What do you really want, more than anything else in the world?
Peter Seal, 30 July 2017
Romans 8: 26–39; Matthew 13: 31–33, 44–52
Today’s gospel is all about signs of God’s presence. When we think about our own faith, or perhaps talk with others about what we believe, it’s signs of God’s presence that usually come to mind.
For example: the kindness of someone when we were in need; a beautiful sight in the natural world; an act of worship that was particularly powerful; an inner sense that God really is real. Each of these, and many more besides, can be described as signs of God’s kingdom.
Today’s gospel bombards us with images of what’s called ‘the kingdom’ – that is, signs of the presence of God. Those first hearers would not have been able to sit down and re-read what Jesus had said, as we can. But the vivid pictures Jesus gave in his stories would have been memorable. I guess each hearer would have had a favourite that they remembered and which stayed with them – perhaps for ever.
As we heard Jesus’ words today our first impressions may well have been unpredictability and excitement.
To help understand that small things have a big effect, think for a moment about how small things can be irritating, even painful. For example, the persistent annoying habit of someone we live with, or a sharp stone in your shoe. I once ended a sermon, ‘If you don’t believe that small things make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in your bedroom’.
In today’s gospel Jesus talks of small things that make a difference in a good way. The mustard seed and the yeast – these are everyday miracles. Everyone knows how they work, and how extraordinary it is that something so small can have such an effect. But I suspect we don’t usually think of the kingdom of heaven in this way. When we hear the word ‘kingdom’ of heaven, we tend to think of something that is already huge and magnificent, not something tiny, working inconspicuously until suddenly you can’t miss it any more.
The surprise in these parables is not what the yeast and the mustard seed do, since we know about that already. The point is that other things, which we may be so familiar with, may also behave like this. The message is: don’t discount small things until you know what they are capable of. Don’t think about big things as though they never had small beginnings.
And then there’s the parable of the treasure and the pearls; these feed straight into the imagination. We’ve all dreamed of finding treasure, and not just as children! (We probably talk in today’s language about winning the lottery.)
The interesting thing about the two lucky people in today’s gospel is what they do with what they find. Most people’s treasure dreams are dreams about wealth; but these two have dreamt of the beauty of the treasure itself, and what it would feel like to know it as their own.
Most people’s treasure dreams are dreams about wealth; but these two have dreamt of the beauty of the treasure itself, and what it would feel like to know it as their own.
Both of them seem to be reasonably well off already – they have things that they sell in order to gain possession of the treasure, and there’s absolutely no suggestion that they intend to sell what they have bought in order to get even richer. In fact, they might even appear to their neighbours to have lost their wealth. But little do the neighbours know.
The thing that holds together the parables of sudden growth and the parables of treasure is found in the last verse of today’s gospel reading. Jesus says, ‘Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’.
The scribe represents the disciples of Jesus’ day. The scribe also represents us today, in our own day. We are the ones who are challenged to use these stories to plant small ideas that will feed the imagination; we are the ones who are called to show that the treasure is so beautiful that it is worth, as it were, selling all that we have to possess it.
We’re encouraged to ask the question, ‘What do I really want, more than anything else in the world?’ This is not a question that has an easy answer.
Our faith, as articulated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, comes to our aid. Paul helps us see that our understanding of life – our wisdom, if you like – is not something that is simply human, or even of our making; rather, it’s the presence of the Spirit.
The Spirit helps us to ask God for what we most need. What’s required of us is to seek the insight and humility to recognise our deepest longings. It’s surely true that often we don’t know what we truly yearn for, or if we do, we find ourselves incapable of articulating it. What we do know, deep down, is that whatever the ‘it’ is, we are incomplete without ‘it’!
Paul comes to our aid again: he helps us see that what we most long for is to know that we are loved – completely, inalienably and for ever. God has had a loving purpose for each of us from before our beginning. It’s as though God never intended his Son Jesus to be an only child, but really did want us to be his sisters and brothers.
Paul helps us see that what we most long for is to know that we are loved – completely, inalienably and for ever. It’s as though God never intended his Son Jesus to be an only child, but really did want us to be his sisters and brothers.
God prepared the way for our deepest possibilities from before our beginning. God knew, and knows, that we go on needing his gentle, patient, nurturing presence. God knows that we will make bad mistakes and need new beginnings, free of guilt and recrimination.
The truth is: each of us, and everyone, everywhere and for ever, is what God has chosen and goes on choosing. God knows what we’re like, from our insides out. God knows how patient he has to go on being with us. That’s the nature of his parenthood for us.
So, in conclusion, if someone ever suggests that you are an adopted child of God and that sometimes God wished he hadn’t taken you on … don’t believe a word of it. You truly are part of his family.
If anyone ever tries to say that God’s love is conditional and might be forfeited … don’t believe them.
When life is tough, as it often is … don’t take this as a sign that God has gone away.
And finally … stick with Jesus, the Son, who really is your brother.