Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2011
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field… Matthew 13:31
Oh, happy day! The English teacher in me loves any opportunity to discuss literary devices and grammatical goodies, so when I saw the Gospel text for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost with its host of similes dancing across the page, I was delighted. Most folks remember having it drilled into their high-school-aged heads that a simile is a figure of speech comparing two dissimilar things, usually using “like” or “as” to form the comparison. The word “parable” comes from the Greek “to throw alongside,” so a parable is basically an expanded simile. Parables, if one looks at them in this manner, invite us not to allegorize or moralize but to ponder, explore, and see the comparison in a new way. This is good news for those of us who preach and teach because finding fresh and expressive language to communicate the gospel is critical to our call.
Matthew’s gospel gives us five similes comparing the kingdom of heaven to ordinary people, things, and situations. We have a veritable treasure chest from which to draw on “Simile Sunday.”
Some preachers may treat one or two of these parables in detail, but suppose one takes all five similes and sets them alongside the kingdom of heaven, God’s “empire of justice” as Warren Carter calls it in Matthew and the Margins. What might that say to the gathered community, and how might one go about this task?
One problem I see is with the language Matthew uses and how we understand it. “Kingdom” is the stuff of fairy tales for most of us. We do not live in a kingdom, although increasingly one hears comparisons to the United States and “empire.” Perhaps our first task is to paint a picture of what God’s reign looks like in a 21st century North American context. One can make some strong connections between the Roman empire of Jesus’ day and the consumer empire in which we live. The differences between the two are distinctive ones.
Warren Carter points out that Matthew’s audience would have a solid image in mind of what God’s empire looks like from chapters 1-12.
It is manifested in Jesus’ words and deeds.
It is God’s gracious gift, initiative, and action.
It resists, rather than endorses, Rome’s empire.
It is divisive; some welcome it, while others, especially the elite, resist God’s claim.
It is disruptive and disturbing, reversing previous commitments, imperial structures, practices and priorities, while creating a new way of life which counters dominant societal values.
It conflicts and competes with the devil’s reign.
It presents in part, but for many life remains unchanged.
Its present manifestation will be completed when God’s reign is established over all including Rome’s empire. (Matthew and the Margins, 280).
A question we might ask ourselves is how to best image God’s reign in contrast to our modern day “empire.” What language might we use? What are 21st century equivalents of mustard plants, the woman with leaven, the man and his treasure field, the pearl, and the fish net? What descriptive words work? What cultural “landmines” should one avoid and which ones need diffusing?
The potential is great, and the possibilities are many. We watch a small seed become a large weed to house noisy birds. We hear of a woman with her first century sourdough starter preparing enough bread to feed a legion. There is the abandonment of much stuff to secure what is priceless and lasting with the field and the pearl. Finally, we see a fishnet catching all kinds of fish–both good and bad. There is disruption, joy, promise of feasting, and shelter. It is an inside-out, upside-down reign of justice and love and life. Power structures are reversed, what is small and hidden is more significant than displays of might and power, and a glimpse of the goodness to come is given.
Now comes the big question, as Jesus asks his disciples “Have you understood all this?” I envision their answer to be something akin to the glazed look of high school students responding to a query about clear understanding of pronoun case. We find out later that the disciples are still in need of a refresher course, but then so are most of us when it comes to sharing our faith and being stewards of the gospel. Repetition is, indeed, a good thing–something we do well to remember. Likewise, so is a good figure of speech, a good story, a good parable. We need to be ever seeing the world afresh and alight with the love and grace of our amazing Creator.
Once again the gospel offers challenges and treasure aplenty for all who preach and teach. Simile Sunday is a like a homiletical smorgasbord of images and examples of how we, too, fit into and live into the reign of God in this time and place. Come to the feast!
Here’s a wonderful video from Digistry Multimedia posted on YouTube that uses the parables from this week’s gospel lesson. It is definitely worth watching and perhaps using during worship or Christian education time. Click here to view.
From Simile to Metaphor Game
Talk with youth about what the reign of God looks like right now. You might want to mention the Pauline concept of the “already and the not yet.” Have each youth come up with a simile for what this looks like to them OR how they would like for it to be. Let each youth write their simile on a sheet of paper and illustrate it on the other side. Stick figures are great! Let everyone look at the pictures and try to guess the simile “The reign of God here and now is like…” For the next round, use metaphors. “The reign of God is…” When you are finished with the metaphor round, plug all the words into a word cloud using Wordle or Tagxedo (both free programs), print copies and share with the congregation.
On a poster board write the words “Our church is like…” Tell children what a simile is and provide a few examples. Then ask them to come up with a simile for your congregation. Help them make the connection between the good feelings they have about the church with the reign of God and their role in sharing the good news in the world.
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000.