When you are watching a movie by the famous director Alfred Hitchcock, you know that it is only a matter of time before he makes a cameo appearance. That was one of his trademarks, taking a small role in each movie. The writer Matthew makes a cameo appearance in today’s gospel reading. He writes, “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.”
The scribes fulfilled a very important function in first century Judaism. They were more than just educated people who could read and write, they were proud of being experts in the 613 laws of Moses. Their job was not just to write down copies of the law, which is what we associate with the word “scribe,” they also taught and offered commentaries on the law. Matthew functions in that capacity in his community. As a Jewish scribe, he is knowledgeable in the old and committed to proclaiming the new. Because Matthew is also a follower of Jesus, his teaching goes beyond the law of Moses to include the teachings of Jesus and he is in a unique position to share Jesus’ insights about the kingdom of heaven. Unlike the other gospels, Matthew’s audience was made up of faithful Jewish people who attended synagogue every Sabbath, practiced ritual law such as circumcision and followed dietary laws, but also accepted the reforms that were introduced by Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus taught using parables, which were not just simple stories but according to scholar Amy-Jill Levine were meant to prompt his audience “to see the world in a different way, to challenge and at times to indict.” Parables are not just a means of sharing information, but a way of encouraging us to turn our lives around. Our value systems often have to be challenged and sometimes changed in order to allow God to work authentically in our lives. Teachers of parables are trying to change the students’ frame of mind, change how they process information or change their understanding of reality. Jesus used examples from the everyday life of the people to illustrate his point, and today we have several.
The first is an agricultural example, that of the mustard seed. It is among the tiniest of seeds, but it grows into a sizeable bush. This refers to the modest inception of the kingdom of heaven as it is realized here on earth. Great things often come from very modest beginnings. There is also a joke here which we would not get – in the Mishna, a collection of Jewish sayings of wisdom, farmers are warned against planting mustard because the bush is noxious and it tends to crowd out any other plants. Sometimes the kingdom of heaven might not be what we expect, and some might think it is noxious, taking over their established ways.
Jesus also compares the kingdom of heaven to yeast. When yeast is added to flour it causes the flour to rise. Yeast is a key ingredient for making leavened bread, without it, bread will be flat and bland. In other words, the kingdom of heaven is transformative – it changes us into something special. Without God, life would be flat and dull. It is the presence of God’s kingdom that empowers God’s people to rise above the circumstances of life.
Jesus also says that the kingdom of heaven is like hidden treasure that when found brings great joy. Jesus speaks of a man who, “…in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field” (in which he has buried the treasure). The treasure brings the man so much joy that he risks everything in order to preserve it. The kingdom of heaven is a treasure that is worth all that we have.
The next parable teaches about a merchant who is searching for a pearl. Jesus states, “…on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Like the man who finds a hidden treasure, the merchant who is searching for a valuable pearl sells all that he has to purchase it. Jesus is repeating that the kingdom of heaven is a treasure of the highest value. He is also suggesting that the kingdom of heaven is not always easily obtained or readily available, and so we need to seek it out.
In the final parable, Jesus appeals to the fishermen in the crowd by saying the kingdom of heaven is like a net. The net “caught fish of every kind.” As in the parable of the wheat and weeds from last Sunday, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as diverse and inclusive. The net contains various kinds of fish. Just as the fish exist together in the sea, we also must live together, exist peaceably, and he emphasizes that we should leave the judgment to God.
Today Pam has brought Cole to begin his journey as a member of the church, which at its best is a part of the kingdom of God on earth. God has loved Cole since his very beginning, but now he will become an official member of the Christian church. The church is not an exclusive club, it is a completely equal and inclusive body that is centered on God. In baptism, Cole will receive the treasure that Jesus offers, that of God’s unconditional love and mercy which culminates in salvation and eternal life.
Although Jesus no longer walks the earth with us, God’s Holy Spirit is in each one of us and surrounds us. Cole will receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit today – the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord – which means being in awe of God, not afraid. He will also receive the treasure of the joy we find in God. Those seeds as well as the seeds of compassion, mercy and love for others will be planted in him, and nurtured by his mom, his grandma, his uncle and aunt and everyone at Saint John, as we will pledge during his baptism. As he grows we will help him learn to pray for an understanding heart, that he will gain the wisdom he needs and work diligently to apply it to his everyday decisions. Then his story will end well, just like the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaimed in his parables. Amen.