‘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
‘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
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
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
‘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’.