"Have You Understood These Things?" by Zachary Helton
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-45, 34-35, 51-52
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in their field. It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.” Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.” “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.” Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables, and he spoke to them only in parables. This was to fulfill what the prophet spoke: I’ll speak in parables; I’ll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world. “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. They said to him, “Yes.” Then he said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.” This is one of our sacred stories. Thanks be to God.
On one side of town, in a dusty stone courtyard, the disciples of a Pharisee asked their master a question. “Teacher,” they said, “what is the Kingdom of God?” The Pharisee, stoic and confident, answered him. “What you ask is simple,” he began reaching into his ancient mental catalog of beliefs. “The Kingdom of God is that realm in which God reigns, both in this life and the life to come. One enters it by following the law and by earning God’s favor. Believe in the sacred scriptures, keep the Sabbath, make sacrifice, give to the temple, pray the prayers. This is that which pleases God. In God’s Kingdom, you will be granted blessing, protection, and strength.” He looked at his disciples. “Have you understood these things?” “Yes,” his disciples nodded quickly, afraid of looking foolish again. “Thank you for making this so clear, teacher.” Then, they set about following their master’s commands. They believed the right things, they refrained from working on the Sabbath, they made their sacrifices, they gave alms, they prayed the prayers, and upon the rest of the world, they looked with resentful suspicion. Some weeks later, tragedy befell one of the disciples, and they suffered greatly. Disoriented, they returned to the Pharisee and asked why they had not been granted the protection of God’s Kingdom, having believed and done the right things for so long. The Pharisee scolded the grieving disciple for their insufficient belief and obedience and had them memorize the teachings once more. They continued in this pattern of clear answers, unearned certainty, and imminent shame for the rest of their days. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, in the lively market, the disciples of the Christ also asked a question. “Teacher,” they said, “what is the Kingdom of God?” The Christ, delighted and mischievous, answered him. “You ask a wonderful question,” be began, looking around and finding a spice vendor. He reached into one of the vendor’s baskets and plucked out a tiny mustard seed. “The Kingdom of God,” he taught, “is like a mustard seed that a scoundrel took and planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it took root and grew, it became the largest of all the plants – a tree so massive, in fact, that the birds in the sky nested in its branches.” He tossed the seed back into the bushel and continued with conspiratorial enthusiasm. “The Kingdom of God is like a treasure that someone hid in a field long ago. One day, someone happened upon the treasure, and, full of joy, they sold everything they had to buy the field. Now, those who didn’t see the treasure thought him insane, but this one lived off of the riches of their discovery for many years!” The Christ looked at his disciples. “Have you understood these things?” “Yes,” many of them nodded quickly, afraid of looking foolish if they didn’t. One of them, however, paused for a moment, and then said, “No!” Everyone looked at him in surprise. “Teacher,” this disciple continued, “why do you always tell us stories, but never make clear their meaning? Why don’t you just tell us clearly what to believe and what to do, like the Pharisees?” The disciples expected the Christ to rebuke this disciple, but he did not. Instead, he picked up a fig from one of the baskets on a nearby fruit vendor. “Tell me,” he said, holding the fig out to his disciple, “how would you like it if I were to give you this fruit?” “I would like that…” the disciple began, but before he finished, the Christ popped the fig into his mouth and began to chew. With a mouth full, the Christ said, “But how would you like it if I chewed it for you first? Wouldn’t want you to have to do too much work now, would I?” He made as though he were going to spit the mouthful in the disciples hand, but the disciple withdrew it quickly. “No?” said the Christ, swallowing. “Well then, neither will I tell you what these teachings mean. No one can tell you what these things mean to you, not even a master.” Christ handed the fruit vendor two small coins, and picked up another fig. He tossed it to the disciple. “I’m afraid you must chew your own fruit.” The disciple sat with these teachings for some time, making friend with the mustard seed and treasure in the lab of their imagination. They pushed against them, doubted them, spoke them aloud to their friends, and