Homily From Service Sunday, July 30, 2023 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
We’re to be a bit more interactive today – our sermon. I’m not asking you to shout out your thoughts as we go. I am confessing that I can’t tell you what a parable means. Parables are, in some ways, like poetry: they overflow with meaning. So, as we walk through today’s gospel, I invite you to noodle these questions along with me. They’re not just rhetorical devices. They are the work of the text. So join me.
Our first question: What is a parable? At its most basic, a parable is a story. We could extend that definition and say a parable is a short story, sometimes only a couple of sentences long. Perhaps we might add to that definition that a parable is often surprising in some way to its listeners. Finally, our definition wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t include that a parable offers some kind of comparison – in fact, that is the etymology of the word – from Greek , the prefix para meaning “together” or “alongside” combined with the verb balo meaning “to throw” [Source, pp. 1, 6]. So with a parable, we have a short story, often surprising, in which two things thrown together to illustrate, to illuminate. And we know that, consistent with his Jewish culture, Jesus relied on parables to convey his teaching.
Our reading today includes not one, but five parables. Five separate short stories. And the focus of these parables? It is a continuation of Jesus’ central message as conveyed in this gospel. In chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus begins his public ministry – his first public teaching recorded is this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” [Matt 4:17]. Each of these parables begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and each story that follows is Jesus’ effort to communicate to his listeners an understanding of his central message – what is the kingdom of heaven, and what does it mean that this kingdom has drawn near?
Depending on our interpretation, our understanding of God’s reign could look very different. Importantly, so would our response.
Let’s take one of today’s parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt 13:45-46). What does that mean? The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant? Who is this merchant? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be the merchant? Is this merchant respected? Disdained? One commentator walks through the references to this same word (both in Greek in the NT and in Hebrew in the OT) and concludes that (quoting) “Not only are merchants regarded with some suspicion; the entire enterprise of high-end trade receives a negative verdict in the biblical tradition…It is almost impossible to find a positive biblical connotation” to this term [Source, 131]. I’m thinking…the moneychangers in the temple. Well, so now Jesus has everybody’s attention. How can God’s kingdom be like this man who’s a merchant? What’s that about?
And why is the merchant looking for pearls? What does this mean? And when he finds not “pearls” – plural – as the text says he was seeking – but this singular pearl, why does he make such a dramatic move? What do we make of that?
And then, upon finding this singular pearl of great value, the merchant sells everything he has so that he can buy it. But then what good does it do him? How will he live now? How will he feed his family (if he has one)? Both in Jesus’ time and in our own this would be seen as a risky move, to put it mildly. And, getting back to our definition of a parable – this short, often surprising story that, by way of comparison illustrates or illuminates – what does all of this tell us about God’s reign? What do we make of this?
Just think about that for a moment. I’ll read the parable one more time while you do: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
As part of our exploration, let’s think about this parable and today’s other parables in the context of Jesus’ original audience as represented by Matthew – the setting and the exact wording of the parables is slightly different from gospel to gospel, and it’s likely that Jesus may very well have told these parables multiple times in a variety of settings…but as represented by Matthew – Jesus had arrived on the scene with a message about the kingdom of God and a call to repent, to turn toward that kingdom. He has sent his twelve disciples around the Galilean countryside to proclaim the message and he himself has been wandering from town to town healing, exorcising, teaching. He’s caught the eye of the authorities and is beginning to raise a little bit of a ruckus. People are beginning to find him, to move about with him. So on this day, he seats himself on the seashore and the people start to gather, “such great crowds,” we are told, “that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.” And he began to fire parables at them. We see five of them today, all told in this discourse there were seven. One after the other. All of them beginning with these words, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”
- The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…
- The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…
- The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…
- The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant…
- The kingdom of heaven is like a net…
What’s the impact on you? What do you think he’s doing? This is a point at which I realize a sermon might not be the ideal medium for this reflection. I really wish we were sitting in a circle and having a conversation. So, if you are experiencing a response to this onslaught of disparate images, hold onto it. I’d love to hear to about it after the service. I don’t know about you, but my response? It’s not the same response as the disciples. “Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks them, after seven parables. And their answer? “Yeah, sure” (Matt 13:51). That’s not my experience.
The commentator I referenced earlier, New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, gets closer to my experience. She offers this: if we recall the saying that “religion is designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” then we might think of parables as Jesus’ way of “doing the afflicting” [p. 3]. According to Levine, “we might be better off thinking less about what they ‘mean’ and more about what they can ‘do: remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb” [Source, p. 4].
Jesus isn’t comforting his followers. A few chapters back in the gospel of Matthew we heard comforting Jesus – “all who are weary and heavy laden come to me and I will give you rest; my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” We’re not hearing comforting Jesus today.
Jesus isn’t spoon-feeding his followers. As a teacher, a rabbi, he seems to know that the learning will mean more to them if it comes from them. He’s surprising. He’s provoking. He’s unsettling them. He’s forcing them to think through the kingdom and their commitment to this vision for themselves. What are their preconceptions? What are their priorities? What is wisdom in their circumstance? What do they treasure?
So, what are we to make of this? I think part of the answer at least can be found in this thirteenth chapter according to Matthew. Earlier, in verse 10, the disciples ask Jesus, “Why? Why do you speak to them in parables?” [Matt 13:10]. Jesus responds by quoting Isaiah:
14b ”You will indeed listen but never understand,
and you will indeed look but never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.” [Isa 6:14b-15]
Jesus is trying to wake them up. And his words ring through the centuries. They have the potential to wake us up. To open our eyes to the world that God wants to create. With humor, and surprising images, and unexpected juxtapositions Jesus is trying to provoke us, to challenge us. To rouse us, to stir in us a desire to follow him on his mission: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”
So, whether we have a chance to talk about it over coffee, these questions remain for each of us: What are your preconceptions? What are your priorities? What is wisdom in your circumstance? What do you treasure? What healing understanding do you most need to turn and respond to the Kingdom of God?