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.