Estate Sale

Don’t tell my mother, but our plan, when we clean out her house in the not-to-distant future will involve a dumpster. There’s a good bit of material in her house that just needs to go. Yes, she will say “Somebody might need that!” but nobody is going to need the broken charger to lost batteries for a thirty-year-old nose-hair clipper. Nobody.

On the other hand, she has a good bit of material around that house that is going to find its way into various family members’ homes. I have my eye on her vast collection of Hummel figurines. You just can’t have too many of those.

This idea pops into my mind as I read the last of the seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13.

“Therefore,” he said to them, “every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom treasures new and old.”–Matthew 13:52

It doesn’t take much effort to see that this parable is different from the other six. While it does tell us some things about the kingdom that Matthew 6:33 has us seeking, it also takes a step back from the kingdom to talk about what happens when a “teacher of the law” becomes a disciple.

Much of the accumulation of 90-plus years in my mother’s house is junk, but there’s also a lot that might seem worthless to my grandkids but will actually thrill other people. I’m sure that we’ll one day have an estate sale that witnesses various people finding treasures that we might have discarded. Some of the items in that house mean something to me because of my history with them.

I think that gets at the point Jesus was making in this parable. The “teacher of the law” or “scribe,” grammateus in the Greek, was someone learned in understanding and teaching the law. These people, in Jesus’ time, absolutely knew their Bibles, even though their Bibles were only our Old Testament. So what would happen when these people followed the kingdom? They would be able to bring their prior knowledge and expertise and, in the light of the kingdom, turn it into “treasures old and new.”

An old treasure might be seeing a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice in the story of Abraham and Isaac. A new treasure would be an understanding of Jesus’ teachings deepened by past learning.

So what does this parable add to our understanding of the kingdom of God?

  • The kingdom is not only valuable in its own right; it makes other things more valuable.
  • The kingdom’s value can be made more apparent by knowledgeable students and teachers of the Word.

Like my mother’s house, mine holds a certain number of treasures, but, at the end of the day, I hope that the most glittering things at my estate sale reflect my fidelity to the kingdom.

The Worst Day Fishing . . .

The only fish I ever caught during my brief foray into fly fishing was a tiny sucker. When I say “sucker,” I’m not using slang. The fish was a white sucker (Catostomus commersonii), one of three varieties of suckers that swim in Missouri streams. The fish was so tiny that I didn’t realize I had it on the hook for a good thirty seconds. My line moved around some, but I couldn’t tell if it was a fish or just the action of the current.

My companions and I had a good laugh when this lunker finally emerged from the water. I worked the hook out of its lip and tossed it back into the stream. Clearly this wasn’t a “keeper.”

For any fish that gets tossed back into the water after being caught, that fate is a positive one, but in today’s parable of the kingdom, you don’t want to be thrown out. Let’s take a look at the verses:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a large net thrown into the sea. It collected every kind of fish, and when it was full, they dragged it ashore, sat down, and gathered the good fish into containers, but threw out the worthless ones. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out, separate the evil people from the righteous, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.–Matthew 13:47-50

My first response is an old Yogi Berra line: “It’s like deja vu all over again.” Like the treasure and pearl parables, this one seems to cover most of the same ground as the wheat and tares story. But then, like that previous pairing, this one is structured differently. Here, rather than the actor (farmer/fisherman) being the kingdom, it is the tool, the net.

What’s strange about this tale to me is that the fate of both good and bad fish seems negative. The good fish are put into containers, presumably to be sold and eaten. The bad fish are thrown away. Am I over-interpreting things again?

It seems clear here that the important fact is that both good and bad “fish” can be caught in the net but that the bad will be pulled out down the road. If, like the farmer in the wheat and tares parable, the net here represents Jesus or “the Son of Man” (Matthew 13:37), then we see that the kingdom will touch or even catch up many people who are not keepers.

Can we draw new conclusions from this parable?

