Friday, July 22, 2005

Hidden treasure, dandelions and yeast

‘Come on’, Jesus says,  ‘Gather round and I’ll tell you a story’.  ‘Another one?’, asks a wrinkled old grandma, ‘we haven’t worked out the last lot yet!’  ‘But these are some of my best ones’, Jesus says.  ‘Ones?  How many have you got then?’  ‘A few’, Jesus admits, ‘but they’re really good.  I promise.’  So they all leave what they’re doing and gather around politely, though to tell the truth there are nets that need mending and children to be fed.

‘This is how God’s kingdom happens, says Jesus, ‘it’s like a man who finds a hidden treasure in a field’.  ‘What sort of treasure?, asks an old fisherman.  ‘I don’t know’, says Jesus.  ‘It doesn’t matter.  Old coins maybe.  Maybe someone buried them there when there were foreign armies around.’  They’re satisfied with that, these things happen from time to time in a land that’s been as fought over as theirs has.  ‘So he covers them up again and goes away and checks his bank balance’. 

‘What – so he can buy the treasure?’

‘No, so he can buy the field’

‘Well, if it isn’t his field, what’s he doing there then?  How did he find it in the first place?’

‘I don’t know’, says Jesus.  ‘You’re not supposed to analyse it, you’re just supposed to listen.   Anyway, maybe he’s just working for the farmer, doing some ploughing or something’

‘What’, says grandma, ‘the kingdom of God is like a labourer who finds something that belongs to his boss and then rips it off?  The kingdom of God’s like being sneaky and dishonest?’  Some of the men are looking a bit uncomfortable, at that.

‘What do you reckon?’, says Jesus.

One of the very best films in the 1980s was the French movie ‘Jean de Florette’.  We first meet the hero – maybe the anti-hero – Ugolin after his discharge from the army, when he returns to the village of his birth to live with the old man who is his only surviving relative – Ugolin has the idea of growing tulips, and so they set about it with frightening energy – these two men are poor, their life is incredibly hard and we watch sympathetically as they tend the small plants with care and even love – but tulips are thirsty and Ugolin and his uncle soon realise they don’t have enough water – just when it looks as though their dream is doomed to failure they stumble on a natural spring on the next-door farm that has been inherited by a city slicker played by Gerard Depardieu – determined to get the rights to the water they block up the spring and watch their new neighbour breaking his heart and ruining his health carrying in water with his little donkey all through the hot summer to keep his crops watered.  Eventually Depardieu’s character dies, and Ugolin and his uncle, playing the concerned neighbours, buy the precious field at a bargain price – the water flows again and in the last scene of the movie the tulips are magnificent.

Is it a positive example of the kingdom, or a negative one?  Does Jesus mean that disciples need to be alert to where God’s grace is breaking into the world – and that when we see it the normal rules just don’t apply?  Nothing else matters, this isn’t the time to be concerned with the niceties.  Just grab the grace and get to heaven!  Or, is it a negative example?  Is the whole point that God’s blessings aren’t blessings at all unless they are opened up for everyone to share?  That springs are meant to flow, not to be blocked up with cement.  If God’s kingdom is about inclusiveness and forgiveness and radical hospitality – where does that leave us when we unexpectedly stumble over God’s blessings in our lives?  Are they for us, or are they for sharing?  Or again, is the whole point that God’s kingdom, when it breaks in on our world, disrupts everything that we thought was fixed and settled?

Jesus says, ‘I’ll tell you another one’.

’Oh’, they say.  ‘Alright’.

‘God’s kingdom is like a farmer who deliberately plants a mustard seed in his field – not the domesticated sort, not Keen’s mustard but wild mustard that’s just about the most pernicious, noxious weed that ever haunted an ancient farmer’s nightmares – God’s kingdom is like somebody who goes out the back and plants dandelions in the lawn, and they spring up healthy and strong, and the snails come and have a field day.

‘Oh’, they say.  ‘We don’t get it’

‘Well try this one.  God’s kingdom is like a woman making bread.  She starts with three kilograms of flour and she only puts a tiny bit of yeast in but it works its way through the whole lump of dough.’

‘Well, we get that one.  That’s easy – just a little bit of God’s grace, or God’s forgiveness or whatever, turns a whole lump of uselessness into a nice big fluffy loaf of bread.’

Small turns into big.  You think the kingdom of God is powerless, you think it’s so small you can’t see it at all, but it turns everything upside down.  Tiny mustard seed – massive tree right in the middle of the paddock.  Couple of teaspoons of yeast – bread rises up twice or three times its size.  God’s grace is transformational – when you catch a glimpse of it – when you see just for a moment where there is some love in a situation that is unlovely, when you catch a glimpse of hope in a situation that you thought was hopeless, and you recognise that as God’s kingdom breaking in – then just watch because something you thought was set in concrete is about to get broken open and transformed into what God always intended it to be like.

Or is it about the mess?  Is it about disorder?  Why else does Jesus say God’s kingdom is like insider trading and sharp practices?  That God’s kingdom is like planting dandelions in your lawn?  And then we notice that this is the only place in the whole of the Bible where yeast seems to be getting a good rap.  Everywhere else in the whole Bible, even when Jesus talks about it – yeast represents rottenness and contamination.  Remember, this is before the days of freeze dry Tandora yeast in little packets, natural yeast is a sort of mould that blows in on the wind and bubbles up and produces nasty smells.  Bread is supposed to stay good and flat like the bread of the Passover that reminds the Jews of how God brought them out of Egypt.  You put a little bit of this messy bubbling yeast in your good flour and it contaminates the lot.  It upsets the apple cart.  You thought you knew what you were getting.  Proper buffalo grass lawn.  Proper lavash bread.  But in comes the wild card, something unexpected, and you get a backyard full of waist-high dandelion, you get a high-rise loaf that – well, actually it smells rather good, but it’s not what you expected.

That’s what God’s kingdom is like.  The world is wracked with terrorism and the clash of ideologies, those who live in the underdeveloped third world don’t have the basics of life while citizens of Western countries have a higher standard of living than ever before.  We haven’t learned to share.  We haven’t learned to trust one another.  Anxiety and fear are epidemic, we look over our shoulders like the tenant farmer wondering whether the cache of ancient coins is going to be a blessing or a curse.  The 21st century has begun badly – and yet we have this moment of extravagant grace when the little girl who was the face of famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s climbs up on a stage in Edinburgh as a beautiful young woman who is studying to be a doctor.  When the whole world stops to listen to the song of peace.  When the whole world stops in solidarity with the victims of global terror, when Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders join together to remind us that life itself is a gift from God.  And God’s kingdom has broken in.  There’s nothing holy about the kingdom of God, if by ‘holy’ we think we mean uncontaminated, set apart, clean and special and reserved for Sunday best.  The kingdom of God – according to the scruffy story-teller wandering around the fishing villages and the farms of Galilee – is busy springing up right in the middle of the most suspect corners of our private lives and forcing its way up like a weed through the cracks in the concrete of our hard-hearted politics.  So tangled up with our own mixed motives and so hidden in the ordinariness of our mundane lives that we don’t even see it.  The kingdom of heaven is hidden because it’s right there in plain view, in the last place we’d expect to find it.

‘Well?’, the people say.  Is that it, then?  These are your best stories?’

‘Yes, that’s it’, Jesus tells them.  ‘Did you understand?’

‘Oh yes’, they assure him.  ‘Absolutely’.

And the people go back to their nets, and to their babies and their wheat-fields, shaking their heads and saying to one another, ‘Many of this man’s stories have a great moral lesson and make a good point, but not these ones’.