Parables of the Kingdom

Rembrandt's painting depicting the hidden treasure

We’re going to spend almost our entire lesson today in Matthew 13. Earlier, we looked at one parable from this chapter — that of the sower and the soils. Then we looked at the parables of of the mustard seed, the leaven, and the weeds out of this same chapter — each of these containing the words, “the kingdom of Heaven is like…” In this lesson, we’re going to look over a few more of those short parable where Jesus talks about the kingdom.

Reviewing the Kingdom

In our last lesson, we looked at what Jesus means by the kingdom. Is He talking about the next life, of is He talking about something a bit closer? Remember that when Jesus sent the twelve out to preach in Matthew 10, He instructed them them to teach, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 16:28 and Mark 9:1 even has Jesus promising that some standing in His presence would live to see the kingdom established with power.

Based on these passages and the events of Acts 2, it’s clear the the kingdom of Heaven can also refer to Christ’s church. While some of these parables can indeed apply to Heaven above, they are deeper and more immediate when we view them through the lens of Christ’s church — the kingdom doing His will in this world.

The Value of the Kingdom

The first three parables we’re going to look at speak to us about the value of the kingdom. Let’s start in Matthew 13:44 – 46:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

In both of these parables, the treasure has to be found. The first person finds their treasure by happenstance. They find it in a field, but there’s no indication that they were looking for anything. The second person was diligently seeking. They knew what they were looking for, and they knew where to look. In both cases, the result was the same — completely sacrificing all that they had so they could possess it.

Finding the kingdom is like that. In some cases, like Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8:9 – 24, God’s word may come into our lives without our looking for it. Simon certainly wasn’t looking to become a disciple, but that’s exactly what happened. Others, like Cornelius in Acts 10, will diligently seek God out. Whether by chance or by effort, both of these individuals’ responses were the same — to cling to the kingdom as a treasure of great value.

If we asked a group of Christians how each came to be converted, there would be a variety of histories. Some of us were raised in the church. Some of us might have fallen away at some point and returned when you realized what you lost. Others may have been converted by the influence of another person you happened to know, and yet others may have been seeking answers. Regardless of how you came to God, His kingdom is no less valuable to any of you. It is a great treasure, and it requires sacrifice.

Jesus told the rich, young ruler that he lacked one thing to inherit the kingdom. He told that young man to sell all he had and give to the poor. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, and it was because he was unwilling to let go those things that were so meaningful to him. We have to decide what God’s kingdom is worth to us, and then we have to be willing to sacrifice. Sometimes, that looks like giving up people and things that can draw us away from God. Other times, it looks like sacrificing time and priorities, so we can do God’s work.

That brings us to an additional parable on this topic.

Matthew 13:52:

And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

This parable creates a simple image. Here, the homeowner is showing off some valuables. Do you have anything you like to share with guests? Whether the treasure is old or new, it carries great personal value. And that makes you want to share it with others. No matter how long we’ve been part of the kingdom, it should be so valuable to us that we want others to know about it.

When we do that, it might be that we will help someone else find the treasure. It might be someone who wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but your influence helps them realize the kingdom’s value. You might be in the right place at the right time to reach out to someone seeking the truth. As Paul writes in Romans 10:14, no one can hear unless we teach. So, if you’ve already come to the kingdom, if you’ve already laid hold of that great treasure, then tell others about it so they can find it too.

The Kingdom’s Harvest

The other two parables we’re going to look at talk about the judgment. The first of these in in Mark 4:26 – 29.

And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

This parable has obvious similarities with the parable of the sower. Again, Jesus is talking about a person spreading seed on the ground. This encourages us to go out and teach others about the kingdom. Jesus takes it further in this parable, though. In this case, the seed sprouts and grows, and Jesus says that the sower doesn’t fully understand the process. The beautiful thing is that he doesn’t have to. The earth knows how to nourish the seed, and the seed knows what to do with the nourishment. It just needed to be planted.

This is like what Paul is saying in I Corinthians 3:6 – 9.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

If you’re not familiar with the context here, Paul is getting on the members of the church at Corinth for taking too much pride in who converted them, whether it be this preacher, that preacher or another. In this case, Paul says to them that the person who taught or baptized them is irrelevant. It’s God who saved them.

