New Old Parables: The Fish in a Net, the Birds in a Snare, & the Poor Wise Man – July 26

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SCRIPTURE Matthew 13:31-35, 44-52 – read by Maggie Beveridge

SERMON: ‘The Fish in a Net, the Birds in a Snare, the Poor Wise Man.’ Today, we have read five more of Jesus’ parables from Matthew 13. As we work through the sermon, and have a bit of dialogue, you will get to choose a couple parables to delve into; but first, let’s hear three wise sayings from the Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes 9:12-17

Let us pray…

Qoheleth’s Story of a Poor, Wise Man.

The author of the book we call Ecclesiastes takes the pen name Qoheleth, in Hebrew, which we translate Preacher or Teacher. As book of wisdom, the few, oft quoted bits are surrounded by a lot of rather pessimistic spiritual philosophy. At least, it can come across that way. The little story of the Poor Wise Man is one example from this holy book, filled with irony, futility, and what seems quite negative.

A poor man is wise, wise enough to save his tiny town from the enemy forces besieging it. But no one pays any attention to the poor man. 

At first glance, in most English translations of this text, it seems a story about wisdom not getting the credit. The town is saved, but because the man is poor, he and his wisdom are forgotten. Yet, some of the Hebrew here is, apparently, not so simple. It can be seen to say that the man knew how to save the town, but he was ignored. So the town did not get saved from the enemy after all.

It’s a parable, of sorts, and they often are not crystal clear, on purpose, as we see with Jesus. They challenge. They get one pondering, for a long time. This story can do the same, whether we like the happy or not so happy ending for the town. In either case, the wise fellow is forgotten. It is a warning, a warning about being wise. Using godly wisdom does not guarantee a bed of roses, nor any honour for oneself.

Perhaps the late Eugene Peterson was quite right when he wrote that Ecclesiastes 

…is most emphatically and necessarily in the Bible in order to call a halt to our various and futile attempts to make something of our lives, so that we can give our full attention to God — who God is and what he does to make something of us. Ecclesiastes actually doesn’t say that much about God; the author leaves that to the other sixty-five books of the Bible. His task is to expose our total incapacity to find the meaning and completion of our lives on our own. (The Message, 2003, p.1157)

It is God who gives us the meaning and the completion of our lives. 

Now, there are a couple other images we read today from Ecclesiastes, but let us turn first to another wise Teacher, and some would say poor, not rich: Jesus.

Jesus’ teaching methods included an element of surprise and of reversal: taking common wisdom and turning it around. Two millenia later, and in a very different culture, we can miss the shocking bits of His tales. Especially if we have gotten to know the stories of Jesus from childhood. 

Take the story of ‘The Good Samaritan.’ The ancient term, ‘Samaritan,’ has come to mean a ‘good person,’ right? But when Jesus told his story of the man of Samaria who helped a Jew, the Samaritans were disliked, avoided, and thought of as heretics. 

But that’s not one of today’s stories. We have five, from Matthew 13, this chapter of parables. Which one do you want to explore first?
The Mustard Seed; The Yeast in the Dough;
The Treasure in the Field; The Pearl of Great Price;
The Fishing Net?

Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean? How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

What’s strange about this that we might not see? Mustard is a rather weedy plant, and not thought of highly.  There were rules for the Hebrews about not mixing crops as you planted, and how to keep a plant, such as mustard, from becoming a problem. 

Also, the mustard plant sure is not a Cedar of Lebanon. God’s empire is not a dominating cedar of lebanon; it arises as a common, even weedy, garden herb. It is something found in your own backyard.

How could you re-tell this story today?

The Rule of God is like a tiny root of Goutweed that arrives in your flowerbed, hidden in a Hosta plant, given to you by a friend. Soon the Goutweed leaves cover the whole ground, and shade the earth from the heat of summer.

Jesus’ Parable of the Yeast in the Dough.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean?  How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

What’s strange about this that we might not see? Yeast is not considered clean or holy in Judaism. Remember the Exodus and the Passover? One was to get rid of all leavened bread. 

Also, the woman hides the yeast in the flour. This is an interesting word choice.

Also, the amount of flour is huge: about fifty pounds! But the same amount was used by other bakers in the Bible: Sarah, when Abraham received the three holy visitors (Gen 18:6); Gideon, when preparing for an angel of God (Jud 6:19); and Hannah, when making an offering for the temple presentation of her son, Samuel (1 Sam 1:24).

Also, we have here a female image of God.

