Imagine a clergyperson stepping into the pulpit for a sermon on today's Gospel text.
S/he begins: "The kingdom of God is like a hooker who hid some of her earnings from her pimp, invested it in the stock market, made a million dollars and was able to get off the streets for good."
Or maybe: "The kingdom of God is like a black mold spore that got into a house, and grew into more mold until the mold took over the entire house; the owners had to tear down the house, and then they wound up building a better house than they had before."
Or maybe: "The kingdom of God is like someone who met a stranger on the Internet, and fell so head-over-heels in love that s/he sold everything s/he had to move cross-country and be with that person."
Or maybe: "The kingdom of God is like a bag lady with a tin-foil hat who put everything she found in the alley into her old shopping cart, then pushed it back home to her cardboard box and sorted out the useful things from the worthless things."
Now, those stories might jolt you out of your reverie about the pot roast simmering back home, or what you have to do at work on Monday. The little Sunday School kiddos would probably not be coloring pictures of those parables for display in the fellowship hall.
I am indebted to Brian Stoffregen's exegetical notes on this text at Crossmarks for helping me better understand both the humor and the radicality of Jesus' parables.
These aren't quaint village-life tales designed to "comfort the afflicted" or provide wagging-finger moral instruction. These parables are meant to rock the world of their hearers.
As Stoffregen points out in the link above, Jesus' stories, as understood by their original audience, contain elements of ritual uncleanness or moral ambiguity. You have mustard planted in a ritually unsuitable place. You have a woman -- hardly a suitable protagonist for a positive parable anyway -- not only messing around with an unclean substance like leaven (those of us who have ever tried to make sourdough starter from wild "yeast beasts" have a special appreciation for this image), but "hiding" it -- a very interesting and deliberate verb. A rather shifty fellow who finds someone's treasure, hides it in the ground on someone else's land, then buys the land to make sure that he is understood to be the rightful owner. A merchant overcome with desire, to the point of folly, for just one pearl. A wasteful haul of fish. One can imagine the reaction of the first hearers: "The kingdom of heaven is like -- whaaaa...?"
Why didn't Jesus create a parable about the kingdom of God being like a Pharisee, full of piety and moral uprightness and exemplary attentiveness to things divine, separate from everything unclean and disreputable? Isn't that the story many churches nowadays would want Jesus to tell?
But he didn't.
In Jesus' parables, the Reign of God breaks through in the context of everyday life's mundane activities -- planting, baking, buying and selling, catching fish -- but in completely surprising, perplexing, even outrageous ways. And it doesn't simply break through -- it explodes. Mustard seeds shoot up into trees; yeast expands a bowl of dough like a balloon; nets are full to breaking with fish. And people's reaction to this irrational exuberance on God's part is their own irrational exuberance -- doing anything and everything to hang on to these surprising manifestations of grace in their lives.
Jesus tells us that the people who get what he's talking about, who as the saying goes "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" it, are like servants who can pull from the household stores treasures both old and new. As Christians in the catholic tradition, we are stewards of many fine old treasures -- our affirmation of the Scriptures as the vessel containing the Word, the Christ, God's ultimate revelation of Godsself; our respect for and preservation of Christianity's ancient statements of faith and practices that nurture that faith. But we are also called to live that faith, live God's extravagant and expansive grace, into the future. Semper reformandis -- always reforming -- is what we're to be about; on one hand holding fast to the foundations of our faith and reality-checking ourselves when it seems we are losing our grasp, but on the other hand responding to the reality of our own time, our own collective Sitz im Leben, as we seek to communicate and live out the Gospel message.
But the beauty of the Gospel is that, no matter what the time or where the place, it proclaims a Reign of God that is bigger, better, wider and more surprising than we can imagine.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed, rose window, Hyde Park Union Church