Life Lessons

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables …” (Matthew 13:1-3).

Most of the gospel readings this month come from a collection of parables, sometimes called the sermon on the water, which form the structural and thematic heart of Matthew.

Parables are not concrete examples to help simple people who might not otherwise understand lofty spiritual matters. Quite the opposite is true. Through parables, Jesus asserts that the raw stuff of the daily life of the poor—debt bondage, subsistence farming, day labor pools, taxes, crop contamination, food preparation—is vital to understanding the reign of God, or as it says in Matthew, “the kingdom of heaven.”

We hear the phrase “kingdom of heaven” seven times in this month’s gospel readings. In Matthew the words are used where identical passages in the other gospels say the “ kingdom of God.” The author of Matthew is not describing a different reality but honoring the Jewish prohibition on uttering or writing the name of God. The kingdom described is the same “this-world” reality of economic justice, community, abundance, and radical inclusion. Matthew’s kingdom of heaven is not pie in the sky when you die.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.

July 6

Come Out and Play
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25;
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In a gospel that calls us repeatedly to hear and listen, we begin with a noisy passage full of calling, quarreling, wailing, and flutes. This first reading is the odd one out in a month of kingdom parables.

Jesus asks, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17).

I find the idea of children in the marketplace compelling. It suggests to me those most vulnerable to the harms of global capitalism and raises the issues of child labor and economic extraction. But unlike most gospel references to children and little ones, the children in this story do not represent society’s least powerful. These children are more autonomous but less positively portrayed—Jesus compares his own generation to them, and in Matthew, generation is never a good word.

The children in the market call “let’s play wedding, let’s play funeral” to companions who will not join them. The generation that Jesus chastens rejects John the baptizer because his way seems too hard and Jesus because his way seems too easy. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:18-19).

Both John and Jesus announce that the kingdom is come. But is it a wedding or is it a funeral? Is it easy or is it hard? Should we feast or fast? Do we rejoice or repent?

In some sense the answer in this parable is “it doesn’t matter,” or “the kingdom is both,” for Jesus’ way of the bridegroom becomes the way of the cross and John’s call to repentance is filled with passion. Whether the call we hear most clearly is to rejoice or to repent, what does matter is that we not sit by and refuse to commit ourselves. When the children call—play!

July 13

Abundant Harvest
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Although we read allegorical explanations of the parables in this week’s gospel readings, a parable is not an allegory with a single interpretation and a one-to-one correspondence with the world. Parables are resistance speech-acts that put realities side by side and invite the hearers to examine, engage, and respond. Matthew 13:24 and 13:31 describe what Je­sus does with parables as “putting” them “before” his listeners. The reflections that follow also put realities side by side and invite engagement.

In many places in the world, the people who do agricultural work, the people we all rely on to provide what we eat, are undervalued and badly treated. In my province of British Columbia, international “guest workers” and recent immigrants to Canada plant, tend, and harvest food for domestic consumption and export. Despite international agreements and detailed labor codes, they are routinely exploited, working under dangerous health, safety, sanitary, and housing conditions and earning below the national minimum wage.

Matthew 13:3-8 describes a sower casting seed on different kinds of ground. The majority of the seed produces no grain, but the seeds that fall on good soil “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” The most striking thing about this parable is the abundance it represents. For Palestinian subsistence farmers indentured to the land, a seven-fold harvest was pretty usual, tenfold would have been a bumper crop, but not even the biotechnologists and genetic engineers promise a hundredfold harvest.

Commenting on Mark’s earlier version of this parable, theological animator Ched Myers says, “The symbolic harvest represents a dramatic shattering of the vassal relationship between peasant and landlord.” Such a harvest would allow a peasant family to eat, pay rent, taxes, and debts, and even buy land, effectively turning the social order on its head.

July 20

Seeds and Weeds
Genesis 28:10-19; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Biblical and botanical dictionaries tell me that the weed, or tare, in our gospel parable is a specific plant—darnel—a grass that grows in the same zones where wheat is produced. Darnel looks very much like wheat when it is immature; its roots intertwine with those of the wheat and its toxic grains are loosely attached to the stem. The problem of what to do with an infested field does not have a simple solution—pull up the shoots and you pull up the wheat; wait until the harvest and you poison the grain and contaminate next year’s crop with falling seeds.

For the landless peasants who were Jesus’ audience, the economic loss represented by a contaminated field could mean the death of a child to malnutrition. To the wealthy landowner in this story, it means loss of profit. A rich man who imagines that simple bad luck must be the work of some enemy, and who stands to lose only income, might not have been a sympathetic character to peasants. For him the kingdom of God is a noxious weed.

The kingdom parables “put before us,” in stark relief, the conditions of life under empire. The rich risk their profit, the poor their lives and the lives of their children. The few live in luxury sustained by enmity, scarcity, profit, and accumulation, and they are supported by the labor of those who struggle with poverty and constant vulnerability. The fear-based logic of empire is not confined to the past.

The Monsanto Com­­pany produces the most weed-killer in the world. The company also sells patented food seeds that are resistant to their herbicide. In August 1998, the multinational billion-dollar biotechnology giant sued 67-year-old Sas­katch­ewan canola farmer Percy Schmeiser for patent infringement. Genetically modified, weed-killer re­sistant seeds had blown into Schmeiser’s fields from a neighbor’s crop. Schmeiser cultivated the plants along with his own, saved the seeds, and planted them the following year. In 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Schmeiser, by doing what farmers have done for centuries, had deprived Monsanto of the “full enjoyment of their monopoly.”

To the tenant farmer and the wealthy landowner, the biotechnologist and the canola breeder, national governments and migrant workers, Jesus offers the same kingdom of abundance and just distribution. Whether it is seed that produces a hundredfold or an invasive weed is a matter of perspective.

July 27

A Pearl Like a Fishnet
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

What do a seed, yeast, buried treasure, a pearl, and a fishnet have in common? They’re all like the kingdom, right?

Actually, no. When we read these diverse and troubling kingdom parables carefully, the objects described are inseparable from actions and actors: Seed is sown by a sower, yeast is hidden by a woman, the treasure hunter and the merchant buy and sell, the fishers fish. The kingdom is not about static symbols but about people engaged in action.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” is a familiar and comforting image—God will do something wonderful if we have a tiny bit of faith; something big and good comes from something small and insignificant.

We think this be­cause we don’t know much about mustard and focus on the tiny seed, not the “great tree.” A mustard bush is neither big nor wonderful; it is invasive, fast-growing, and im­possible to get rid of (like darnel, another in­vasive weed).

The kingdom of God is like kudzu, like Scotch broom, like morning glories, like dandelions. And birds of the air? The last place we want them is in our grain fields. You’ve heard of scarecrows?

The pesky mustard seed parable is paired with the one-verse parable of the yeast. A nice domestic image, a little gender parity, maybe even an instance of Jesus speaking directly to women. Well, it would be if the central images didn’t all convey contamination, corruption, and subversion. A modern paraphrase might be: “The kingdom of God is like a virus in a dirty needle that a junkie took and injected into a vein so the whole body was infected.” Yet in the parable, from this woman’s “hiding” the yeast comes incredible abundance—bread to feed more than 100 people.

In the parables of Matthew, the kingdom Jesus announces is subversive, unstoppable, invasive, a nuisance, urgent, shocking, abundant. It requires action and commitment and inspires extreme behavior.

Listen—serfs are buying land, a peasant woman has baked bread for 100, the kingdom of God is rising, and there we find our daily bread. Fish are breaking through nets, the rich are selling all they have. The kingdom is springing up faster than we can uproot it.

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