In Matthew 13 we are given seven parables to picture how our CEO expects the church to work. The parable of the Sower explains the varied response of individuals to the good news. The parable of the Weeds describes the work of the enemy who tries to wreck the harvest by scattering weeds in the field. Both of those parables are given Jesus' explanation of what they mean. But the very short parables at the end of the chapter are left for us to figure out. So I will share with you what I think Jesus had in mind.
Each of these five parables are introduced by the words "The Kingdom of Heaven is like." That gives us an important clue to their meaning. The Kingdom of Heaven is the world-wide church. And he is present by the power of the Holy Spirit in each city. That means these parables are about the church of all denominations here in Kingston.
The parable of the tiny mustard seed indicates that his church, which began in a small way with the first believer in this city, is already a big tree (read Matthew 13:31-32). Birds are the natural enemies of seeds, but now the tree is big enough for birds to make their nests in our branches. It would be interesting to see how many institutions and worthwhile activities depend on our church members to do their work. It is mainly Christians who care for the aged, and the handicapped, and those dying of AIDS. Where children in our city are taught about God's love, you will find Christians are at work. I see people of different denominations volunteering to work in the jails, at St. Mary's. and Kingston General and Hotel Dieu hospitals. Many of you are involved in visiting, and helping in all sorts of ways, and without your faithful service our city would begin disintegrating at the core.
The fact that we permeate every part of Kingston is illustrated in the parable of the yeast . "The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour" (Matthew 13:33). Here our CEO pictures himself as a woman baking bread. Only a small quantity of yeast is needed to change flour into a tasty loaf. And that is what he has done in this city. If you travel anywhere in the world, you can see how a small number of Christians in a city make a huge difference to the quality of life for everyone. Much of the good that has emerged in modern India is the result of Christian schools, hospitals, and moral ideas from Jesus' teaching. Saudi Arabia does not allow Christian church buildings, but the fact that hundreds of thousands of Christians work there has been working like a powerful yeast in the area.
Then Jesus gave two parables about counting the cost that is involved, not only for him but for us who serve in his Kingdom. The Gospels record three occasions when he explained that the way forward would be at the cost of his life. And he had counted that cost. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field . . . In his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field" (Matthew 13:44). If he had refused the way of the cross, there would be no church in this city, or any other city.
As his servants in the Kingdom, we too are involved in the cost of loving. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). Genuine love cares about the freedom of the other, and as you know those who love inevitably get hurt. Parents are hurt by their children, children are hurt by their parents, lovers and friends hurt one another, and we all hurt each other in the church. So nobody can serve in Jesus' Kingdom without being hurt, as he was. That is why the parable of the treasure in the field reminds us we need to count the cost of serving in his Kingdom. The cost is not just for missionaries in foreign lands, but it can be very costly for a Christian in medicine, or business, in politics, or on a hostile committee.
But Jesus also spoke about the church as a beautiful pearl. Which means that the church in this city is a very great joy to him. "On finding a pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it" (Matthew 13:45). Some people complain and find fault with the institutional church. They are like those who throw away a priceless pearl because the shell is ugly, or they don't like the taste of the oyster inside. But those who see Jesus' church as a valuable pearl, are willing to engage with him in very costly service. "Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame (Hebrews 12:2). And Paul wrote "I have suffered the loss of all things and regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain the Messiah (Philippians 3:8).
Finally the parable of the net reminds us that the church as an institution takes in all sorts of people. A fisherman accepts the fact that every time he pulls in his net there will be some uneatable fish. And that is true of the church in this city. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind" (Matthew 13:47).
The parable ends with the fact that the mixture of good and bad does not go on for ever. "The angels (messengers) come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire" (Matthew 13:47). In the parable of the Weeds Jesus said "The harvest is the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and evil doers" (Matthew 13:41-42)?
Some think the end of the age refers to the last judgment at the end of time. But I see no evidence that Jesus intended to raise the dead after two or three thousand years and then decide which should be sent to be tortured in the fires of hell for ever. That is a Muslim idea which the Christian church has often used to threaten people with eternal damnation. John's Gospel tells us it is possible to reject the light of the Son of God and choose the darkness of eternal death (John 3:19). But that is a free choice of finally rejecting the love of God. But Jesus does not send anyone "into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gashing of teeth."
When we die we immediately receive our resurrection body, and enjoy all that heaven has for us. There will not be another judgment. That is why he said to the thief on the cross "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (a Persian word for an enclosed garden).
But what do find throughout the Bible is that the Messiah King, Lord of the nations, keeps intervening from time to time in fiery judgment when his church fails to be a light to a nation. When the Pharisees and Sadducees had been excluding people, Jesus warned them that they had made the temple into a den of thieves. So he said that in that generation, within the lifetime of his hearers, he would come and destroy that temple. You can see how this has happened again and again in church history.
The seven churches of Asia had their lamp-stands removed when they got involved in the politics of the Byzantine church. The big churches of Carthage and Roman Africa, which had a hundred bishops about 250 AD, were all destroyed first by the Vandals, and then disappeared without trace under the Muslim advance. In France when the church had allied itself with the luxury and oppression of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the church was toppled by the French Revolution. The Russian church had thrown in its lot with the Czars, and their rich, powerful institution was dismantled by the communists in 1918. With a few brave exceptions like Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran church of Germany failed to witness against Hitler's program of exterminating Jews, and it got caught in the collapse of the third Reich. The Hutus and Tutus formed a huge wonderful church in Ruanda, but when they went back into tribal politics millions were slaughtered in the genocide that followed.
But why does our Lord wait so before he deals with the evil that surrounds his church? One obvious reason is that he takes great delight in changing weeds to good wheat, and changing bad fish into good ones. Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons, and she must have been as bad as they get, but Jesus loved her, and she became a saint. Saul of Tarsus was a virulent weed, a vicious shark who persecuted and killed off all the good fish he could find. Then suddenly he was converted on the Damascus road and became the greatest apostle who ever lived. Even during the forty years of delay before judgment came down on the temple in Jerusalem, many of the people who had demanded the Messiah's crucifixion had a change of heart (Acts 2:41, 47, 5:14, 6:7).
So the five parables at the end of Matthew 13 are good news for us who
can see the treasure hidden in our city, the pearl of great price that
is worth more than any of our possessions. We can rejoice in the growth
of the Kingdom of Heaven, and its influence permeating every area of our
city's life. We don't have to wring our hands and bemoan all that is wrong,
since we know that the Lord will deal with his harvest in due course. And
we don't threaten others, or ourselves, with the terrors of eternal damnation.
We are loved and accepted just as we are among God's people in this city.