  • The kingdom exists to serve its own (or God’s) ends, not ours. No one fishes for the benefit of the fish.
  • The kingdom is somewhat indiscriminate in whom it nets. Just because someone has wound up in the net does not mean that they will spend eternity with God. That explains why some people in every age appear to be “caught up” in Christ but wind up not knowing Him.
  • The kingdom is an inexorable force. Fish do not choose to be caught and, when a net is involved, have very little option to avoid being caught. Similarly, we don’t choose Christ; He chose us. (John 15:16)

These last two conclusions are a bit difficult to reconcile with the verse that led us here, Matthew 6:33. That study will have to wait for another day, however.

 

The Six-String Kingdom

A 1957 Fender Stratocaster will set you back somewhere between $10,000 and $25,000. Just to be clear, I don’t own one. I knew a guy, though, who owned some fantastic vintage guitars–although nothing quite that extraordinary. The weird thing is that Dale wasn’t that great a guitar player, and he was chronically broke. In fact, at one point he found himself on the cusp of bankruptcy and set about hiding his guitars so that they wouldn’t get sold to help discharge a portion of his debts.

Here’s an example of a person who spent a great deal of money on something that made absolutely no sense for him to buy. Instead of taking care of his finances, he just couldn’t stop buying guitars and other music gear.

To the outside world, that’s what it must look like when a Christian takes the kingdom of God seriously. Jesus told us, in Matthew 6:33, to seek first the kingdom. Then he used a thick flurry of parables to help us understand precisely what it was we were to seek.

Immediately after the “buried treasure” parable, we find the parable of the pearl or the “pearl of great price.”

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had and bought it.–Matthew 13:45-46

On first blush, this parable looks like an exact parallel of the buried treasure one. Somebody found something that was incredibly valuable and then sacrificed everything to ensure that they possessed that something. But that’s on first blush.

There are some major differences between these two parables. First of all, in the first, the kingdom is the valuable thing. In the second, the kingdom is the person who finds it. So which is it? Can Jesus not keep his stories straight? It would have been simple for Him to simply say that the kingdom is the pearl, but He didn’t. I think this is because it is not as simple as saying that the kingdom is the valuable thing or the person who finds it. It’s a combination of them.

The other big difference is that the merchant seems to be making a bad financial choice. If you find a hidden treasure and buy it, you can then sell the treasure and make a big profit. If you buy the priceless pearl at a market price you can’t really hope to sell it at a profit anytime soon. Having sold everything he had, what’s the merchant going to do?

We learn a couple of new things about the kingdom from this parable.

  • The kingdom, while incredibly valuable, probably will not look good to an accountant. It’s not reducible to dollars and cents.
  • The kingdom is a relational thing. Its value comes when God and human come together in it.

What makes a guitar valuable? A serious player could tell the difference between the 1957 Stratocaster and today’s model in a moment. But could they explain that difference? Probably not. It’s a guitar thing. You wouldn’t understand.

A Trustworthy Treasure

Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly–I used to be really involved in the Scouting movement, at the same time I was involved in a religious denomination that wasn’t excessively Christian.

In about 1997, when I realized that this church’s direction did not match my beliefs, I headed for the door. A few months earlier, sitting on a denominational advisory committee for Scouting, I was nominated as the group’s chaplain at the upcoming Boy Scout National Jamboree. What could be cooler than going to a National Jamboree on the staff in a flexible and wide-ranging role?

Oddly, I didn’t hear anything from the Jamboree people through the fall of 1996 and into the first months of 1997. When they called me in the spring of 1997, I vaguely noted that my situation had changed, and I couldn’t fill this role.

As I got off the phone that day, I smiled. I hadn’t hesitated a moment in passing up an assignment that I had previously coveted. Yes, I had to abandon an intriguing opportunity for that summer, but it didn’t make me pause for a moment.

In the next of Jesus’ Matthew 13 parables of the kingdom, we discover a parallel to my experience:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.–Matthew 13:44

I had the treasure. As much as I still enjoyed Scouting, it didn’t bother me a bit to give up that opportunity in order to embrace that treasure. Twenty-two years later, I have never regretted my decision. I gain a couple of conclusions from this verse.

