Jesus was a storyteller and often told parables. A parable is an ordinary story that may be used to illustrate a practical or theological concept. In Matthew we find many parables about the reign or kingdom of God. When was the gospel of Matthew written? Matthew wrote his gospel after the fall of Rome in 70 AD when the people were finding conflict between being under the Roman Empire and being citizens of the Kingdom of God.
So today I’d like to share a paradoxical parable with you, told by Roger G. Talbot, and then let’s see how parables relate to our times.
Once upon a time, a strange man came to a small village. He carried a mixing bowl and a wooden spoon. This sight was odd enough to cause the people of the village to notice what the old man did next. The old man took the bowl to the plowed field next to the village and he put some dirt in the bowl until it was about half full. Then the old man sat down on a rock next to the pump and began to stir the water into the dirt with the wooden spoon. He stirred and stirred and stirred. The people watched this without much interest until the old man became visibly excited. He peered happily into the bowl and then reached in and pulled out a mud-covered stone. He then went to the pump and washed it off and held it up in the sun to inspect it. The people came closer and they could see that it was a gold nugget.
The old man went back to stirring. He stirred and stirred for a long time and then, again, he became excited, pulled something out of the bowl, washed it off and held another gold nugget in his hand. This went on for a long time: the old man stirring and stirring and every once in awhile, excitedly retrieving gold nuggets from the bowl. Finally, when he had half a dozen gold nuggets lined up next to him, the old man stopped stirring, washed out the bowl at the pump, picked up the nuggets and went on his way.
As you can imagine, no sooner had the old man disappeared over the horizon, the people of the village seized their bowls and spoons, scooped some dirt into the bowls, filled them with water and began to stir. They stirred and stirred. Even though they stirred and stirred for hours and looked and looked and occasionally ran their fingers through the mud in the bowl, no gold nuggets appeared. Many of them began to tire of this. The rich put down their bowls because they already had enough gold. The children put down their bowls because playing was more fun than having gold nuggets. The young men and women put down their bowls because love was more important to them than gold nuggets. The poor kept on stirring the longest, but most of them finally gave up, deciding that there were better ways to feed themselves and their families.
At last, only one poor woman was left. She kept stirring until it became too dark to see and then she resumed the task the next morning and stirred all day with no results, but she kept on stirring. Finally, as evening was falling again, the poor woman saw the strange old man returning. The old man came to the spot where the poor woman was sitting and stirring the mud in the bowl and asked what she was doing. The poor woman explained that she had seen the old man stir mud the day before and pull out gold nuggets. She wondered why she could not do the same.
The old man inspected the bowl, asked about the dirt and water and scratched his head. “It’s all the same,” he said, “I don’t know why it’s not working.”
After a few more minutes of thought the old man said, “Oh, there is one more thing. When you are stirring the mud, you can’t think about the gold nuggets.”
So we wonder what does this story mean? I bet Jesus’ listeners wondered about his stories too. To stir mud without thinking about the gold is difficult, like finding treasure or a pearl, like why the weeds thrive in the garden while our vegetable seeds don’t produce plants.
One way to think about it is to consider that these stories are about control.
I think these stories are about control. We expect to be in control, and yet we are not. Or maybe they are about faith and trust. Sometimes things we cannot control produce amazing results. Jesus was trying to teach his disciples to trust him and to trust God. The kingdom of heaven is like the gold nuggets. Sometimes the best things in life, happen not by our doing, but by God’s.
And often the people who find the treasure are not the ones who grow tired of looking and lose interest; nor the ones who are already satisfied with life; nor are those who become so discouraged that they give up. We have to be careful to keep our minds open to signs of God’s kingdom. We find God’s kingdom by being hungry for God and open to what will fill that God-shaped hole in us.
I want to tell one more story like the one Jesus told about the merchant in search of pearls, but this story has a twist. In our scripture story, on finding a pearl of great price, he sold all he had to buy it. This was not a hidden treasure, which is found by accident but a pearl on sale in the marketplace. A merchant finds the precious pearl in his daily business rounds. He sells everything he has in order to buy the pearl.
In a similar but different ancient legend, a monk found a precious jewel. A short time later, the monk met a traveler, who said he was hungry and asked the monk if he would share some of his food. When the monk opened his bag, the traveler saw the precious stone, and on an impulse, asked the monk if he could have it. Amazingly, the monk gave the traveler the stone.
The traveler departed quickly, overjoyed with his new possession. However, a few days later, he came back, searching for the monk. He returned the stone to the monk and made a request: “Please give me something more valuable, more precious than this stone. Please give me that which enabled you to give it to me!” The traveler realized that a generous heart is of more value than a precious jewel.
A commitment of the whole heart, that’s what heaven, the kingdom of heaven, requires of its followers. Sacrifice, generosity, hard work, letting go of control, putting our focus on removing the emphasis on the self and making a commitment, such is the kingdom of God.
Matthew’s sharing of these parable stories invites us into the reign of God. Combining the traditions and teaching of the Old and New Testament, Jesus’ followers were being opened to new ways of experiencing God.
The kingdom of heaven, like the mustard seed, invades the cultivated soil of our certainties and our boundaries and creates something new. Hidden within what we think we see and know, it grows up in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed by our surprising God.
May we be attentive to the ways God is being revealed to us and may we set our hearts on those treasures. Let us pray that God’s reign will continue to surprise and teach us how we are to live.