You or I? We’re just workers in the field. It’s our job to plant, and to be happy with simply doing that. We may never know how we might touch someone else’s life, but we keep on planting all the same. The planting may take time and effort, but it’s still God’s word working in the other individual that eventually brings about repentance and conversion. We start the work; God finishes it.

But there is a last bit to the parable. When the grain is fully grown, it gets harvested. From this point, the grain dies to go on to serve another purpose. The grain that is good will be preserved. That which is not good will be discarded, and that leads us to our final parable of this lesson: Matthew 13:47 – 50.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The fishers simply fish. They throw the net out indiscriminately, and that is exactly how we should be spreading God’s word. We sing, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His site,” and though those words are a little culturally insensitive by current standards, they carry an important meaning. Regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or any other divide, we are all precious in God’s sight. Do we then act like we really believe that? We cannot let cultural, economic, geopolitical, or any other barrier stand between us and casting that net as far and wide as we can.

And it’s because of this: at the end of the day, God will separate the good from the bad. It’s easy to point at someone behaving in an obviously ungodly way, or that wholly rejects the notion of God, and say, “You’ll be cast out.” But what about those of us who believe but refuse to cast our nets, refuse to sow, refuse to share our treasure? What do we think He will say to those of us who hinder the harvest through inaction? Will He not cast us aside also? As James sums up in James 4:17: ‘So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

Conclusion

The kingdom of God is of immeasurable value. When we find it, we should be willing to sacrifice of ourselves to obtain it. Self-sacrifice is part of finding the treasure that is God’s kingdom. Then, if we truly recognize the value of God’s kingdom, we are going to share it with whoever we can, without assumption, without reservation, and without discrimination. We are going to teach and teach and teach. And we do this because we know the harvest is coming. We should be laborers in the field; we should be fishers of men; and we should be doing all we can to be like our God who wants all people to repent. That is when we know we truly value God’s kingdom.

lesson by Robert Smelser

Parables of Weeds, Mustard, and Leaven

painting depicting growth of a mustard seed
Art by Piety Choi

What does the kingdom of Heaven have to do with weeds, a mustard seed, and some leaven? Right after the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Jesus goes through several more parables right in a row that begin the with the words, “The kingdom of Heaven is like…” Today, we’re going to look at the first three of these parables where Jesus compares the kingdom to wheat growing among weeds, a tiny mustard seed, and leaven placed in some flour.

The Kingdom of Heaven

Before we get into these short parables, let’s sdefine what Jesus means when He says, “Kingdom of Heaven.” There are historically two ways we interpret God’s kingdom. The first is Heaven itself, where God reigns for all eternity. This interpretation usually fits in passages Like Matthew 7:21 – 23, where Jesus says, “Not all who say Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven,”  or I Corinthians 15:50, where Paul says that flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom.

As we look through the content of these parables, this definition doesn’t make a lot of sense here. So what else do we have? When Jesus sent the twelve out to preach in Matthew 10, He instructed them them, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Matthew 16:28, and Mark 9:1 has Jesus promising that some standing in His presence would live to see the kingdom established with power.

Based on these passages, Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:17 – 19, and the events of power in Acts 2, it’s pretty clear the the kingdom of Heaven can also refer to Christ’s church. We are what Peter refers to as a holy nation in I Peter 2:9 — not defined by geography or alliances, but defined by our citizenship in Christ’s holy kingdom. And it is the kingdom of the church that these parables are talking about.

A Harvest Among the Weeds

Matthew 13:24 – 30:

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

Like the parable of the sower, Jesus gives us an explanation of this one beginning in verse 36.  He is the Master who sows the good seed, but Satan sows weeds among that seed in order to choke it out. The harvest is the judgment where the wheat will be gathered and the weeds will be cast away. It’s pretty straightforward. But the interesting part comes when the servants ask whether they should go weed the field. The Master actually says no. Rather, He lets the crop and the weeds continue to grow side-by-side until the harvest. That’s when He will separate.

In the World, Not of the World

As before, the good seed are those who hear and receive God’s word. In this parable, the weeds are those who reject God. Our Master says we need to grow side-by-side until the harvest time has come. This is teaching “in the world but not of the world” in a nutshell, like Jesus’ prayer in John 17, where He says in verse 15: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Through this parable and in His prayer, Jesus is telling us that we who accept His word will still be a part of the world.

