In chapter 13 of Matthew, Jesus gives us several short teachings about the kingdom of heaven on earth. Jesus taught 40 different parables that were brain-teasers, everyday puzzles and riddles, similes from nature and stories from life to arrest our minds and make us curious.
In attempting to get us to expand our framework and ask questions, he challenged the official religious teachings of his day. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed? That little thing that takes over a field like a weed?
Faith is like a pinch of yeast that causes a whole loaf of dough to rise?
With the disciples’ questions, he sharpened their minds and opened their hearts, as the questions began to evolve into more questions.
At the end of his parables Jesus asks the disciples “Do you understand what I have taught you?” Like dutiful students, they say “Yes, teacher. ”
In a day when religion had become rote, there was a danger that theology could be taught like a set of unchanging truths– thick, impermeable and never budging. Like concrete.
In a day when religion had become the elite domain of a favored few, there was a danger in the authorities on top telling the people below what to think, what to believe, and how to live.
There was a spiritual danger in minds becoming compliant and inactive. Passive never gets us anywhere.
People accepted teachings that they didn’t understand as dogma. People separated their faith from the power to generate new ideas and new creative innovation.
We all know we can get stuck in life, if our worldview is unchanging. We can rutted out, if our self- understanding becomes stale or foreign to our true selves.
The parables cut through the congealed understandings that we all develop over time. They are so simple that a child could understand them, but so intricate and complex that it takes a lifetime to understand.
As we allow them to generate questions, they help us refine our self-awareness and keen our sense of understanding God’s loving presence, active in the world.
Jesus taught parables to introduce the paradoxes of life with God. In Protestantism, we call them the paradox of works and grace.
On one hand, Jesus affirms that we are what we desire. We become what we seek. We all are searching for something.
Two thousand years ago, they used the metaphor of a buried treasure or the pearl of great price . To search for something worthy enough to give your whole life– to find a meaning so amazing and beautiful and true that you want to seek it with all your being.
Once you have found it, you have to sell everything you have in order to possess it rightly. Like an entrepreneur, you have to be inventive and creative and martial all you can do with the resources at hand to take life to another level.
Faith is that stirring and seeking, that stretching and striving; redirecting and risking, as you step out in faith, believing in yourself, trusting in God, grateful for the assistance of others.
It’s a spiritual work because it rests on you. It depends on you to make a continuing choice, an ongoing decision, the inner work of your soul and the outer work you do in the world.
But faith will say wait, that’s only one side of the equation.
Sometimes there is “a grace in doing nothing (H. Richard Niebuhr).” In letting go of all the responsibility and all the pressure, even for a moment. There is grace in simply being.
Not everything depends upon us.
Not everything happens by our own efforts.
If we begin with the right vision, and incorporate our plan with the right values, good things grow on their own.
David Buttrick called these the parables of spontaneous growth. He observed that there is a marvelous hiddenness to the work of God.
Once put in the dough, the speck of yeast does all its work invisibly.
Once planted, the mustard seed germinates and puts out roots beneath the soil before it multiplies above. Aided by wind and earth, sun and rain, the seed grows even when we can’t see it or aid it..
Underneath the ground, God is at work.
With each pulsating heartbeat, and every gentle breath, God is at work.
Even we are asleep, God is redeeming and renewing our world.
God gave us bodies to bless the earth and souls to enjoy and glorify God. And God created us to expand in insight and grow in commitment. God created us to become generative and fully alive, with the word of God in the center of life.
Every human soul is creative, like God is creative and always creating.
One mark to measure if you are spiritually alive is if you experience times and seasons when you are you being transformed within? Coming up with new insights about yourself, new ideas about our universe? Are you being expanded and stretched to grow and bring forth fruit?
Another mark to measure is if you are cooperating with grace, simply by being still, by spending small amounts of time listening, doing nothing, letting wisdom come, letting God grow a universe through you.
Grace says no prodigious efforts of the will are needed. What little seeds of faith we have—will be enough.
Grace says the gifts and talents—will be enough for the change that is needed.
In the small and inconsequential, God creates something great and important.
A little faith will lead to a great faith. A little work leads to a larger work.
And isn’t that the ultimate confidence in life? That you are doing God’s will? That you are fulfilling God’s purpose for your life? That God is somehow working God’s great plan out through you?
Martin Luther, in looking back on all the events that started the movement we call the Reformation, wrote “I did nothing, the Word did everything.”
“What God does best” says Walter Bruggeman, is “trust humans with their moment in history.”
What God does best, is entrust us to fulfill God’s work.
Faith and work is the paradox of grace; striving and seeking, all the while believing and trusting in God to accomplish the growth.
In the end, it’s all grace, it’s all gift, it’s all God’s giving.