Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1609), The parable of the hidden treasure (ca. 1630), oil on panel, 70.5 x 90 cm
If you could have only one wish and it had to be something for yourself, what would you ask for? Your dream house? A perfect body? A 1967 Corvette convertible in mint condition? King Solomon asked for discernment, and because he chose wisely God gave him not only “a wise and understanding heart” but also great wealth and longevity (1 Kings 3:5-15).
Solomon needed discernment to rule a kingdom, we need discernment to understand God’s Word and follow his will. There are five kingdom parables in the Gospel reading for today: the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the net. The first two parables are also in Mark’s Gospel (and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas); the last three are only found in Matthew. You can read them all here.
In the first two parables, the mustard seed and the leaven, we see that the kingdom of heaven is bigger than we could ever imagine. The parables are similar in both their meaning and their exaggeration. Tiny mustard seeds don’t grow into “trees” big enough to shelter birds, and a little bit of leaven wouldn’t be enough to rise “three measures” or about 50 pounds of flour, enough to bake bread for about a hundred people (Jeremias, Parables of Jesus). Miraculous results are produced in both parables. “Their meaning is that out of the most insignificant beginnings, invisible to human eye, God creates his mighty Kingdom, which embraces all the people of the world” (Jeremias).
God’s kingdom is much bigger than its humble beginnings in Palestine. It’s also bigger than what we can see today. It’s bigger than my church, bigger than my denomination, bigger than my theology. When we have eyes to see, we’ll be surprised by just how big God’s kingdom is.
In the next two parables, the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, we learn the cost of discipleship. In both parables, discernment was needed to understand the value of the hidden treasure and the exceptional pearl, and a radical commitment was needed to obtain both. Jesus made the same point to the Rich Young Ruler, when he told the man to sell everything and give it to the poor in order to have riches in heaven (Luke 18:18-23). German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer wrote, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ” (Cost of Discipleship). “Costly grace,” according to Bonhoeffer, “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’” One of the most memorable lines of Bonhoeffer’s book is this: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Didn’t Jesus say, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34)? Until we’re willing to give up everything for God, we’re not ready to live for him.
The last of the five parables, the net, is the same as the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), only with different imagery. Instead of useless weeds or “tares” being sorted from the good wheat, fishermen collect good fish and discard the bad. It’s an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world, when the just will be separated from the wicked (49). People who fall into the latter category shall be thrown “into a furnace of fire” where there will be “wailing and gnashing of teeth” (50).
There are some important lessons for us here—some easy, some hard. On the easy side, we see that it’s God’s job to judge people, not ours. Also, we need to be patient and tolerant and not try to pre-empt God’s justice by destroying the ungodly on our own. On the more difficult side, we are confronted with the idea that God’s justice involves torturing people in hell. It’s not a happy thought, but here it is. Jesus said it. Not me.
Liberals tend to reject the idea of hell or turn it into a metaphor (“hell is right here on earth”). Even conservatives seem to be embarrassed by it. I can’t remember the last time I heard an evangelical preach an entire sermon on the topic. Some fundamentalist preachers, on the other hand, are a little too enthusiastic about sorows that await the damned. They describe the horrors of hell in details that would make Dante blush. They salivate for God’s consuming justice to gobble up sinners.
But even fundamentalists should be uncomfortable with Jesus’ parable of the net, because in it the difference between heaven and hell is not a matter of having the right theology or believing the right thing or saying a “sinner’s prayer.” If we walk down the Roman’s Road with the Apostle Paul it seems that belief is the only ingredient to saving faith, but if we stand with Jesus by the seashore we hear a slightly different message. Jesus said, “the just” will be saved and “the wicked,” damned. Jesus said that. And that’s not all. In Matthew 25:31-46, the sheep and the goats, what the righteous did made them acceptable to God, not merely what they said.
I’m not saying that we are saved by good works. Not at all. We are saved by God’s grace alone. But the proof is in the pudding. James 2:17-18 puts it like this: “Faith without works is dead. . . . Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Costly grace.
Jesus asked his disciples if they understood his teaching, and surprisingly they said, “Yes, Lord” (Matt. 13:51). I’m not sure I get it, at least not all of it. One thing I do get is that we all need God-given discernment to understand the parables of Jesus.