  • The kingdom of God is incredibly valuable. It is not one among many things of value in our lives. It is valuable beyond compare.
  • The kingdom of God is not something we buy or work for. This guy found the treasure, but he did not work for it. Even if he was plowing when he found it, he didn’t plow for it.
  • The kingdom of God is worth every sacrifice that we make to secure it. The important fact in this parable is not that the man bought a field. It is that he obtained the treasure with the field as a necessary afterthought.
  • The kingdom of God is something that, when found, should bring us joy. This man did not hesitate or do a cost-benefit analysis. Instead, he jumped joyfully into action.

But here’s the question that I’m left with as I read this verse. Is the kingdom still something that I would sacrifice the near and dear to enjoy or maintain? Do I feel the joy of my salvation like I did when I first received it. What about you? If not, maybe we need to refresh ourselves on Matthew 6:33 and the kingdom of God we’re seeking.

The Sourdough Whisperer

My wonderful wife has become an expert with sourdough. She keeps sourdough starter sitting on our kitchen cabinets, “feeding” it every day. Sometimes she gets overzealous and the quart jar of starter slowly bursts out the top. Most of the time, though, she just makes sourdough bread and sourdough biscuits and sourdough waffles and, once, sourdough bagels.

Yes, I’m a very lucky man.

If you’ve been following along with me in trying to discover what this “kingdom of God” is that Matthew 6:33 tells us that we’re supposed to seek first, you might know that we’ve come to the third of seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13. Today, we’re onto the shortest of the bunch:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and mixed into fifty pounds of flour until all of it was leavened.”–Matthew 13:33

I have to admit that I get distracted with that one. What is that woman going to make with that flour now that it has yeast in it? And will she share?

So far, the parables have compared the kingdom of God to plants in a field and to a tiny little seed. What sort of choppy focus must Jesus have had to now compare the kingdom to yeast?

I think there’s a good reason why Jesus compares the kingdom to seven exceptionally different things in this chapter and to several others elsewhere in Matthew. You see, the kingdom of God is not really like anything else. It is unique. All similes or other metaphors are imperfect. Despite my mother saying it, most little kids do not literally “grow like a weed.” But the comparisons of earthly and well-known things to the other-worldly and unknown kingdom of God are, by necessity, even more of a stretch. One comparison just won’t get the job done.

What do we learn from this yeasty parable?

  • First, I’d say that the kingdom of God is something where a little goes a long way. In that sense, this parable parallels the mustard seed.
  • Second, the kingdom of God, like the leaven, does its work from within. It is essentially invisible but its outcome is visible to everyone. And once it starts, it is difficult to stop.
  • Finally, somebody has to work the kingdom into the flour. A little bit of yeast will do an amazing job on a pile of dough, but it won’t do it if it remains in the packet.

That leaves me with an unanswered question. In this parable, a woman works the yeast into the flour. Who is the woman? Is the woman God? Is the woman a follower of God? Honestly, I’m not sure that question is even relevant. The important “actor” here is the yeast.

Sourdough starter is amazing stuff. So long as you keep it supplied with food (flour), it will just continue to produce more and more. Perhaps that helps explain why Jesus described Himself as the Bread of Life in John 6.

Now, pass the biscuits!

Seeds of Change

Seeds are amazing. Henry David Thoreau, not usually known as a friend to orthodox belief, spoke truth about seeds: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.” A single tomato seed can grow into a single plant that will put on up to 200 fruit–tomatoes are fruit, by the way–each of which contains 150 or more seeds. A typical tomato plant might yield 40 pounds of edibles and 30,000 potential new plants. Plus the vines of the plant will grow huge, requiring some sort of support for the best production and health.

And that’s really nothing compared to the mustard seed. Jesus famously compares the kingdom of God to that seed:

He presented another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when grown, it’s taller than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.”–Matthew 13:31-32

I have to admit that, as one of the enlightened people who prefers mustard on his hot dogs, I was disappointed to learn that the mustard plant Jesus refers to here is not the one that French’s and others use to make that delightful yellow condiment. Instead, the plant referred to here is most likely the salvadora persica, the so-called toothbrush bush. These plants can grow as tall as 20 feet, which would certainly qualify it as “taller than the garden plants.” Its seed looks like dust.

