The Kingdom Is like What!?
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Have you ever noticed Jesus doesn’t begin his parables, “In a land far away there lived a beautiful princess . . .”
Not even, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
But “In an ordinary field next door to you there was a farmer who planted some seed . . . A baker woman kneading some dough . . .”
I wonder if the crowds were a bit disappointed with Jesus. Maybe even some of his disciples as well. Jesus tells them one more parable about seeds and plants, followed by stories of baking bread, plowing a field, and fishing. Yes, he throws in one story about a wealthy merchant, but all the rest are as ordinary as a mustard bush.
No kings, or even princesses, inhabit this kingdom Jesus speaks about being so near.
No military generals or revolutionary leaders to please Simon the Zealot or his colleague Judas. They must have felt let down.
And what about us?
I wonder if our culture might be disappointed too with some of Jesus’ stories. For instance, I doubt most people’s vision of heaven or the reign of God includes mustard bushes and housework! God is more often seen as “Lord” or “King” than farmer or baker woman. And whether it is traditional hymns or modern praise music we sing about “enthroning” Jesus, “raising him up” and “exalting him in the highest heaven.”
Jesus though, tells stories of the kingdom and of heaven that are literally “down to earth.” Common stories about ordinary people, a tenant farmer, a housewife, fishermen, doing everyday things. This is hardly an exalted image of God’s realm!
And of course this is the whole point. As Christians we are called to believe in the incarnation, the mystery of the meeting of divine and human in the very human person of Jesus. Yet it is interesting that in his parables Jesus puts the focus not on himself but on the world around him. “The kingdom of God is like” some of the most common things in life. Like Jesus himself, this everyday world of ours embodies the sacred meeting of divine and human, sacred and secular, pious and profane. That is if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
It is in this very mundane embodiment that Jesus’ parables differ from Greek or Roman myths or Aesop’s fables. Jesus’ stories contain no gods in human disguise or talking animals, just real-life women and men going about their everyday work.
According to Matthew, the first thing Jesus does when he comes out from his 40 days in the wilderness is proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near.” He give examples of this every time he heals, reaches out to outcasts, respects women and other unrespectables, or cares for the poor. He illustrates that nearness through these kingdom parables.
Jesus’ kingdom is not some esoteric realm in the sweet by and by, but as close and real as the mustard bush in the neighbor’s field or the loaf of bread on the baking stone. This nearness, far more than any threat of eternal agony, is the basis for Jesus’ call to believe. Of these five parables, only the last includes any idea of apocalyptic judgement and gnashing of teeth. The rest envision God in every nook and cranny of daily life, from the kneading of dough to the plowing of fields. Jesus seeks to transform human life not by scaring the hell out of people, but by helping them see the heaven close at hand!
With such images Jesus echoes his and our faith ancestor Moses who in his farewell address to the Israelites reminded them that “the word is very near” them, in their hearts and close at hand. (Deut. 30) In his earthy kingdom parables Jesus affirms this.
Another thing Jesus does not do is use the seven wonders of the world to illustrate God’s kingdom. He doesn’t even use the stately cedar of Lebanon, but the lowly mustard plant. Its seed is a symbol of the tiniest thing, and the plant it produces is a trash tree! Or more accurately a trash bush, no matter how tall it grew. We might like Jesus to speak of the kingdom as like the mighty red oak or majestic white pine, but Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a farmer who planted scrub juniper or even Russian knapweed! How is that for an image of God’s realm? I imagine the disciples scratching their heads and asking themselves, “The Kingdom is like what?”
Then there is the leaven, the smallest amount enough to provide bread for a wedding feast. In a tradition where leaven is a symbol for corruption and impurity Jesus uses this as an agent of the miraculous growth of God’s kingdom. If God can use weeds and corruptible leaven to grow the kingdom, imagine what God can do with you and me!
Abundance from the smallest things, miraculous transformations from trash bush to tree of life, from corrupt leaven to bread enough to feed the multitudes. God’s kingdom is like that, according to Jesus.
And then in the next two parables we are told of people who gladly give up everything for that treasure. The extravagant response of the tenant farmer and the pearl merchant is matched only by the extravagant mustard bush and loaves of bread.
Of course the paradox is that the kingdom equal to the value of a great pearl or treasure is not made of silver or gold, but of bushes and bread. What would you give up for a old pasture overrun with an abundance of juniper bushes?
These are not simple moral fables in that they demand such decisions. Again like Moses’ last words, the parables stress our responsibility to choose God’s way even when it may not make sense! Moses framed it as a choice between life or death, blessing or curse. Jesus’ parables has the realm of God up against that of the evil one, good fish or bad fish. Like Moses, Jesus does not let us off the “hook.” The nearness of God’s realm challenges us daily to choose a way.
Unfortunately we live in a world where mustard comes in a plastic squeezable bottles, bread in plastic bags, both of which can be found on grocery store shelves. And pearls go for discount prices on the Home Shopping Network.
Has the church cheapened the kingdom as well?
Like the farmer plowing the field and the merchant searching for the invaluable pearl, what would you, what would this congregation, give up everything to possess? All the while remembering that the hidden treasure is not made of silver or gold or even an actual pearl! Nor is it made of wood or brick or stone or endowments funds and memorial accounts. And on the personal side it isn’t that lucrative job offer or business opportunity, it isn’t our retirement portfolios!
Rather Jesus is asking, “What would we give all these things up to possess?”
And then he offers images of things that in the end will not complete our personal estate or fully fund a church’s capital improvement fund but will bring us closer to the realm of God that is right there in our midst if we but have the eyes to see and the ears to hear!
So look around you today. Where do you (will you) see and hear parables of the kingdom?
Want to hear the Audio Version? Select the link below to listen to Pastor Neil Wilson sharing his Sermon on Sunday morning here at First Congregational UCC.