In today’s gospel lesson, full of six very different rapid-fire parables by Jesus, the line that jumps out at me most is in verse 51. Jesus says to the disciples, “Have you understood all this?” and the disciples answer, “Yes.” Now, after a week of pouring over this text, I still cannot figure out whether we are supposed to laugh at this line – because who could so simply understand such vivid parables by Jesus; whether I am supposed to feel a kinship with this line – because I have heard these parables a million times and feel pretty confident I understand them too; or whether I am supposed to be intimidated by this line – because if the disciples, who rarely understand anything, so simply understand these parables, maybe I am doing something wrong.
Part of the challenge is context is really important for today’s gospel lesson. Much like Jesus tells these parables in rapid-fire succession, we could consume the images in a rapid way: a tiny seed that grows into huge plant, a woman adding yeast to bread, a man finding treasure, a merchant finding a sought-after pearl, a net catching fish. The images are basic enough that we could read them and figure out what Jesus is saying about the kingdom. In fact, the disciples’ simple “yes” doesn’t seem so funny or intimidating after all.
But there is more to these images than our modern eyes often catch. That beloved mustard seed we know so well, that we maybe rolled around between our fingers in Sunday School class, is a little more complicated. Ever the fan of the underdog, we Americans might see this mustard seed as the metaphor of the little guy winning. But the context we miss is the mustard plant is a weed, an ancient version of kudzu, that consumes valuable garden space that most farmers would have pulled from a field[i]. And although we might be used to throwing yeast into bread, yeast in Jesus’ day was seen as evil or unclean, a symbol of corruption and impurity[ii]. And let’s not forget the merchant, who at the time was not a respected businessman, but someone who would have been socially suspect, using excessive funds for a luxury item, an item that has nonkosher origins, who in spending everything, who loses his identity as a merchant because he has nothing to buy or sell.[iii] So when Jesus says the kingdom of God is like invasive weed, a corrupting yeast, or a shady merchant, our simple “yes,” about understanding might be premature.
What we learn about the kingdom of God in these parables is rich and layered. The kingdom of God is surprising: something seemingly small and worthless can be a place of shelter and nurture.[iv] The kingdom of God unsettling: where something seemingly corrupt can secretly grow goodness to feed hundreds. The kingdom of God is disturbing: where unsuspecting individuals are inspired to seemingly irrational behavior that glorifies God.
I am still not sure how we should interpret the disciples’ “yes” today when Jesus asks them if they understand. Perhaps their yes is followed by ellipses and a question mark – a tentative commitment to keep listening because what Jesus is saying is so overwhelming, “yes” is all they can say. Perhaps their yes is a quiet yes because they understand how their lives are about to be upended. Perhaps their yes is a bold declarative, comical on the surface because who can really understand Jesus, but also admirable, because despite how surprising, unsettling, and disturbing this kingdom is, they are all in with Jesus.
Our invitation this week is proclaim a yes for Jesus too. In a time of a worldwide health crisis, of political unrest, and of societal upheaval, Jesus invites us to see the kingdom not as escape from the world, but a way of being that embraces surprising, unsettling, disturbing love and grace of God that will change us completely and transform the world beautifully. Your yes today can be tentative, sober, or declarative. You are in good company either way. But your invitation is to say yes regardless – and then buckle up for the ride. Amen.
[i] J. David Waugh, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 287.
[ii] Talitha J. Arnold, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 286.
[iii] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper One, 2014), 160-161
[iv] Waugh, 287.