First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 8

William Loader

Pentecost 8: 26 July Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Jesus subverts the norms. In Matthew 13:31-32 Matthew returns to Mark 4, where Mark has his version of the parable of the mustard seed (4:30-32). As with the sending out of the 12 (Matt 10:1,5-15), so here, too, Matthew draws on a Q version of the tradition (see Luke 13:18-19). Matthew's version has features of both. Parables lend themselves to ever new interpretations and this is also the case with this one. There were more positive examples of plants which Jesus might have chosen. Instead he declares the kingdom of God is like what was often a weed! Leaven (13:33) and the image of 'fishing for people' (4:19) are also fairly negative and therefore shocking images. This was typical of Jesus. Today people would call such subversion post-modernism. Jesus subverts the normal expectations.

So it may not be only the smallness of the seed (storytellers' exaggeration to call it the smallest!), but also the weediness of the mustard plant which reflects on what many thought of Jesus and his preaching. In this sense the parable has much in common with the absurdity of the sowing in the parable of the sower. It is a defiantly assertive Jesus who proclaims the coming of the kingdom, nevertheless! The cross will be absurd. This is definitely alternative in emphasis. It becomes a symbol of the way of discipleship, the lowliness blessed in the beatitudes.

Mark says it grows to be the largest of plants. Q says it becomes a tree. Matthew says both! Mark's is more realistic because it becomes a large bush (not, in fact, the largest), hardly a tree. Birds can nest under it - providing that it has grown big enough at nesting season, if we want to press the detail! Tree imagery has Old Testament precedents (Ezekiel 17:22-24; 31:6; Daniel 4:10, 20; see also Psalm 104:12). Mostly it is negative, representing foreign powers, but Ezekiel 17 appears to use it positively of Israel and the nations. In the parable it now expresses the hope that the kingdom will also draw the birds, the Gentiles. This little embellishment about the birds may already have had that significance in Jesus' use of the parable. In any case it connects us to the great vision of the kingdom as a gathering of all people in peace and reconciliation, foreshadowed in the eucharistic feast. It is a value which collides with the xenophobia which appears to be driving current approaches to asylum seekers.

The parable of the leaven is equally provocative as that of the mustard 'tree'. Potentially poisonous stuff providing bread! 44-50 bring three further parables. The treasure and the pearl illustrate the total commitment which the kingdom elicits and its reward. The fishing net returns to the theme of judgement, echoing the parable of the weeds and its interpretation. It suits those who see the threat of judgement as a sound motivator, including Matthew, and needs to be brought into critical theological dialogue with other gospel streams which appeal to grace and hope and opportunity.

It is typically Matthean that 13:51 has the disciples understand what Jesus had been saying. 13:52 has Jesus go on to speak of the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven. Just as Jesus taught with authority and not as their scribes, according to 7:29, so the disciples are to be better scribes, but scribes nevertheless (so also 23:34). The good scribe or interpreter is one who both draws on tradition (scripture) and draws on contemporary experience as a parable of God's reality in the world, thus on both old and new. This is one reason why these 'first thoughts' resources will never do as sermons! You need also to study the unique text presented to you in your hearers.

Epistle: Pentecost 8: 26 July  Romans 8:26-39

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