Sometimes, we go to great lengths to shelter ourselves and our families from the influence of the world, but those efforts sometimes backfire. Too often, overly sheltered young Christians plunge headlong into temptation and sin as soon as they get their first taste of independence. They are so ignorant of the world and the insidiousness of temptation that they have no real defenses once they are on their own without someone else’s faith to lean on. We need to be able to guard our families from the influence of the world while still acknowledging that the world is real and that we live in it.

Influencing Without Being Influenced

Furthermore, if we extract ourselves entirely from the world around us, how do we seek and save the lost? Again, take Jesus as an example. He would eat and socialize with all sorts of sinners and social rejects. Jesus lived in a way that His influence could rub off on others, but He did not let their influence rub off on Him. Yes, Paul warns that evil companionship can corrupt good morals, but that does not mean we prevent ourselves and our families from having any contact with the world. Else how can we even go into the world to seek and to save?

To reiterate, when we withdraw from the world, we defeat ourselves spiritually in two important ways:

  • We weaken our defenses and leave ourselves unequipped in the battle against temptation.
  • We isolate ourselves from the very people we need to be reaching.

Yes, Satan uses the influence of the world to turn us from God, just like the adversary in the parable sowed weeds to choke out the crops. God’s solution is not to destroy the weeds immediately, and do you know why? Because, unlike the weeds in your garden, we of the harvest can convert those weeds to be part of God’s crop. We live, work, and school among the weeds so that we can save them.

A Mustard Seed and Leaven

The next parable is in Matthew 13:31 – 32:

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Have you ever seen a mustard seed? They are super teeny tiny. It’s ridiculous. Their entire diameter equals about one millimeter. Jesus calls them the smallest of all seeds, but I’m assuming He’s limiting the comparison to crop-bearing seeds. There are orchid seeds even smaller, but the illustration still stands. It starts small and then grows into something immeasurably bigger than its original form. Here, Jesus is probably referring to a black mustard plant which can grow in excess of nine feet tall.

Another thing about these mustard plants is that they grow fast — so fast that some regions consider them an invasive crop. Once it begins growing in a field, it is almost impossible to eliminate. It’s like this stuff called Oriental Limelight we put in the garden when our home was new. The stuff took over the garden and even began spreading into our yard. It was an unstoppable force. The same is true of the leaven Jesus speaks of in the very next verse. The leaven didn’t stop until it spread throughout the entire batch of flour.

A Growing Spreading Church

The lesson for us is simple. God’s kingdom cannot be contained. Jesus illustrates the influence of the church with two items whose spread is virtually impossible to stop, though they both start incredibly small. How did the church start? With just a few faithful followers standing up to declare the Lord on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. From there, the church grew to about 5,000 people — exponential growth but still rather small. Today, hardly a community in the world has not heard, in some form, the teachings of Christ. And it all began with one sermon on one day nearly two thousand years ago. Each of us are a part of that growth.

Furthermore, both examples use things that are virtually impossible to eliminate. When black mustard plants take hold, they are there to stay. When you add leaven to flour, you can’t simply extract it after it spreads. This is the same with Christ’s church. It’s as Gamaliel said in Acts 5:34 – 39: “…if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” God’s word, once it takes root in your heart, can never be completely erased, no matter how hard you try. Likewise, the kingdom will never be destroyed, no matter what the devil throws as us.

As Paul writes in Romans 8:35 – 39:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Encouragement and Work

These things should serve as an encouragement to all of us. No matter what our enemy may do to stop God’s kingdom, he will fail. He can throw weeds among us to choke us out with trials, worries, and temptations, and they cannot touch us as long as we remain rooted in the kingdom. He can use the powers of this world to try to stop God’s church and erase us from history, but that too will always fail. God’s kingdom will always endure. It will always spread, and it is here to stay.

The question is will you and I be found among the wheat of the kingdom when the harvest comes? God intentionally left us in the world so that we could bring others to Christ and change weeds into wheat. He expects us to grow and spread like leaven. This means we don’t let the weeds choke us, and it also means we get out there and do the work. No hiding behind locked doors like the apostles after the crucifixion — we only grow by getting out of our bubbles and reaching others. Like Christ, we get out and teach, influencing the world around us without letting it influence us. Put your confidence in God and His unshakable kingdom. Have faith and share faith. And try to help as many as possible be ready for the harvest.

lesson by Robert Smelser

The Island of Misfit Souls

misfits

Chances are that you’re familiar with the Rankin/Bass version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The move came out in 1964 and iterations of the film have become a mainstay of December television programming ever since. One of the more memorable locations in the film is a place called the Island of Misfit toys, a sanctuary for defective and unwanted toys.

