July 30, 2017 – Fools Make Great Stories
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
31 He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 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.”
33 He 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.”
44 “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.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. 46 When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, they pulled it to the shore, where they sat down and put the good fish together into containers. But the bad fish they threw away. 49 That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. The angels will go out and separate the evil people from the righteous people, 50 and will throw the evil ones into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.
51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
They said to him, “Yes.”
52 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.”
Every year, the developers at Disney and Pixar grace us with another movie crafted for children that inevitably has that one song your kids will not stop singing. As an uncle, I have no problem indulging the hearts’ desires of Frozen or Moana gear, because it won’t be me listening to “How Far I’ll Go,” “Let it Go,” or whatever friendship song they manage to stick into Toy Story 4 – Andy’s thirty now. “You Got a Job for Me,” maybe?
These movies are great, if not a little too effective, in their ability to use catchy music and fun animation to tell stories about intriguing characters that make us smile, sometimes cry, and relate to all at once. These cute movies are the modern fables that teach both kids and adults about our values.
The beauty of these stories is their ability to engage us through the absurdity of a story. Mulan has a dragon spirit animal; Aladdin has a genie; and Frozen has Olaf, a silly talking snowman who I think is the real star. The silliness of these characters softens their ability to make us think hard about what we need to be made whole.
Jesus was also a master craftsman at telling fictional stories with a purpose. In today’s reading, we have the underdog mustard tree that could grow four times its intended size; a witless baker that uses a measure of yeast on a bushel of dough (the loaf that baked from that would be the size of a small car); and treasure hunters that really misunderstand what to do when you actually find the treasure.
These characters fit the goofball role that we still use in our modern tellings of stories today. Imagine the baker, anxious and rambling like the Mad Hatter, adding just the right amount of yeast to too much flour because “bigger is better” …or something like that. We would say he or she is insane and laugh when the doughball grows to the size of a VW Bug. But the baker somehow knows something we don’t.
Or how about the jewelry buyer who is so good at his job people call him the “Pearl Whisperer.” One would think that finding the perfect pearl meant he would find the perfect bidder to give him what he deserved. Instead, he goes broke selling everything and buying one single pearl that we know he would never sell.
Jesus tells us these stories of absurdity because following him is absurd. It’s absurd on many levels: for one, he was one of many, many traveling miracle workers. He wasn’t the only person to have reportedly disappeared from the grave (why else would people accuse his followers of that?). It’s absurd because Jesus talks of money and family and security – things we care about a lot – and tells us none of them matter more than following him. It’s absurd because a working class person will be the savior of the world. But we like absurd, so we keep listening.
Treasure for our children’s stories always starts out as a chest full of money or the sword in a stone, but by the end of the story, it is the thing that we have had all along and needed the push to find. It’s not kingdoms that bring us to Jesus, it’s faith. The kingdom will figure itself out, but we have to believe in the absurd for it to get there.
And it is absurd to actually follow the will of Christ. We have done a good job of making the words of Jesus optional or when we feel up to it, because, honestly, it is absurd to sell all of our things and be disciples in this day and age. For one, we would have half the world living in chosen rags. For another, we don’t really know what following would mean for today. These things may point to the absurd, but it doesn’t mean it is pointless or foolish to go after it, to try harder and harder each day to put aside the things that keep us away from God. If we pay attention, the fools are happy when they find that treasure, not because it is something to sell but something worth finding. It isn’t sad for them to sell everything and only have the one thing. They have found wholeness.
After Jesus says the thought-provoking but humorous stuff, in good Book of Matthew fashion, he checks in to reality with the “you know I’m not kidding, right?” He tells them that the kingdom is also like those who fish and catch all the fish they can but then they sort them. These fisherman are not the foolish ones. They are the great deciders; and notice, he says they are angels. The sorting is not done by us but by God. God will decide who belongs, and we are to be the fools who treasure God’s will above all else.
Finally, Jesus says that the legal experts who understand the ways of heaven will understand how to interpret these things and begin pulling out the treasure. Notice, though, that he says the legal expert who has been trained as a disciple. There are plenty of legal experts who are not disciples and only understand the laws of people. These are typically the ones who put religion in a box and everything else in another box and say the two can never meet. An expert who is trained as a disciple knows this is impossible. One cannot follow God on Sunday and then abide by a different set of rules throughout the week. You can’t seek treasure in your spare time – you look and look and look.
The movement of this chapter in Matthew is beautiful in its simplicity and childishness and yet it evokes a whole collection of thoughts and responses. Like our favorite movies for kids, we are encouraged to be the hero and learn important lessons about what God wants of us. We are encouraged to be like the foolish sidekick that really understands the deeper value of the treasure rather than the supposed riches treasure brings. We are to treasure our discipleship for God and do away with everything else.
When you read and listen to the words of Jesus, it is okay to see the foolishness. But instead of running from it, embrace it. Be like King David who danced in the streets, even as king, because his joy for God was so great he wanted to be the fool, even though he was also the hero.