Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 13:44-58) transport me to an enigmatic land filled with of perplexing riddles posing as parables. Here’s the gist of it: what does buried treasure, a pearl of great price, something new and something old, and a dragnet full of both good and rotten fish have in common? In Jesus mind, all these things somehow were emblematic of the kingdom of heaven. It’s no wonder that when he went back to the ‘hood of his upbringing and started waxing this kind of wisdom, people were astonished. Bewildered might be closer to the truth. Where did homie get all this? they questioned. And they took offense.
I don’t know exactly why the listeners were offended by these left field metaphors from their hometown anti-hero. But I do have an idea why some of the underlying assumptions and values of the riddles might offend folks in our own consumptive and materialistic culture. Take a listen again to the first couple of these: the Kingdom is like a treasure that caused the person who found it to go and sell everything in order to get it. Same with the next story–the Kingdom is like a
valuable pearl, and the merchant sells everything in order to have it. See what these have in common? Gaining the Kingdom cost the searchers all their possessions. Gaining the Kingdom meant they became world-poor in order to be heaven-rich. Perhaps the offense was the same one experienced by the rich young ruler. In his encounter with Jesus, as he sought the way to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him to go and sell all he had and give it to the poor. Richie Rich walked away from that bargain, sorrowful. So perhaps when the Kingdom dragnet trolled up all the fish, among the catch were some piranhas holding tight to their earthly treasures, treasures that had made them rotten; they were stinking rich. And all their possessions got them in the end was a furnace in which to weep and gnash their sharp teeth.
Wendell Berry’s poem, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front has this line, take all you have and be poor. Perhaps this voluntary poverty in the context of a culture that prizes prosperity and idolizes indulgence is the offense, the bewilderment, of Jesus’ kingdom riddles. But it reminds us of a central truth that we probably know at some level but don’t always live out fully: that being a part of God’s great Kingdom Way is worth more than any kind of earthly lifestyle we could possess (or that could possess us). My friend Ken Sehested recently said that one of the most important things we have to learn from our sister churches in Cuba is what it means to be church without all the assumptions of power and privilege and property. Which is to say, what it means for the Body of Christ to more closely resemble Jesus of Nazareth. The passage ends with the disappointing reality that Prophet Jesus was honored everywhere except among those Nazareth home folks, so he couldn’t do many mighty works there. Could it be that this is true of Jesus’ contemporary home folks, especially the home folk church in American today? Could it be that our quest for material comfort and our insistence on lifestyles completely counter to Jesus’ model means that his prophetic life and teaching get precious little honor in our sanctuaries? Perhaps He is waiting on us to sell all we have and be poor so we can truly experience some mighty works like we’ve never seen. No offense. . .
How about you? Where does this primary passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.