On this island, the toys find acceptance among themselves, and they live with a lion called King Moonracer who searches for places the misfit toys can call home. Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius, and Hermey spend some time here after meeting multiple rejections in their own lives.

Feeling Like Misfits

If we’re honest with ourselves, there are times when we can all relate to those misfit toys. There are times when we feel rejected, unwanted, or even defective. We ask ourselves things like, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just fit in?” It’s during these times when we need our Savior the most. He is a God that cares for the misfits, and He cares about each one of us no matter how broken or unwanted we feel.

Jesus offers an invitation in Matthew 11:28 for all who are weary and burdened to come to Him for rest. Just a couple of chapters earlier, in Matthew 9:9–13, Jesus tells those Pharisees who were criticizing His company that His purpose is to reach out to the spiritually sick and the outcast. That is who needs Him most, and we need Him the most when we are caught up in sin and when we feel cast out.

Our Savior knows what it’s like to be a misfit. After all, He said to His own apostles, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you,” in John 15:18. He is there to support us because He understands what it means to be rejected. That is why Peter can write, in I Peter 5:6–7:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

A Haven for Misfits

In Jesus’ ministry, He called all regardless of societal acceptance. Tax collectors, fishermen, prostitutes, Pharisees, slaves, masters, nationalists, military occupants, thieves — these and more felt welcomed by our Lord’s invitation and responded to it. Likewise, we come from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures, and values. If it were not for our common love of Christ, there might be little to bring us together. He unifies us.

Philippians 2:1 – 2:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal.

Just like those on the Island of Misfit Toys, we may have a hard time finding acceptance among the world, but we should always be able to find love and acceptance with each other.

Healing the Misfit

It doesn’t matter how terrible you think your past is. It doesn’t matter how broken or defective you think you are. Jesus can heal and can forgive. I John 1:9 tells us our God is faithful and just to forgive us of all unrighteousness, and II Corinthians 1:3 – 4 tells us that our God can comfort us amidst all tribulation so that we may comfort others in turn. No one is too broken or too sinful that God cannot reach them.

Think about what the prophet Isaiah says in Isaiah 55:6–9:

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God is telling us that He can forgive and heal us when we might think it impossible. He can heal our spirits when we think they are incurable. He can forgive what we might think are unforgivable sins. That is the power in which we seek refuge. That is the power that can heal and forgive us.

Welcoming the Misfits

Have you ever said something like, “Oh, we don’t want someone like that…” It might have to do with inviting someone to a party, someone your child shows an interest in, neighbors moving in across the street, or even someone coming to visit our congregation. Even if we don’t say it out loud, our conduct and attitude may speak volumes. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we all have all demonstrated prejudices and exclusion in our lives.

The point for us is that Jesus does want “those people” to come to Him. Paul points out, in Galatians 3:28, that race, gender, and social class mean nothing to unity in Christ Jesus. Today, Paul might have to write, “There is neither wealthy or poor; neither homeowner or homeless; neither breadwinner or welfare recipient; neither upper class, middle class, or lower class; neither right-wing or left-wing; neither American, Mexican, Cuban, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Korean, or Afghan; but all can be one in Christ Jesus.” If I behave hatefully or disdainfully toward any person because of any secular difference, then I am rejecting what it means to be Christ-like.

Yes, our Savior desires repentance from sins. You can’t get around the fact that Jesus wants us to change when we come to him. But that doesn’t mean we have to have it all together before we come to Him, nor does it mean we will be exactly the same. The great thing is, we don’t have to be, for His love and the love we shine on each other, is what unites us above all else.

He wants you to come just as you are — broken, defective, battered, and bruised. He wants to heal you. He wants to repair you, however long a process that might be. We are here to help each other through that process as we each work though our own unique challenges and pains. Christ’s church is not a collection of perfect people. It is a group of people who are in the process of being perfected by their Savior. It should be a safe haven to all. We are a group of misfits united by His love and grace given to us all.

lesson by Robert Smelser