Summary: While we all have preconceptions about what the kingdom of heaven is and isn't, Jesus uses parables to force us to rethink what the kingdom is.
What is it that the Gospel message presents? I don’t simply mean today’s Gospel lesson, but the capital-G “Gospel.” The Gospel is not merely, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” The proper name for them is the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Gospel is the Good News. It’s the Gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus came to present the Good News, that He Himself is the Good News, the hope of Israel, the Messiah, the answer to every promise of God. The Gospel message is about the kingdom of God, which is “not yet” and “already.”
Now, I ask you, “Is the Gospel is something familiar?” Is the Good News something that we see and know? Do we know the kingdom of God? Do we get it?
Jesus gives us five parables about the kingdom of God. Each one has a surprise, and forces us to rethink what we think we know about God and His kingdom. Jesus shows us that the kingdom of God is unfamiliar; it isn’t what we think it is.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (Mt. 13:31). What do we know about mustard seeds? They’re small, very small, so small that you cannot pick one up with your fingers. So the kingdom of God is…small? But He’s God, so why should His kingdom be small?
What starts out small can grow beyond expectation and outstrip previously larger rivals. “Who despises the day of small things? Men will rejoice when they see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel” (Zech. 3:10). “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? … The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house” (Hag. 2:3,9).
Jesus is effectively saying, do not judge the kingdom’s success before it has come to its fullness. St. John Chrysostom said that the power of a seed is not determined by it’s size, but by the plant that is to come from it.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast” (Mt. 13:33). Is yeast good or bad? The most holy feast for the Jews is Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Throughout the Bible the lack of yeast is associated with holiness. God forbade grain offers with yeast (Lev. 2:11, etc.). Yeast is seen as a pollutant, an impurity that wasn’t fit to offer to God. So the kingdom of heaven is…an impurity?
The size of the surroundings does not impact the effectiveness of the message. Leaven is a far better translation than yeast. Leaven was a piece of dough from a prior batch that had the yeast and bacteria necessary to raise bread—lactobacillus and saccharomyces cerevisiae and exiguus. Old dough was used to make new dough. Leaven transformed the raw dough and made it also leaven, which would be saved for future use. Leaven works by transforming its surroundings by what it contains that the dough lacks. But the leaven and the dough must be mixed, kneaded, smashed and stretched in order to incorporate the leaven. At the end of the process it appears that the leaven is gone, but it’s presence cannot remain hidden.
Jesus says, don’t be discouraged by the size of your mission field or dilution of your efforts. “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6).
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field” (Mt. 13:44). When you treasure something, what do you do with it? Do you hide it and leave it, or do you make sure it’s secure, and not let it depart from you? So the kingdom of heaven is…something precious buried in a field. In defense of whoever left the treasure, the ancient world didn’t have banks, so you either carried your treasure with you, or your buried it for safe-keeping. Jewish law permitted whoever found a treasure to keep it, so it was at risk from plunderers. And if you carried your treasure, you might be robbed.
Sometimes we aren’t looking for the kingdom, and it happens upon us. It may cost us everything, but the reward is eternal. “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him” (Mt. 9:9). Matthew was just looking for extortion. The hound of heaven was looking for him.
Jesus says, do not miss the blessings you didn’t expect and weren’t looking for. St. Hilary writes, “This treasure is indeed found without cost; for the Gospel preaching is open to all, but to use and possess the treasure with its field we may not without price, for heavenly riches are not obtained without the loss of this world.”