The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Worship Together Online      26th July 2020
Mustard Seeds and Pearls of Great Price
Andrew Penny

These stories, or snippets of parables, of the mustard seed, the treasure trove and the pearl of great price, have always puzzled me; as a child I thought them a bit “random”, as my own children would now say, and more than a bit inconsequential as, more recently, I have looked for consistency and coherence in the Gospel. 
It’s perhaps a bit unfair to expect a totally worked out and logically sequenced account of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. If that were the case, after all, we wouldn’t need four of them and what is in fact interesting and compelling about the Gospels is just that they do show Jesus and his message in four different lights and with the original material not always very obviously organised. That patchwork effect is rather amplified by the editors of the Lectionary, who, you may have noticed, jump around in constructing today’s Gospel. 
The two parables of mustard seed and yeast do, however, have a very similar point; that a little of something may go a long way. The mustard seed point might have been better made if Jesus or the Gospel writer had cycled up Fitzjohn’s Avenue on a hot windy spring day constantly picking the plane seeds from his eyes; that these tiny little irritants should become great plane trees is truly impressive. More recent lock-down attempts to persuade sourdough culture to leaven even a modest measure of flour are likely to impress us a little less. But we get the point which is the vitally important one that even little acts of kindness have a ripple effect and make the world a better place. The opposite is also true; and it’s noticeable that yeast in the Old (and elsewhere in the New, e.g. “the leaven of the Pharisees”) is seen as a corrupting influence.
It’s not that mustard seeds or yeast are like the kingdom of heaven, but that our good actions, however insignificant we may think them, combined with God’s grace and power can have, indeed, will have, surprisingly far reaching consequences, and that without them we will not bring about that Kingdom, and the wrong ones will perpetuate or worsen our fallen state.
It’s that surprising and even irrational and perhaps absurd effect that is examined in the stories of the pearl merchant and the metal-detectorist. As a business strategy, selling everything to buy one pearl, or to speculate so hugely, on the value of the treasure buried in the field, is unwise in the extreme, but the Kingdom of Heaven is so desirable, it drives us to irrational acts to bring it about. It won’t, the parables seem to say, be by human good sense that it will come about but by an overwhelming desire which God will bring to fruition. As in the gallons of wine at Cana in Galilee and the 12 baskets of leftovers at the feeding of the Five Thousand, God’s abundant grace does work to a human measure.; it’s undeservedly and disproportionately loving. 
Matthew puts these stories or vignettes- they hardly have a narrative- with two stories with a much clearer message, and one which goes directly to our conscious and rational conduct. The stories are eschatological: they concern the great reckoning to come at the end of Time, when, the wheat and the weeds which have been allowed to grow together, will be sorted out, and the bad rejected, thrown into the everlasting flames in Matthew’s terminology, just as bad or useless fish are thrown away from catch in the net. We don’t have to accept Matthew’s scenario of the end of time, to see the more essential point, that our conduct here and now, in this life, has consequences and we shall be, or indeed are now, judged by our fruit.  
That’s a lively and vivid point which we can all see; what we do matters, and it marries well with what I  see as the point of the mustard seed and yeast imagery. What we do may not seem to be of great consequence but in the context of the Kingdom of Heaven, everything however small, matters and God can work great things with the simplest, meanest and smallest of human endeavours. This is both alarmingly challenging and hugely encouraging.
We shouldn’t think, however, that it’s all down to us. The mustard seed grows by God’s grace; it needs watering and perhaps a bit of weeding, but we cannot claim that it’s our effort alone that makes it, or anything, grow. The dough needs to be kneaded and kept warm but it’s by the way God has created the world that it rises and will turn into bread.  To say this might appear to belittle human endeavour; if it’s all in God’s hands then our own efforts do not matter much. But to think that ignores the way in which we have been made as God’s agents; it ignores the assurance that we are made in God’s image and, as a body, the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit to become Christ’s body on earth.
It would ignore too, what is I think the other point of the parables of the pearl and the treasure trove. That is surely the role of faith and trust in doing God’s will and bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a point echoed in the story of Solomon’s choice in 1 Kings, because it is Solomon’s choice of wisdom, that is his trust in righteousness, that will itself lead to material well-being in its Promised Land, or as we should say, the Kingdom of Heaven. It is this trust too that gives Paul the assurance that he wants us to share, that no earthly limitations, nor other supernatural powers can divide us from the love of God. 
This is not an inert trust; we do not sit back and allow God to do the work. These images are not so random, and certainly not inconsequential; they deal, with matters of the utmost consequence. We are now God’s hands and with them we must water the mustard plant and knead the dough, and we must be prepared to risk all for the pearl and the treasure that will prove to be the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

Print This Page


Sermons from previous years are here | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005