wrestled with them until, at last, the symbols yielded their blessing. Some weeks later, tragedy befell this disciple, and they suffered greatly. But rather than returning to the teacher and demanding an explanation, they sat with the experience, as had become their practice. In the lab of their imagination, they let the symbols dance with their experience, they pushed and doubted and spoke and wrestled until, at last, the struggle yielded its blessing, and they knew peace. In this way, the disciples of Christ discovered what has been hidden since the beginning of the world. When I was 22, I took my first course in preaching. The professor was a formidable presence with a resume that read like a novel. He would tell story after story about his time in the pulpit, walking us through strategies for interpreting and teaching the Bible. I learned a great deal from this professor, but one day, he taught this: “Clarity,” he said, “is of the utmost importance. You need to know exactly what you’re saying and be able to present it to your congregation in a way that is clear and convincing. In your sermons, your church needs to hear a well-defined and concrete application for their lives.” He told us, “I’ve had people come up to me after sermons and say all manner of criticism, but one criticism I never heard was, ‘That sermon was just too clear today, pastor!’” I jotted down his lecture in my notes, but even as I wrote the words on the page, I felt in my bones that there was something not quite right. The idea of a pastor assigning a script to their congregation, full of pre-worked answers about life and God… it felt… disrespectful. What I heard in his lecture was: Your congregation cannot be trusted to deal with God themselves. They too are busy. They need you to chew their fruit for them so as not to ask too much of them. Make it as easy as possible to be a Christian, otherwise, why would they want to be? Mulling over that idea, I thought to myself – If that is Christianity, and if this is preaching… then Jesus was not very good at it. This is not the way of a teacher who gives his disciples story after story, symbol after symbol, paradox after paradox. This was not the way of a one who taught that the only way to take on the yoke that was easy and burden that was light was to take on a cross and follow him into death. No, it seemed to me that Jesus expected a great deal from his disciples – not because he was legalistic or trying to get them to earn anything, but because he knew that if you wanted to grow crops, you had to put in the work of tending the field. His disciples may have wanted clarity and easy answers, but Christ couldn’t give them that for the simple reason that the answers are in the work itself, not apart from them. Brian McLaren once wrote, “Think of a math book… is it valuable because it has the answers in the back? No, it’s valuable because by working through it, by doing the problems, by struggling with it, you become a wiser person, a person capable of solving problems and building bridges.” We live in a church culture that has been more influenced by consumerism and advertising than it has been influenced by Jesus. The culture tells us that the Way of Christ can be made more palatable, that we will increase church membership and pad our church budgets if we can only make things easier and offer the people answer keys – sets of beliefs and creeds and doctrines. The problem is, we do this at the cost of our aliveness, our peace, our joy. The problem is, when the storms come and things fall apart, when a global pandemic sweeps down on us and we see our vulnerability for the first time, when the government’s protection suddenly seems weak and self-serving, when riots begin protesting injustices we’ve contributed to… when the time comes to wrestle, then all we have are empty words and unearned certainties. Unless we learn to struggle, to face our work, then the time will come when we need the peace and joy of God and we will find that all we have is the idea of God, which does about as much good as the idea of bread to a starving person. So Northminster, where do you see yourself in the story of the Pharisee and the Christ? Whose disciple are you, and whose disciple do you want to be? Have you done the work of chewing your own fruit, of discovering the Kingdom for yourself, or have you been trying to live off of the idea of the Kingdom? How has that served you in this season? What we need, Northminster, is not clarity. What we need are not beliefs, easy answers, or ways out. What we need is a willingness to struggle. What we need is a willingness to make friends with the mustard seed, the hidden treasure, with all the symbols in the labs of our imagination. What need is to learn to let them dance with our experience, to push against them, to doubt them, to speak them aloud to one another, and to wrestle with them until, at last, they yield their blessing and we discover our aliveness – the peace and joy that is our birthright. In this way, may we discover what we need – what has been hidden since the beginning of the world. Amen.