Some proud academics, it seems, have discovered seeds that are actually smaller than Jesus’ mustard seed. Obviously this passage should said, “It’s the smallest of all the seeds, except for an orchid on a continent that you haven’t yet discovered and the size of which you won’t have the tools to measure for a couple thousand years.” Might it be that those who gleefully point out that the mustard seed is not actually the smallest of all the world’s seeds have missed the point? If so, then what is the point?

  • The kingdom of God starts out as a small thing, but it can grow into something really large.
  • The kingdom of God doesn’t look like much at the outset, but it can become something remarkable. (That’s really another way of saying the first item.)
  • The kingdom of God, when fully grown, will bless others–as in the birds of the sky who nest there.

But I am left with a question. Who who is the man who sowed this seed in his field? Does the man represent the person who has sought the kingdom of God, as in Matthew 6:33, or is it God Himself doing the planting? In the previous parable, the wheat and tares, the farmer was God. I’m not sure here, though, if we are being called to plant it in ourselves or if God is doing the planting.

What do you think?

What’s So Special about Cheesemakers?

“Did he say ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’? What’s so special about cheesemakers?”

“Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

Those lines are from Monty Python’s irreverent but still humorous film Life of Brian as Jesus attempted to deliver the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We’ve seen the images of Jesus talking atop a hilltop to a multitude in rapt attention. There stands the Teacher, surrounded by scores or even hundreds of listeners. Do those images get it right?

When he saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to teach them, saying: –Matthew 5:1-2

Clearly, the portrayals, including Monty Python’s, have at least one thing wrong. Jesus is frequently pictured as standing up, while Matthew 5:1 says that He sat down. But let’s look a bit more closely. The “sermon” was delivered in apparent response to crowds. At the close of chapter 4, we read that crowds were following Him. Then as chapter 5 begins, we’re told that “he saw the crowds.” Then He went up on the mountain. Did the crowd follow? That’s not clear. Did Jesus go up on the mountain in order to speak to the crowd? It definitely doesn’t say that. What it does say is that after he sat down, apparently to teach, “his disciples came to him.” That word for “disciples,” mathetes, does not necessarily indicate the eventual twelve disciples (especially since Matthew wouldn’t be called until chapter 9), but it does indicate followers or learners. And in verse 2, Jesus “began to teach them.” Who? English grammar would suggest that the pronoun “them” refers back to the nearer noun, the disciples, rather than to the farther noun, the crowd.

I’d like to suggest that at least the primary audience for this teaching was the disciples, those already bought in to the Jesus program, and not to the entire crowd of curiosity seekers.  Is there any evidence to support this position other than these two verses? I’m glad you asked. Turn a few pages toward the back of the book to Matthew 13. There, Jesus is asked by his disciples–remember them–why He always teaches in parables. His response is significant for us:

Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.–Matthew 13:11

Now go back to the Sermon on the Mount. Are there any parables there? There are some metaphors and the “Two Foundations” closer in Matthew 7:24-27 could be called a parable, but the vast bulk of these three chapters is straight-forward and reasonably literal teaching. Perhaps these are the “secrets of the kingdom” and this occasion is part of when they were given.

In the Life of Brian, the cheesemaker and other comments are made by people on the distant periphery of the crowd. Although these are an exaggeration, Jesus was not talking to those who simply crowded around. Instead, I’d suggest these were those of whom Jesus spoke, quoting Isaiah 13:14:

You will listen and listen,
but never understand;
you will look and look,
but never perceive.

Wheat and Tares

Ralph drives me crazy! You have a Ralph at your church, don’t you? We not only have several of them at our church but a couple of them (none named Ralph, by the way) have been in our home in recent weeks. Every church has its annoying people, its nosy people, its smelly people, and so on. That’s not who I’d like to think about right now.

Along with a selection of oddball believers, pretty much every church has somebody who is an unbeliever. This person might sit in the pews every Sunday, might drop money in the collection, might even “amen” now and again, but they’re not actual followers of Christ and their deeds often expose them, at least occasionally.

As we attempt to understand better what it is that Matthew 6:33 would have us “seek first” in the kingdom of God, my mind is drawn to the collection of kingdom parables in Matthew 13. The first in the line is the “Wheat and Tares” in Matthew 13:24-30.

