Holy Exaggeration[1]

W.F. Bellais II

Three boys are in the school yard bragging about their fathers. The first boy said, “My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a poem, they give him fifty dollars.” The second boy said, “That’s nothing. My Dad scribbles a few words on piece of paper, he calls it a song, and they give him one hundred dollars.” The third boy said, “I got you both beat. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!”[2]

This story is an exaggeration. The exaggeration of the story is reason it is humorous. I am certain none of their fathers just scribbled words on a paper and called it finished or turned it in for publication or appreciation without some diligent work. Writing poetry and songs is actually difficult and I think their dads were underpaid. Commenting on the difficulty of sermon preparation, however, can be self-serving, so I will leave it there.

Exaggerating[3] often gets a point across that would be otherwise overlooked.  Jesus seemed to be exaggerating in the parables reported in the Gospel according to Matthew.

I believe that even in first century Palestine a mustard seed did not produce a tree; maybe it produced a large bush. Further it is unlikely birds build nests in the mustard bushes.

Regardless of the yeast, bread made with “three measures of flour” probably does not feed many; again an exaggeration.

The point is, of course, of this country wisdom is that God’s Kingdom will grow from small beginnings to significant size. Like yeast, Jesus’ message will pervade the lives of many,
transforming them.

Then Jesus tells the story of someone stumbling over treasure in a field and acquires the legal title to the field by selling all to buy it. He follows the treasure story with one of a merchant who values the pearl among the jewels he is appraising above all else and is willing to make whatever sacrifice is needed to own it.

The kingdom of God, in Jesus’ words is dynamic and to be a part of that kingdom is worth any sacrifice. However, simply desiring to be included is not enough. To be included requires faithfulness. Faith, in Jesus’ view, is not unthinking or blind allegiance but rather a small willingness to be faithful to the truths of God.

He explains this mustard seed faithfulness and living a righteous life and the righteous that will be citizens of this new order. Once again he uses a country story to make his point.

On the Sea of Galilee, fishermen gather into their net all fish that came into it, however, only some of which were edible. Just as in the parable of the Wheat and Weeds[4], told in this same chapter of Matthew, the fish are sorted. They are not sorted before netting but only after close
inspection. The teaching is that at the end of the age, God will come to judge people, declaring the righteous faithful to be his and discarding the others.

Finally when the disciples tell Jesus that they understand the parables he has just related,  Jesus calls them scribes; that is interpreters trained for the kingdom for they know both the “old” (Israel’s heritage in the Mosaic Law), and the “new” understanding of the Law Jesus has given them. That new understanding is that God’s law is based in love of self as a creature of the Divine and love for humanity that also are creatures of the Divine. In other words, the “new” is not a commandment of self-condemnation, but a recognition that we cannot fulfill the law but can live in joy knowing that God looks for only a mustard seed of faith in us. It through that mustard seed of faith humanity can recognize the command to love.

Still, what do the disciples understand about these parables? Also, do we understand what Jesus is teaching? For example, exactly what does Jesus mean by the words, “kingdom of Heaven?”  What is good what is righteous? How will God’s kingdom be established? Maybe if we change the perspective we can understand these parables more clearly. For example, another phrase to use in the place of the kingdom of Heaven or the kingdom of God is the “rule of God.” If we use that phrase we can understand that in life the rules or standards set by God call on each human being to love and respect creation and see the divine spark that lies in every person.

The rule of God is always near, as Jesus proclaims, and if we allow that rule to be central to our lives the outcome of life are greater than expected. That is the purpose of Jesus’ exaggerations. In the rule of God the smallest flicker of faith can lead to a roaring fire of grace; from the smallest gesture of generosity the world can be fed. When we are willing to give our all to a
cause the outcomes will be greater than the sum of our efforts. And, when we see the value of God’s rule of love in our lives we will cherish that love as the greatest gift of all.

Years ago I read a book titled Salvation by Surprise.[5] The title captures for me the nature of Jesus’ promise as he relates that promise through the parables he taught. The book is a commentary on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome. In that letter Paul relates his unexpected experiences of the saving grace of God through Jesus. We know the story of Paul, a Pharisee named Saul, who is first reported in the Acts of the Apostles as a zealous enforcer of the rules of the Pharisaic tradition. On his way to Damascus to track down followers of the heretic Jesus he is knocked to the ground when he actually encounters Christ. Saul the zealous Pharisee becomes Paul and the great apostle to the gentiles. None of this he expected. His plan had been to become a great rabbi and to quell the new expression of faith found in the preaching of the followers of Jesus. His surprise is that he comes to know that God had chosen him to the ministry of apostle of Christ and that he was predestined to this role although he had believed he was headed in another direction.

Paul relates to the Church in Rome that he is surprised over and over by his experiences with Jesus. Paul finds that although he thinks of his life as sinful and under the law irredeemable he has been given a new life of redemption in Jesus Christ. The biggest surprise, and this relates to the exaggerations Jesus used in his parables, is that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate him from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

This is an important message for everyone to consider. Regardless of how we understand ourselves and review our lives there is no human experience, power, or judgment that separate us from God’s love. There is no evil force in the world that keeps us from experiencing that love. There is no natural disaster that prevents us from knowing that ultimately we are God’s person and will experience the joy of being in God’s presence.

When we face the realities of the world all this is difficult to believe, but allow yourself to engage in the exaggerations of Jesus and the surprise Paul experienced. Then you will know what the disciples understood and you too can be called scribes; that is being among the wise.


 

[1] This is a commentary  based on the Gospel and Epistle Lectionary selections for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost Year A: Proper 12; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8 26-39 (RCL).

[2] Thanks to Sister Rose Christina Momm, SNJM, Orlando, Florida, for sending this story to me by E-mail; it is what I call the flow of “Internet Wisdom.”

[3] I am grateful for the comments on this Lectionary selection provided by Chris Haslam; Diocese of Montreal, Anglican Church of Canada.

[4] Matthew 13:24-30.

[5] Palmer, Earl F., Salvation by Surprise, A Commentary on the Book of Romans, Regent College Publishing; ISBN: 1573831425. Edition: Paperback; 1999-09-01

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