“Becoming Someone New” Colchester Federated Church, March 21, 2021, Fifth Sunday in Lent (Matthew 13:45-46), Reflections on the Heart Sermon Series

There’s a series of parables in the Gospel according to Matthew wherein Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven.  We spent several Sundays in the summer of 2020 exploring many of these parables.  Now it was hard for me to remember that we did that, and I wrote and preached all those sermons!  Sometimes time feels especially strange during the pandemic and it’s hard to remember what happened last week, let alone months ago.  So a refresher may not be a bad idea as we once again explore the Parable of the Merchant as part of this Lenten sermon series—Reflections on the Heart.

In Matthew’s 13th Chapter, Jesus taught the parable of the weeds, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the yeast, the parable of the treasure, the parable of the merchant, and the parable of the net.  Jesus was comparing these objects and situations to the kingdom of heaven.  Before we go further, the kingdom of heaven is translated elsewhere (in Mark’s Gospel for instance) as “the reign of God”.  That’s probably a better translation because Jesus isn’t talking about heaven as a location, a place where God lives up there somewhere, or a place that people hope to live with God after they die.  Jesus is talking about God reigning or ruling now—this is an active and present reality. 

So the kingdom of God is about God ruling our lives now.  It’s about being compassionate as God is compassionate.  When Jesus heals those who are sick and exorcises demons throughout the Gospels—these compassionate actions demonstrate that God’s rule in our lives (and in Jesus’ life) defeats what is harmful and invites everything that is good.  Because God desires healing and wholeness.  God desires for us to look out for one another because we are one another’s keeper.  As New Testament Professor Mark Allan Powell explains, “God’s kingdom (or reign) comes when God’s will is done, for God can only truly be said to rule when what God wants to happen takes place.”[1]  Jesus is announcing in his parables that God’s kingdom has come.  Be compassionate as God is compassionate.  Love one another as God has always loved each and every one of us.

We can also keep in mind that a parable is simply “a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between God’s kingdom, actions, or expectations and something in this world, real or imagined.”[2]  New Testament Professor Arland Hultgren’s book The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary remains a favorite resource.  To help us understand these sayings from Jesus, Professor Hultgren breaks down parables into two types—narrative parables and similitudes (making comparisons between a subject and general and even timeless observations).  He relates that there are at least thirty-eight units within the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Luke, and Matthew) that can be designated as parables. 

Now all of this is to say that at the outset, we only have a short and simple parable to contemplate this morning.  It’s just two verses.  Yet this small text can be considered within the larger context of how Jesus talked about really important ideas that were central to his ministry, ideas like the kingdom of heaven.  God ruling our lives now.  The parable of the merchant is a similitude where Jesus makes a comparison.  Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.”[3]  Let’s imagine that there’s a merchant searching high and low for fine pearls.  When the merchant actually finds those pearls, they go and sell everything they have to buy them because those pearls are that valuable.

That’s it.  That’s the parable.  The kingdom of heaven is like this merchant who is searching everywhere for fine pearls.  They finally find those precious pearls, and they are so valuable that they are willing to give up every single thing that they own to buy those fine pearls.  This is a parable about commitment.  The merchant didn’t just happen upon the fine pearls.  They went out seeking them.  This parable is addressed to the disciples and it’s an exhortation.  It’s comparable to moments where Jesus raises the commitments of the disciples to him and to the kingdom of God above the commitments to their own families and possessions.  We can compare it to the story about the rich man we just heard in this sermon series a few Sundays ago.  It’s about responding to God’s callings.  What is holding us back from responding fully to the movements of the divine?  Hultgren explains, “As Jesus was committed to the kingdom all the way to the cross, so the disciple of Jesus is exhorted to follow in his pathway without reserve.”[4]   

What does this look like?  That’s a question that we can ask ourselves this morning.  The answers will be different from one another because our lives aren’t all the same.  Jesus was committed to God ruling his life, and that commitment took him all the way to the cross on which he was crucified.  It was a costly sacrifice.  His journey throughout his ministry wasn’t easy.  What makes us think that following Jesus won’t have any costs?

The parable of the merchant can make us think about the commitments that people make and the sacrifices that sometimes come with those commitments.  Sometimes we have to stand up for what’s right—even if there’s a cost.  We have no other choice.  There’s an excellent movie about the Civil Rights movement called Selma.  The march from Selma to Montgomery was centered around voting rights and eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Today when we hear about legislation being proposed that affects voting—this is not a new battle in our country.  Voting rights were always a central aspect of the Civil Rights movement that began in our country decades ago by now. 

In the movie, Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper, a Selma resident who repeatedly tried to register to vote only to get turned away time and again.  She dresses in a suit and goes down to the Registrar’s office to wait patiently.  The Registrar calls her name and threatens that he’ll tell her boss at the nursing home that she’s causing problems.  Annie Lee Cooper respectfully responds that she’d just like to register to vote.  He asks her to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution—and she does so beautifully.  Could you do that in order to register to vote?  Would anyone ever ask you to do that in order to register to vote?  Next, he asks how many county judges there are in the State of Alabama.  She responds 67.  Correct answer.  Then the Registrar looks up in irritation (and triumph) and says, “Name them.”  He stamps REJECTED on her voter registration form.  Annie Lee Cooper was a real person whose story we witness in Selma.  Can we even begin to imagine the commitment it took for her to go over and over just to register to vote? 

People who fought (and continue to fight) for equality have commitment that the imagined merchant in our parable would recognize, commitment that Jesus would recognize.  What are we committed to in our lives, in our community, in our society?  How does that commitment further the kingdom of heaven that Jesus taught us about in the Parable of the Merchant?  Would we be willing to search high and low and give up everything we own in order for God to fully rule our lives?  That’s the invitation that Jesus gave his followers—nothing less than following him and becoming someone new in Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

[1] Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, Major Themes of Mark’s Gospel, “The Reign of God.”
[2] Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 3.
[3] Matthew 13:45, Common English Bible.
[4] Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 422.

Photo by Tiffany Anthony on Unsplash.