FIVE parables tell us what the Kingdom of heaven is like: namely, a seed, yeast, treasure, a merchant, and a net. One person and four things. The seed is something insignificant, which contains within itself boundless potential. For itself, it grows; for other living things, it provides shelter. As a sign of the Kingdom, it is relatively straightforward.
Yeast (the old term for it is “leaven”) is more tricky. I have been reading a book by Augustine about how to study the Bible. He takes yeast as an example, to show how some scripture verses need us to look at the context to interpret them correctly. In one way, the yeast is like the seed: it looks insignificant, but it has a life-enhancing effect, even though it works imperceptibly.
Yet, yeast is not always a sign of the Kingdom. Elsewhere, Jesus warns, “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16.6). Paul uses yeast with a negative meaning, too: “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened” (Corinthians 5.7-8).
Yeast itself is neither good nor bad. Good yeast, like the Kingdom, has power to be a blessing. Bad yeast also has transformative power, but it is corrupted and corrupting. To understand the meaning of yeast when it is used in the Bible to signify something, we have to think about bread-making, and about human nature.
Augustine encourages us to look at different examples of a sign to help explain the one that is puzzling us. But it is not always straightforward. Here, seeing “treasure” as a sign of God’s Kingdom can be difficult when other Bible texts deny that wealth is a sign of God’s favour. Paul and Peter even refer to wealth as “filthy lucre” (1 Timothy 3.3, 8; 1 Peter 5.2, Authorised Version).
In deciding what the treasure means, it helps to know about coin hoards in archaeology. In Bible times — or any times when war and danger threatened — people used to bury their money and other valuables in the ground. If the danger passed, they would come back for it. The more coin hoards that archaeologists discover, the fewer people have survived a time of war or unrest in earlier years and have been able to return and recover their treasure.
In this parable, one person finds treasure that another person had hidden. Now we need to recall and compare the parable of the talents (Matthew 25.14-30). In that instance, burying money is not the right answer. In the parable of the treasure, the person who discovers the abandoned hoard reburies it so that he can go and secure ownership of it.
The parable of the talents shows us what to do with money that we have not earned; for its original owner never benefited from it, and it was enjoyed instead by a stranger. The parable does not say what happened to the treasure next, but I hope that it was shared and put to good use.
The last two signs of the Kingdom are the merchant and the net. The merchant is searching for “fine pearls”, plural. But he finds a single pearl, infinitely greater than the rest. All else is worthless in comparison. The meaning of the sign is a lesson about where value lies: not in quantity, but in quality, and not in finding, but in searching (Matthew 7.7). We need to seek out what we value rather than sit back and wait for it to come to us.
Finally, the net. We need to picture a drag-net between two boats, which is catching everything in its way, good and bad alike. The Kingdom draws us all. So, usurping the angels’ duty by dividing people into “good” and “bad” is something that Christians should have no truck with.
Matthew 13 pictures seven parables spoken on a single occasion. They begin with human individuals as passive (being “sown”). They end with our having choice and agency in our lives. When judgement brings the parabolic revelation to a close, Jesus asks the disciples whether they understand. “Yes,” they reply, blithely.
Perhaps they do. But I think of parables as being more like “anti-puzzles”. The more I look at a sudoku or crossword puzzle, the likelier I am to “see” the solution. But the more I look at Jesus’s parables, the deeper they take me into divine mystery.