these options to followers who were close to exploding in anger against their enemies.
We often forget that Jesus was a public figure. Public figures must take the mood and perspectives of their followers into account when they address issues. Good leaders, Ronald Heifetz says, is disappointing your followers at a rate they can stand. Jesus’ followers were in a really dangerous phase: they were beginning to hope for a brighter future but had not yet committed to non-violence. This same kind of moment occurred both to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960 civil rights movement and to Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence. As they began to gather a large enough crowd, there were those who said, “Let’s take the energy of the crowds and use their energy for violence against our enemies.”
Both Gandhi and King frustrated the advocates of violence by insisting on a nonviolent approach. Some left their movements because of this and took violence into their own hands.
But as a leader one must recognize your follower’s anger at the injustice of their situation. Anger itself is a good thing: it creates energy in us that tells us that something needs to change. Anger itself is a gift of God. But anger is a dangerous gift, especially in groups. It can easily lead to violence that begets violence, and then all die by the sword.
Leaders typically cannot tell and angry crowd not to be angry. But they can direct that anger. They can stoke the potential of violence or they can dampen it.
So Jesus uses the common belief that a the end of the age, when the reign of God comes in its fullness, that those who have done evil to others will be held accountable for the wounds they have inflicted. God stands with them in their anger at the violence done to them, but they were not to take matters into their own hands.
Jesus is telling them not to become vigilantes but to trust the “justice system” of God.
A writing from about the same time as Matthew’s writing has a similar tone. It calls people to patience and to an expanded vision of who God cares for.
30 For a grain of evil seed was sown in Adam’s heart from the beginning, and how much ungodliness it has produced until now—and will produce until the time of threshing comes! 32 When heads of grain without number are sown, how great a threshing floor they will fill!” 33 Then I answered and said, “How long? When will these things be? Why are our years few and evil?” 34 He answered me and said, “Do not be in a greater hurry than the Most High. You, indeed, are in a hurry for yourself, but the Highest is in a hurry on behalf of many. 35 Did not the souls of the righteous in their chambers ask about these matters, saying, ‘How long are we to remain here? And when will the harvest of our reward come?’ And the archangel Jeremiel answered and said, ‘When the number of those like yourselves is completed; for he has weighed the age in the balance,
37 and measured the times by measure, and numbered the times by number; and he will not move or arouse them until that measure is fulfilled.’”
Yes, Jesus’ movement has its enemies, but we are not to use violence against them. Jesus has already dealt with this in chapter 5 of Matthew:
Matt. 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
Matt. 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
So if God’s way of mutuality is not going to use violence how is it going gain a foothold?
1) Mustard seed and birds of the air: A mustard seed that is planted by farmworkers seeking to sabotage the land they are working – land they used to own before the Romans stole it. But Jesus takes this image of sabotage and expands it: all the “birds of the air” that is all gentiles will be able to nest in its branches. In other words, we resist domination culture not only for ourselves but for the ultimate benefit of those captivated by it.
2) Woman making leavened bread: The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who puts yeast in 50 pounds of flour. This yeast grows silently and invisibly until all the flour is leavened. Jesus makes, for people in his own day, a shocking comparison between the kingdom of God and a woman doing woman’s work in the home – thus he undermines competition for power and honor as a motivation for working toward God’s reign that influenced so much of the men’s world of theology and politics. Jesus again is being a radical feminist.
3) Treasure hidden in the field: Laborers in the field might find a treasure hidden in the ground. Since there were no local banks, the ground was considered a safe place to store precious things as God took care of what was put into the ground. These were day laborers whose families once owned land. Jesus is saying in this image that the reign of God will grow among the poor and disenfranchised – not by political intrigue, assassinations or violence.
4) Net in the water: Nets are largely invisible to the fish and to the person fishing. They catch everything. You may not be able to see it, but it is there.
The upshot of all of these is that Jesus made a choice to dampen the energies of violence and to lead his followers in the use of active nonviolent resistance to transform the empire from within. They still needed their anger to work for change but this change was going to happen as the result of organic, subversive yet public growth.
Jesus made the choice to use nonviolent means and he fully accepted the personal costs of such a choice. In his resurrection from the dead, God seems to have affirmed this choice as faithful to God’s vision.
We get really concerned about the “end of the world” judgment of these texts in Matthew 13.
We should be concerned.
Unfortunately and ironically, while Jesus seems to have used these stories to dampen the urge to violence, many of Jesus’ followers have used these texts to justify their hatred of people of different faiths or perspectives. Some use these stories of throwing evil persons “into the fire” as the master story, the ultimate story of the Bible. They then use these stories to intimidate others with fear.
They could not be more wrong.
The ultimate story of the Bible is the reconciliation of all people and all things to God, the restoration of the creation and God making a home among all people. Evil is destroyed, not people who evil has overcome. All people are held to account for their actions, but they are not thrown away forever.
How could a God who commands us to love our enemies not love God’s enemies?
How could a Jesus who forgives those who crucify him abandon people to desolation of hell?
Would heaven really be that great with the knowledge that other human beings were being eternally tortured?
These stories in Matthew 13 are not about God’s limited love, so much as they are about limitations of Jesus’ followers at a dangerous phase in his movement.
The crowd wants some revenge for the pain they have experienced. Jesus acknowledges their pain, but postpones their revenge and hands it to a God who is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love. (Exodus 34:6)
Jesus hopes that if he can handle the anger of his disciples at this point that they will remember this:
Is. 49:6 he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
In the end Jesus bets that in time they will remember God’s promise is not just to Abraham and Sarah, but that they would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. (Genesis 12:1-4)
May we be so blessed and be such a blessing.