How could you re-tell this story today?

The Eternal Kind of Life is like a virus that is smaller than any living thing. It sneaks into a human, and spreads like wildfire throughout the population, until the whole world builds up immunity.

Jesus’ Parable of the Treasure in the Field.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean?  How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

What is strange about this that we might (or might not) see? 

We can ask: is it right or even legal to do what the treasure-finder did? After the days of Jesus, the Jews developed rules about found treasure. It was not an uncommon situation. From the Talmud, Only after one has the land for seven years and if the owner cannot be found can the new owner claim the treasure. (B. B. Scott, Lost Junk, Found Treasure, TBT 26 (1988), pp. 31-34)

Is the finder having just jubilation, or greedy glee?

Jesus’ story highlights the total response of the finder to the discovery of God’s reign. Life with God is worth letting go of everything else. Remember Jesus saying lose your life in order to gain it?

How could you re-tell this story today?

God’s Heaven on Earth is like the computer hacker who chanced upon the most beautiful photograph in the whole world, archived online. She sold everything to buy the rights to that website.

Jesus’ Parable of the Pearl of Great Price.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean?  How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

Like the ‘Treasure in the Field,’ this parable tells of the complete value in the eyes of the finder, who found a great pearl, and does everything to get it. In this case, the one who finds was a seeker of pearls, not just one who happened to find a great one. God’s Kingdom is like this story, and the other: some who seek God in this world, and some do not seek, find God.

What is strange about this that we might not see? 

We might forget how merchants in the scriptures are often seen negatively. They can represent greed and unfairness. Also, the wearing of pearls and such finery is often frowned upon. Such as when Paul writes to Timothy, warning that the women should adorn themselves with good conduct, not with gold, pearls and expensive clothes. (1 Tim 2:9)

Yet, even a rich person can earnestly seek God, and find, and be welcomed into the Realm of God’s Rule.

How could you re-tell this story today?

The Kindom of Creator is like the investor in search of the best stocks on the market. When he found the low-priced stocks of the most amazing new business, he sold all he had and bought the whole company.

Jesus’ Parable of the Fishing Net.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean? How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

What is strange about this that we might not see? 

There is nothing too topsy-turvy or shocking in this parable, unlike in many others Jesus speaks. The word Matthew uses for ‘bad’, of the bad fish, often refers to things that are ‘rotten.’ So playing with the words in our minds we might wonder at some of the freshly caught fish being rotten.

This little tale seems much like Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat. In the End, what’s bad will be separated from the good. 

How could you re-tell this story today?

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like harvesters who entered the orchard and picked apples of every kind. When the bins were full, they took them to the barn, sorted them out, put the good into shipping barrels, but threw out the bad apples. So it will be at the end.

Let us also look at Quoheleth’s Images of the Fish in a Net and the Birds in a Snare.  ‘Time and chance happen to us all,’ is the lesson here. As it says, No one can predict misfortune.
Like fish caught in a cruel net or birds in a trap,
So men and women are caught
By accidents evil and sudden.
(MSG)

Here is a theme that is woven throughout the wisdom of Solomon, who called himself Qoheleth, in Ecclesiastes. Today we might just say: random things happen. There is no explaining the meaning. 

I have been a committed disciple of Jesus for about four decades. Nevertheless, I tend to side with the ‘wise’ Preacher of Ecclesiastes. You just can’t explain why everything happens to us. Some things just happen without ‘meaning’ attached. There is no ‘why did that happen.’ It just happened. 

Yet we are meaning makers, we humans. And the God we grow to know speaks of the meaning and purpose of all things. 

I have been a lover also of nature, and science, natural history and geological history. Nevertheless, as much as I like ‘cause and effect,’ I believe much will remain mysterious for us. We can’t know it all. As the Preacher, Qoheleth, said, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (1:2) And, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. (9:11)

This ‘wisdom’ stands alongside the wisdom of Jesus, such as we see in His parables and other lessons. There is naturally a creative tension between Ecclesiastes and Matthew 13, for instance. Jesus speaks of great purpose and the subtle rule of God, which sneaks in and is unstoppable. 

The fish in the net and the birds in the snare: how might Jesus re-tell us this story today?

No one can anticipate the time of redemption. The Realm of God is like a whale caught in a cruel net, or a seabird caught in an oil spill: suddenly, there is freedom from the ropes as they are cut, and there is washing clean from evil by Jesus Christ! So truth and grace happen to them all.

PRAYERS Let us pray: World In Prayer

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