This week we continue to hear what Jesus had to say about the kingdom of heaven (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12 . Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.) And what Jesus has to say is curious and provocative. His parables are deceptively simple and yet convey a kingdom that is inviting and disturbing, inclusive and yet demanding, that beckons us enter but is beyond our control. Indeed when the detail is examined this kingdom is outright subversive in ways wondrous and alarming!
If you or I were asked to develop a parable or a metaphor for the nature of the kingdom of heaven we might say something like “The kingdom of heaven is like waking up on a grey dull morning in winter and then a break in the clouds allows the rising sun to light the world every shade of pink and gold and we see how truly beautiful the world can be!” or something equally lovely and encouraging. I don’t know about your parables or metaphors but mine are a bit syrupy sweet and not very radical. I suspect that while not necessarily wrong they are not particularly right. It’s hard to understand and then to share what we mean by the kingdom of heaven and what it might be like. That’s probably why Jesus spent so much time talking about the kingdom of heaven and what it might be like and used such a curious and provocative range of descriptions to convey his meaning. Even Jesus could not covey the nature of the kingdom in a single parable and chose not to use a creedal doctrine to be learned by rote.
The people of the first century thought and therefore hoped that the kingdom of heaven was on earth and very real – that it meant that God’s chosen people were once again to have their own land back and without an oppressive foreign power in charge. Many of Jesus’ followers were hoping for a worldly alternative leader – a conquering king. The people of the first century lived in such a way that they were often seasonally hungry, especially in the time of Jesus when the added tax burden of Rome reduced what was available to live on. That is, the people were physically and socially and religiously hungry for good news! While we, on the other hand, often think of the kingdom of heaven as a purely spiritual realm that is always just beyond the horizon for us. We and our first century forebears in faith are wrong in our different ways, or at least only partially right.
So what then can we say about the kingdom of heaven? We might say simply that the kingdom of heaven is to be in relationship with God and to let God’s spirit reign in and over all aspects of our life, individually and collectively. The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples is that God’s kingdom come here now as it is in heaven. So this reign of God is to be not only in our hearts and minds and souls but in our every day life here on earth now and to continue on through all of life, including of course whatever comes after this life. Jesus teaches that the kingdom comes among us, within us, into our world in some very strange ways. Ways that are banal and ordinary, extravagant and exaggerated, shockingly outside the religious norm, confusing and confounding, even sneakily and certainly in out-of-our-control ways.
We’ve already considered God as an extravagant yet ever patient and trusting farmer scattering seed here, there and everywhere and then letting the weeds be where they will for the moment. Not exactly best practice farming or gardening. Now in the short little parables we hear this week the examples continue to be curious.
The kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed from out of which grows a tree in which the birds can nest. Sounds nice. Sounds encouraging that from something so tiny that something good can grow. And so it is. Except why did Jesus choose a mustard seed? Not very grand – and really more of a weedy thicket kind of bush than a grand tree? Indeed the mustard bush was borderline a weed, a pest. Why not one of the noble cedars of Lebanon? Or a fig tree or an olive that produces fruit?
And what about the kingdom being like a woman adding yeast, a rising agent, to flour? Sounds to us who have heard it so often as rather homely and encouraging. Indeed, except for Jesus in his time talking about holy things that are women’s work (and house work not the exceptionally rich women who make purple cloth) is rather disturbing and off beat. And the quantities are again totally exaggerated! Three measures would have been about sixty pounds or over twenty kilos!! It would produce so much bread that it would overcome the kitchen and the building. A bit like the sorcerer’s apprentice. Quantities suitable for a feast not lunch for a few.
What about the treasure hidden in a field? That’s a little bit dubious isn’t it? Almost dishonest to hide or leave hidden the treasure in the field and then buy it off the farmer who doesn’t know that there is treasure under his feet. It was legal in its time but even so a bit borderline ethically. The important thing is that the finder of the treasure sells everything, a very risky strategy, in order to buy the field. There are probably echoes of the advice in Proverbs chapter 2 verses 1 – 4 about seeking wisdom like seeking hidden treasure.
The pearl merchant who having seen the most wonderful pricey pearl he has ever seen then sells all his stock in order to invest everything in this one pearl. A high risk strategy that is either a bit crazy or incredibly courageous and dedicated. We also need to know that in rabbinic tradition that pearls were associated with piety and the study of Torah so clearly this is putting the things of God as the highest priority and pursuing it with everything we have, investing everything in this search for God’s wisdom.
And the fishing nets, a familiar image to us, comes with all sorts of associations. “I will make you fishers of people” is part of the language of call to follow. And in terms of the literally strange extra things that get caught in the net it would have been common practice for fishers to have to sort their catch into the kosher fish and the non-kosher items that would then be thrown back into the sea.
So how do these strange and provocative images help us to glimpse what this kingdom is like and what is promised to us and required of us? I want to explore three aspects. There are many more than three wisdoms contained but the human brain can only concentrate on a limited number of points.
Firstly the kingdom is extravagant, precious and greatly to be valued. This is wonderful in some ways and also a bit disconcerting. We delight in the wisdom, beauty and loving-kindness of the kingdom but the merciful nature of the kingdom can offend our desire to decide who and what is deserved. The expediential growth of the kingdom often unsettles us as things grow and change too quickly for our comfort and desire to be in control.
Secondly the kingdom is all permeating and encompassing. It is about every aspect of our life and the issues of life. This is good news in terms of Paul’s promise that God’s love will be with us in even the painful and frightening aspects of life. But some of us find the tendency of God’s sovereignty to want to rule in the comfortable parts of our life very inconvenient. I don’t really want to have to explain to the maker of the universe why my superannuation is invested in creation damaging industries or why I have bought a new shirt that was beautiful and cheap because it was made in a developing country by people who do not get safe working conditions or a living wage.
Thirdly once the kingdom comes into our hearts and minds and souls, once we give ourselves to live under the reign of God, and once it takes hold it is not easily controlled. When we say yes to God we are invariably saying yes to more than we bargained for! I said yes to following Jesus when I was thirteen and then yes to being ordained when I was forty two and then somehow I have found myself living five hours away from my closest family both giving thanks and counting the cost!
The parables that reveal something of the nature of the kingdom of heaven are both exciting and inviting and also quite unsettling. If we as individual people of faith and the body of the people of faith are to see ourselves as citizens of the kingdom of heaven then we need to seek with our whole hearts our whole life long; we need to make the things of God our highest priority knowing this will be both wonderful and inconvenient at times; and to know that we are going to find ourselves in a kingdom where our sovereign is more inclusive, generous, revealing, radically renewing than we bargain for. This is good news, the best of news. But it is often not comfortable news.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, grant me the courage to desire the kingdom you came to reveal.