 The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while people were sleeping, his enemy came, sowed weeds among the wheat, and left. (24-25)

The parable goes on, but I’ll trust that you can follow the link and read it on your own. In summary, the owner allows the weeds to grow up, instructing the workers to pull them out at harvest time. Interestingly, the Greek word that the CSB translates as “weeds” is actually more specific. The “tares” of older translations are a particular type of weed, one that looks like wheat but does not produce usable grain. This isn’t dandelions and chickweed, but something that masquerades as the crop–maybe it even “amens” now and again.

What does this parable teach us about the kingdom of God?

First, it seems pretty clear that the kingdom of God (or heaven) is not the same as heaven or the afterlife. Why? Is God really going to allow the “weeds” to go into heaven? And if so, then what does the harvest and the barn represent in the parable? No, I think the kingdom of God is at least initially of this world.

Second, the kingdom of God, when we reach it, will not be perfect. We might find ourselves standing in a terrific field of wheat, but God isn’t going to keep all of the weeds away from us. Our mission, it seems, is to keep seeking, which involves growing into fruitful grain ourselves, ignoring the weeds as best we can.

Third, the kingdom of God will face opposition. Notice that the weed seeds didn’t just blow in on the wind. An enemy sowed the weeds among the wheat.

A farmer needn’t teach wheat to grow. It will grow to the best it can given the conditions. Sure, weeds can interfere, but that isn’t the wheat’s problem. That’s the farmer’s affair.

So today, the kingdom of God is like a field of grain. If I’m an individual plant, then my job in seeking the kingdom is to grow and put on a head of good grain. Is it a coincidence that this grain is also seed for the next generation of wheat? I don’t think so.

The Bigfoot-Alien Connection

There are things “they” don’t want you to know. They don’t want you to know that bigfoot is really a scout for the aliens, searching for lost technology in the Pacific Northwest forests. And they don’t want you to know that these are not just any aliens but the friendly aliens, the ones who are attempting to assist us in defending ourselves from the unfriendly aliens. “They” certainly don’t want you to know about them or the year 2032. And all of this explains why “they” deny the obvious conclusion that the earth is flat.

It doesn’t take too long in the back alleys of the web to find stuff that makes the preceding paragraph seem pretty tame. In fact, just to test that claim, I pasted the title of this post into Google to see what I’d find. The very first hit claimed an interdimensional connection between the hairy guy and the space people. (The second one threw in Atlantis.)

People seem to love the idea of hidden knowledge, of mysteries and secrets, conspiracies and riddles. I’ll admit that in a younger season of my life, I’ve been drawn into such materials. Today, I find myself attracted to another mystery, one lying right in front of me my entire life.

This morning, I was thinking about the post that came out yesterday, explaining why Jesus taught in parables. When the disciples asked this question, he told them

the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.–Mathew 13:11

So here’s the mystery. Are those secrets things that have been plainly given to all who believe in Jesus or even all those who possess the Bible? Or are these secrets that Jesus gave to his inner circle but did not give to us? Let’s keep in mind that when Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 13, He hadn’t bestowed the Holy Spirit on the disciples in the powerful manner that we’d see in John 20 or Acts 2.

The real question I have is whether the kingdom of God (or heaven–the terms are used interchangeably in the gospels) is a mysterious, complicated, secret thing or a simple thing.

Back in Matthew 6:33, Jesus tells the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount to “seek God’s kingdom.” If the kingdom is complicated, then how were they supposed to do that without the secret knowledge? But if it is not complicated or secret, then why, seven chapters later, do we find Jesus veiling the truth in the parables?

Are you ready for my answer? I’m sorry, but I don’t have a definitive answer. The kingdom of God is a mystery, and yet it seems to be an accessible mystery. If it were simple, then Jesus wouldn’t be throwing a flurry of parables into teaching it. If it were complicated, then in Matthew 19:14, He wouldn’t have said that the kingdom belongs to such as children.

Winston Churchill could have been speaking on this subject when he described “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” In speaking of world affairs, however, Churchill added “but perhaps there is a key.” We can hope for a key for this subject. And it isn’t Bigfoot.