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“Learning to See”
Sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46
An article in last week’s New Yorker about the history of diagnosis and
treatment of multiple sclerosis concluded with an observation of J.M. Charcot,
one of the pioneers in the field and a teacher of Sigmund Freud: “In the last
analysis, we see only what we are ready to see, what we have been taught to
see.” The article showed how over the last two centuries, theories about the
causes and proper treatment of MS have changed in response to the prevailing
scientific and medical models of the times: When germ theory arose in the 19 th
century, MS was treated as an infectious disease; in the era of environmental
illness, it was believed to be caused by some toxin in the air or water; when
immunology came to the forefront, it was understood as an immunological
disease; and “in the age of genetics, there is great interest in a genetic factor.” 1
“We see what we have been taught to see.”
The power of a paradigm shift to change the way we see things is not
restricted to medicine, of course: We see the rise and fall of defining theories in
physics, history, literary criticism, and many other fields. Sometimes older
theories are simply replaced, and sometimes they are tweaked and added to, as
understanding grows. Whatever the case, people working in that field will tend to
see things in terms of the interpretive framework they have been given. “We see
what we have been taught to see.” The pioneers in any field are the ones who
have the imagination and intuition to see when something doesn’t fit the
prevailing model and, instead of rejecting the new information, to look at the
thing in a new way.
The parables of Jesus challenged people to see what they had not been
taught to see. Parables were not a new kind of religious speech, but they became
new in the mouth of Jesus. Rather than illustrating an accepted moral or spiritual
truth, they turned the conventional wisdom on its head. Bible scholar John
Dominic Crossan describes the parables as stories “which shatter the deep
structure of our accepted world…[in so doing,] they remove our defenses and
make us vulnerable to God.” 2 A true parable doesn’t confirm what we already
know but arrives in our consciousness as a kind of epiphany.
One persistent feature of the parables of Jesus is that they tend to present
as good, or desirable, the things we normally think of as bad, or undesirable, or
they present as important those things that most people think of as unimportant.
This must have been unsettling to the first people who heard them. At the end of
the long section of parables in Matthew, when Jesus asks his disciples if they have
understood the parables, they say “yes.” I wonder if this was an honest answer –
the disciples seemed often enough to misunderstand what Jesus was all about.
It has to be said that Matthew hasn’t put the parables together very
artfully. He just fires them at us, one after the other, as if to say “Here is
something else Jesus said.” Today’s parables are not stories, like those we have
considered over the last couple of weeks – they are more like images, quick
snapshots of the kingdom of God. Mustard Seed and Yeast seem to go together,
as do Treasure and Pearl, so that is how we will consider them.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is so familiar to us that we think we know
what it means. From small, seemingly insignificant things great and mighty things
grow. The thing is, a full-grown mustard tree is nothing like a mighty oak or elm or
Norway spruce tree. In fact, it’s not really a tree at all, it’s a shrub – at about ten
feet at the very tallest, it is only big among other shrubs. If you wanted to talk
about towering, majestic trees, you talked about the cedars of Lebanon. In the
Bible, a great tall tree is a symbol of political power, while a mustard shrub isn’t a
symbol of anything. It was just a garden herb, which some people considered to
be a nuisance, and uprooted from their gardens. Maybe Jesus used the image of
the mustard shrub to mock the ideas of greatness most people had. Or maybe he
used it to suggest the kind of lowly, unobtrusive, disrespected people who would
help carry out his mission.
If the kingdom of God is more like a mustard plant than a cedar of Lebanon,
then greatness looks different from what we expect. Maybe it has nothing to do
with size or wealth or ability or showy displays of power. After all, hardly anyone
in those days saw greatness in a Jewish preacher who told puzzling stories.
“The kingdom of heaven is like some yeast (or leaven) that a woman mixed
in with three measures of flour.” Like the Mustard Seed, this seems to be a story
of something big growing out of small beginnings: A tiny bit of yeast in a batch of
flour, and this woman has made enough bread to feed a hundred people. But
there is something odd about this example: people in the ancient Middle East ate
mostly unleavened bread. Leavened bread was not kosher, and leaven was usually
seen as a corrupting influence: Jesus himself said to his disciples, “Beware of the
leaven of the Pharisees.” Could Jesus be suggesting that the kingdom of heaven
includes some unsavory characters? Something else to note about the parable
that our translation doesn’t show: It doesn’t say the woman mixes in the yeast, it
says she hides it. Maybe the kingdom of heaven is something hidden in the world,
moving stealthily through it like a secret agent, “corrupting” the world by
subverting its most cherished beliefs and values.
Things small, hidden, dismissed as unimportant or even despised or
scorned: these are the things of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus seems to be saying:
These are the kind of people through whom God works.
The Parable of the Treasure echoes the theme of hiddenness, but
something weird is going on here. The man finds buried treasure in a field and
then reburies it and buys the field. This seems to me like an ill-gotten gain, but
evidently that is not what we are supposed to focus on. What is remarkable is
that the man stumbles over something he wasn’t expecting. It is a pure, seemingly
random gift, and the man is not going to let it get away. Once you’ve had a
glimpse of the reality of God, you are not going to let it go.
The merchant who finds the pearl is not like the man who stumbles on the
hidden treasure. The merchant is someone who goes looking for the perfect
pearl, the pearl of great price. And the pearl isn’t hidden – it is just rare and
desirable and precious.
Maybe the Parable of the Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl go together
so they can be held in tension with each other. The man finding the treasure isn’t
committed to anything, but he’s joyfully surprised by his accidental discovery. The
man who sells everything to get the pearl knows what he is looking for. Both of
them are willing to give up everything in order to get it. Both are single-minded in
their desire. The kingdom is a treasure beyond price. Even if you have been
looking for it, actually finding it will stagger you with its luminous beauty.
None of these readings feel conclusive. Each one offers different
possibilities for interpretation. We sense that Jesus is having fun with these little
snapshot images of the kingdom, inviting his listeners to see beyond what they
have been taught, to catch just a glimpse of the power, grace, and mystery of
God. God is acting now, these parables say – quietly, almost secretly, sneaking in
among us, transforming ordinary life and yielding treasures beyond price.
As Bible scholar Richard Lischer said, “We demand ‘Thus says the Lord,’ but
[a] parable only winks.” 3 If you saw the irreverent, gross, but not actually
blasphemous movie “Dogma,” which came out in 1999, you may remember the
end of the movie, when one of the stoner characters unwittingly enlisted to help
save the world from destruction meets God in the last scene. He has all kinds of
questions about how and why and God’s plan for the world. In response, God,
who is played by Alanis Morissette, merely gives him an amused and friendly
tweak of the nose.
Parables invite us to see what we haven’t been taught to see, while at the
same time refusing to give us pat answers to our questions. They open a small
window into the mystery and power and presence of God in the world, while not
giving away any secrets. They invite us to keep looking for the hidden mystery in
ordinary things, God’s unexpected revelation in the things we think we know.
Lisa D. Kenkeremath
Manassas Presbyterian Church
July 30, 2023
1 Rivka Galchen, “Subtle Revolution,” The New Yorker, July 24, 2023, 24-29.
2 Quoted in Richard Lischer, Reading the Parables (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 64.
3 Lischer, 65.