8 Pentecost • July 26, 2020
Genesis 29:15-28 • Psalm 105:1-11, 45b • Romans 8:26-39 • Matthew 13:31-33, 44-62
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus spoke mainly about the kingdom of God, which Matthew usually refers to as the “kingdom of heaven.” By using the word “kingdom,” Jesus is drawing on the ordinary political organization of his time. A kingdom is a defined geographical space organized by a strongman, who is called a king. The king’s job is to keep order and promote the welfare of the country—peace and prosperity is the king’s work.
At least, that is the theory. More often than not, however, kings have concentrated on their own survival in power and their own family’s prosperity. There are exceptional rulers, of course, but history records remarkably few of them, and rarely do their successors live up to their standard of excellence in promoting peace and prosperity. You can see why the designers of our Constitution rejected having a hereditary king in America—kings and their children just rarely turn out well.
Jesus was clear that peace and prosperity are what is needed for us human beings, and since worldly rulers cannot be trusted to bring that desired peace and prosperity, we will have to turn to another source. His relationship with God, whom saw as his Father, pointed to another possibility, the possibility that the order that God established in heaven could extend to the earth. So he announced that the kingdom of God is at hand, attainable, available, and ready to be entered into.
Heaven is an abstract concept, of course, and like all abstract concepts it is difficult to get a handle on at first. I can remember—in the fourth grade, perhaps—struggling to understand long division. Mathematics, of course, is utterly abstract. You can see two things, and you can see a written symbol for two, but you cannot ever see two itself. It is only a concept, abstracted from our experience of a couple of objects.
So I struggled with this abstract thing called long division, immersed in the inquiry of what it was for and how it could work. It was a bit painful, but I kept at it, perhaps for two or three of weeks. And then, one day, in a neighbor’s back yard, standing idly on the grass next to a chain link fence, it came to me. Long division! I got it!
This is the way it is with abstract concepts—at first, incomprehension; what on earth are they talking about? And then wondering, inquiring about this elusive concept, trying to see it. And, finally we see it and understanding comes, all of a sudden. Unexpectedly, the meaning opens up and we get it. And then the ramifications of the abstraction unfold, and we begin to see its many uses and the variety of ways it impacts our life. This is the way it is with the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which grows into a huge shrub in which birds can nest. The kingdom starts with a tiny possibility, just a glimpse of what’s possible. And then, over time, that possibility unfolds into an extensive panorama of actions and understandings that create love, joy, and peace, the prosperity that we all desire.
Matthew adds another parable that has the same meaning—the kingdom is like yeast, a small amount of which, when incorporated in a large quantity of flour, causes the whole mixture to expand. The kingdom starts with that small spark of understanding, which then expands to every part of our life.
There are six parables in today’s Gospel Reading, one-liners, short stories. The first two—the mustard seed and the yeast—are followed by another pair—the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price. Those two make another point that, once one gets the concept of the kingdom of heaven, it is so desirable that we will give anything to live into it.
In both parables, the person sells everything to get an incredibly valuable object. To participate in the kingdom of heaven, one has to give up old certainties, long-help opinions, grudges and hurts from past damaging encounters, even the cherished identity and immense wisdom we have built up over the years. We will never give up these things, except for the vision of something vastly better. Once we see the possibility of the kingdom, we can see that it might be worth it to exchange them for the kingdom.
In the fifth parable, the kingdom is likened to a fisherman casting his net into the sea, catching all kinds of sea creatures indiscriminately and hauling all of them ashore. Then, once ashore, they sort out the edible fish and discard the rest. To be in the kingdom is to become like a little child, accepting everything as it comes. Later, one can sort things out. This is a kind of extreme generosity, to welcome everyone and everything that comes our way, and to delay judgment till later—indeed to let the angels of God do the sorting out.
Finally, in the sixth parable that Matthew has collected in this batch, Jesus says that everyone who has developed an understanding of the kingdom of God has both new understandings and old wisdoms available. The old way is not the best way, nor is the new way. The best way is the best way, and those ways will come from both what is new and what is old. “Therefore,” he says, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
These are parables of the kingdom. They are clues, not answers. They are just a taste, not a meal. They are meant to tease one with a possibility which, when inquired into and grappled with, can unfold into the kingdom itself.