Scribes of the Kingdom

Sermon on Matt. 13: 31-33, 44-52

The kingdom of heaven is like poison ivy, that invades a back yard. From a few green shoots peeking out of the mulch it grows into a climbing vine that envelopes trees and takes the yard back from the efforts of domestication.

Or again, the kingdom of heaven is like the PERFECT family vacation. The one where all the grown children and grandchildren clear their schedules to get together, and the house has enough beds and bathrooms from everyone, and everyone shares the cooking and cleaning, and there are no fights, and you sit around sharing memories, and playing games and laughing, and you would spend every penny you have just to hold onto this moment.

Again, the kingdom of heaven in like a bushel of apples delivered to the local Shoprite.

After it is unloaded from the truck, the produce workers stack them in the display, but the apples that are starting to rot they throw into the dumpster, where the racoons come and gnaw on them.

Have you understood all this?

I’m guessing that the answer is probably “no.” Maybe if we had the wisdom of Solomon, but seriously! Neither my modern updates, nor the rapid-fire string of parables in the 13th chapter of Matthew are the types of analogies that you can get in one-take with little or no reflection.

They are wildly diverse descriptions, evoking both negative and positive associations, and offering no explanations. Plus, they jump, from idea to idea with no apparent connection other than the assertion that all of these comparisons relate to the same archaic concept: the kingdom of heaven.

But, they probably leave us feeling much LESS certain that we actually understand what this Kingdom of Heaven really is.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think I hear a little teasing in Jesus’s question “have you understood all of this?” I don’t think Jesus expects his listeners, or us, to immediately understand. After all, already in this chapter that introduces Jesus’s parable teaching Matthew has twice made the point that Jesus taught in parables KNOWING that people would not understand.

Parables aren’t SUPPOSED to work like truth statements. They are supposed to leave us with questions. They are supposed to draw us in with the awareness that we are missing something, we need to listen harder. Jesus doesn’t teach in propositional truths, he teaches in parables…

But I also suspect, that if I had been there on that day, listening to this confusing string of metaphors that bear no apparent connection to each other, my mind dizzy from the rapid movement from one perspective to the next… I suspect that if Jesus asked me if I had understood, that I would have said “yes.”

I would have said “yes”, because I am a sucker for rising to expectations. I never want to disappoint anyone, and I’m not that fond of admitting it when I am confused.

And I would have said “yes” because I have a habit of thinking that knowledge is the key, and that understanding what the teaching means is the whole point of the lesson... I expect that some of you are the same. I expect this is true of Jesus’ followers as well... and I suspect Jesus knew it.

But here’s one thing I just love about Jesus. After he asks the set-up question – the question that draws out the unbelievable affirmation that his followers totally understand this new vision of the Kingdom, the vision that Jesus has JUST started teaching them about – after setting them up with that question, Jesus accepts their “yes” at face value…

Because that “yes” gets them to the ACTUAL point of the lesson – not understanding, but application.

That “yes” calls them into the life Jesus wants for them, the life Jesus describes in the final parable of today’s gospel reading.

Therefore” (as in – since you do understand) “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.” (Matt. 13:52).

Do you understand this? No? Good, let’s lean in.

First, Jesus introduces the idea of the “scribe,” a word with a whole lot of context to his original audience. But, chances are, if you know this word it is familiar from the many gospel readings where the scribes are frequently paired with the Pharisees in a role of opposition to Jesus.

Except, Jesus is talking about scribes trained for the kingdom, so he’s clearly not talking about his enemies. Instead, he was talking about people who have done the work to study and learn about God’s ways. The scribes in Jesus’s context were scholars whose high value derived from “the wisdom and understanding they possessed.”[1] Scribes were people who were qualified to interpret the Word of God, and help others to understand how to apply it in their lives.

So far so good, understanding isn’t the end goal – the application is… but, still, “qualified interpreters" seems to limit the frame of reference. Until we recognize that Jesus is reframing what scribe means.

Remember that Jesus is NOT talking to a group of recognized scribes. He is talking to his followers, and designating THEM as scribes, a particular kind of scribes: those “who have been trained for the kingdom.” And that word “trained” (matheteuteis) can be translated instead as “having been made a disciple.”

What is required for this “scribe of the kingdom” job is not scholarship, but rather discipleship – a life oriented toward learning from and following Jesus. And, that job description applies to all of us, who want the Savior we worship in this service to guide the rest of our lives as well!

So, if we are all scribes – what is Jesus saying about our lives? How are we to be guided by this short parable about the master of a household bringing out of his treasure what is new and what is old?

The most obvious teaching is that we have a treasure.

The treasure hidden in the field that is worth all that we have… the fantastic pearl that will cost us everything… we already have it.

We are being trained for the kingdom, but we also HAVE the kingdom.

And having this kingdom treasure, means that we are being changed! That the evidence of our lives puts the treasure on display.

All five of the other brief parables in our reading today describe some kind of transformation.

The tiny little mustard seed grows into a huge shrub that dominates the field.

The little glob of yeast does not stay hidden, but rather pollutes 60 pounds of flour.

The treasure and the pearl cause the finder to give up EVERYTHING else in order to acquire them.

And the net pulls the great diversity of fish out of the murky water, so that they can be seen and sorted.

This mysterious kingdom in which we are being trained is a kingdom that CHANGES things.

And that’s why we scribes of the kingdom can’t leave it hidden. Just like the mustard seed can’t stay hidden in the ground, or the yeast stay hidden in the flour, or the treasure in the ground, or the pearl in the oyster, or the fish in the sea…

We bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old… because treasure isn’t treasure, no one can see its value, when it’s hidden. The kingdom only shows its value in our lives when it is visible.

When the old of the teachings from thousands of years ago… meets the new of our lives in this moment… and we do the work of scribes: applying God’s word to our lives in the work of transformation.

Jesus didn’t challenge his followers on their wishful assertion that, “yes, they understand”, because understanding alone wasn’t the end game. Knowledge alone isn’t the point. The point is what we do with it. How it changes us.

For King Solomon, the prayer for wisdom was not for the purpose of simply being wise, it was for the purpose of leading God’s people rightly. And for us, the purpose of our learning from the parables is not to be able to say “I understand.” It’s for the purpose of guiding our lives into Kingdom transformation.

Jesus is calling you and me as scribes not because we can explain the parables, but because the parables can call us into the kingdom they describe – into God’s way of being in the world.

Jesus wants to disciple us. To invade our lives and change everything.

To ferment in our hearts like bubbling yeast making room for the breath of God’s Spirit,

and to weed out evil like fishermen throwing out the bad fish.

and to reveal to us a TRUE treasure that is worth giving up all the other things we cling to.

Because that treasure will TRANSFORM us – we won’t be able to help displaying it – for our lives will be SO CHANGED by our encounter with the kingdom that everyone around us will be able to see its value.

The kingdom of a God is like a truth so transformative that it cannot simply be written on a poster to be read and understood. It can only be lived in a life that is forever changed, because Jesus has made you a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.

Thanks be to God.

[1] B.J. Syiemlieh, “Portrait of a Christian Scribe (Matthew 13:52), Asian Journal of Theology, 2006;20(1):57-66.

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