TEXTS: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52
I think that we have all found ourselves in situations where we were called upon to describe something and, failing to come up with a direct description, have fallen back on the simile. We have said, “well, it’s like . . . this”, or “it resembles . . . that”, or even “it give me the same sort of felling or sensation as . . . this”; all in hopes that the person that you are speaking to is more familiar with the thing compared to than with the original “it” (whatever it may be that you were trying originally to describe).
Similes have been around forever. They range from the formal and even poetic, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” to simple, catchy similes which often make no sense to me at all, I’ve never understood the phrase “Crazy like a fox”. Friends, I’ve seen a good many foxes in my lifetime and not one them appeared to me to be “crazy”.
The similes that I often have a great amount of trouble with and sometimes derive a good bit humor from are the descriptions that I find on the back of wine bottles. This wine has a “crisp fruity taste with hints of apples, almonds and kumquats; and a nice oaky finish”. Now does that mean that there is even a drop of kumquat juice that wine? No. Does it mean even that the wine was aged in oaken casks? Probably not. And darned if I can taste any that when I actually drink the wine.
Well, I guess that Jesus was having the same kinds of problems with his descriptions in today’s Gospel lesson. And I have to admit that the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, is a difficult thing to describe. So Jesus falls back on similes. The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . a mustard seed; it is like leaven in a huge pile of flour; it is like a treasure in a field; like an extraordinarily fine pearl. It is like a net thrown into the sea. Jesus offered up all these disparate things to help people get a grasp of what God’s reign is like; what it is like when God is in charge.
So the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . a mustard seed, a tiny seed that has the power to grow into a woody shrub-like plant that might stand eight to ten feet tall. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a small amount of leaven, a small amount of yeast that, when put into three measures (possibly as much as 50 pounds) of flour can leaven the entire amount.
The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus is saying, is something that offers signs which may seem small or even insignificant, yet which has the power to grow and infiltrate and spread quietly in ways that are sometimes unobservable, until it becomes quite large, possibly even overwhelming.
I don’t know why the thought popped into my mind when I thinking of my own similes for God’s kingdom. but I had the thought of Alex’s lemonade stand; a thought that just wouldn’t leave me. How many know of Alex’s lemonade stand? For those who don’t, Alex was a young girl who was diagnosed at an early age with neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer. Despite her declining health, at the age of four and with help from her older brother, Alex decided to set up a lemonade stand on the family’s lawn in West Hartford, Connecticut to raise funds to fight pediatric cancers. Alex’s neighbors and friends turned out droves and the first year alone Alex raised $2,000. The lemonade stand turned into an annual event and continued on after Alex’s death at the age of eight. In the first four years, during Alex’s short lifetime, the family raised a million dollars. A simple lemonade stand turned into a foundation with people in ever widening circles setting up lemonade stands in Alex’s honor to continue to raise funds. Alex and her parents wrote a book; CBS did a documentary on it, and since that one lemonade stand appeared on the Scott family’s front lawn, the foundation in Alex’s name has raised over $140 million dollars and has funded 690 research projects in North America.
Would anyone who bought a cup of lemonade from that family stand back in the year 2000 ever have imagined what it would grow into? Would Alex and her parents have ever imagined that they would find themselves on the Oprah Winfrey Show or on the Today Show or others? I seriously doubt it. Was Alex’s original vision and intent when she first set up her lemonade stand that it should develop and grow the way that it did? I’m almost sure that it wasn’t. Is it possible that Alex’s lemonade stand is itself a sign of the Kingdom of God in our midst? I would like to think so.
And how important, how valuable, should God’s Kingdom and its realization in our lives and in our world be for us? Friends, it is like a treasure that a man stumbled upon in a field; a treasure of such value that the man sold everything he had in order to buy that field. It is like a fine pearl that was found by a pearl merchant. So fine was that pearl that the merchant sold all that she had in order to purchase that one pearl.
Now we could easily overthink these parables, asking ourselves whether it was really honest for the man who found the treasure in that field to purchase the field without informing the original owner of the treasure. We could wonder whether it might have been more ethical for the finder to offer to split the value of the treasure with the owner of the field. Someone in our Monday pericope group even went as far as to wonder about the livelihood of the pearl merchant. After giving up everything that she owned for the sake of that one single, albeit valuable, pearl, how did the merchant live? I mean, it’s one thing to be the owner of a priceless piece, but if everything was sacrificed for that one item, where does tomorrow’s breakfast come from? As I have noted though, this type of reasoning is definitely overthinking the topic and therefore is missing central point of the parable, that Kingdom of Heaven has within it a far a greater value than anything we currently have, anything we can gain on this earth, possibly even a greater value than anything that we can even imagine. And, in fact, the value of God’s kingdom is of such a different nature and quality than earthly goods that even to compare them would be an exercise in futility.
When I was in college, I had the opportunity once to actually hold a Guarneri violin my hands. The violin belonged to one of the professors at my university, who told us the story of purchasing the instrument at great sacrifice. It was also obvious to us that while the value of the instrument has increased exponentially by since Dr. Shapiro had purchased it, having lived with the instrument for many years, it was almost extension of himself, something that he would not have sold for any price. In the beginning the violin had a retail value, a price in dollars and cents that allowed him to make the purchase; but later the value shifted from a retail number to being an intimate part of his ability to make music and the retail value was of little importance to him at all.
So, I ask you to imagine something of value to you; an item whose value goes far beyond dollars and cents; an item that you would sacrifice all for; an item that you would absolutely refuse to relinquish at any price. Imagine that item in your mind and then multiply that personal value tenfold or a hundredfold or maybe even by a factor of one thousand. My friends, such is the value of the Kingdom of God. How do we grasp such value? How do we understand the quiet growth of God’s kingdom in our midst? How do we grasp growth that sometimes happens so quietly as to go unnoticed? We do so by embracing God’s word as it comes to us in Holy Scripture; by reading and contemplating the parables Jesus and the letters of Paul and the history of the people of Israel in the Old Testament. And in doing so, in, as Jesus puts it in yet another parable, bringing out what is old and what is new. We do so by taking ancient scriptures and applying the wisdom of those scriptures to our current age. And in doing so, we become as wise as Solomon.
So take time. Look again at these parables in the Gospel of Matthew. Read them again and again. Don’t try to overthink them, but rather just let them percolate through your consciousness. Who knows, in doing so you may just get a glimpse of God’s Kingdom in all its glory, in all its value, in all its wonder. May God’s Kingdom be with us all.