What was it now, a couple of summers ago, when we had the summer of bread? It was bread of life this, bread of life that; if I had to hear one more story from John’s Jesus about the bread of life, I was going off bread all together. This year, it’s almost as bad. We’re in the summer of Matthew’s agricultural parables. Within the subset of Matthew’s agricultural parables, towards the end of chapter 13, we find parables about small, lost things which also happen to hold great value. Remember: these all fall under the broad heading of: the kingdom of heaven is like “something”. Jesus is trying to describe the indescribable. The kingdom is always coming but it’s never quite here. It’s of this world but nothing like the kingdoms we’re familiar with. The kingdom is dialectic. It exists in the tension between our expectations and the reality God has already defined. Every parable, saying, and story Jesus tells is an attempt to explain this dialectic. We expect the kingdom to be one thing while God has already said, “our expectations in no way match the reality of the kingdom”. We are caught in the middle between what we think the kingdom is and the reality Jesus wants to convey. Above all, we realize, the kingdom is not just a place, it is a way of life.
Take a look at his audience of possible kingdom dwellers. To whom is he speaking? Is this his base? Maybe, maybe not; in one way or another they all seem to have a degree of familiarity with Jesus. From the stories he tells, we can guess: he’s talking to farmers, women, agricultural workers, day laborers, merchants, and even Pharisees. Jesus doesn’t waste words or subjects of parables. Each one of these vignettes, no matter how short, is designed to be heard by a specific audience. Jesus is a master of messaging. He tells stories about the kingdom of God being like a woman, a merchant, and a farmer because he wants those in his audience to know: everyone has a place in the kingdom of God. This is why I find inclusive language debates in our own era rather silly. Jesus went out of his way to be inclusive in his speech and language. Who among us would like to accuse the son of God of being a politically correct liberal? I can think of several people on radio and television who might.
Each of these five parables targets one demographic however; we’re all listening. Jesus’ message transcends and reaches everyone if we will only listen. There’s something in the mix for everyone.
Farmers and fisherman (tradespersons) made up the majority of those who followed Jesus’ ministry. While they all couldn’t leave their farms or boats, many did and journeyed with Jesus around Galilee. These men and women networked with other farmers and fishermen, urging them to come and hear the Rabbi from Nazareth. You might even call them “community organizers”. Going ahead into the community, they would spread the world about Jesus’ arrival. That’s why, on a day like today; you’ve got such a diverse group. Between Jesus’ reputation and his team of disciples and organizers, crowds get large. He preached from boats and atop high hills.
How can heaven be so small? That’s the tension with which we context in the first kingdom statement Jesus directs toward farmers. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Mustard seeds are among the smallest of seeds. Despite its potential for growth (with the right care and conditions), how can heaven have ever been something ever been anything other than all expansive and all encompassing? Not so, says Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is so inconsequential that if you’re not paying attention, if you’re careless, or not looking, you will miss it or discard it altogether. Heaven is easy to overlook. The potential contained within the kingdom of God is easy to ignore, discount, and discredit. What can a God who arrives in such an inconsequential manner do to impact our Earth shattering realities? The kingdom of God can be planted, made part of our lives, nurtured, and formed into a partnership with humanity. Mustard seeds grow when they are cared for in a partnership with people. The kingdom of God doesn’t grow in isolation. God doesn’t just happen. Mustard trees do not grown own their own. There’s no such thing as trickle down growth when it comes to Mustard Seeds in the kingdom of God. Someone has to help plant and care for the seed, even though the seed is blessed with the spark of Divinity and the presence of Almighty God. The seed needs to be planted by one of us. Life cannot share in the blessings of life if we don’t help to enable life.
The next three kingdom statements are short but similar to the first. Size matters. What we think ought to be large, like the Death Star or Buckingham Palace, or Caesar’s Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem, isn’t. Yeast is of less size and consistency that a mustard seed. A treasure, what is a treasure? Do you imagine Blackbeard’s treasure? A treasure could be anything of value. It could be a single coin. Given the context (one of the most important words when dealing with Jesus and his stories), do you believe Jesus meant an 18th century treasure chest or something completely different? I’m going to vote for something small and completely different. It might even be a single pearl; one tiny pearl worth prioritizing everything else in your life so that only this pearl matters.
The kingdom of heaven possesses an imperceptible, hidden value until we interact with it in the right way, at the right time, and in the right place-the kitchen, the garden, or the property sale; whatever the case may be. The kingdom of heaven is a partnership with both the tangible and the intangible (there’s the dialectic again!). The kingdom of heaven depends on us, interacting with people, on God’s behalf, at the right time and place, in small ways, is that what you’re saying. That’s not what I’m saying; it’s what Jesus is saying. This enterprise we’ve come to call Christianity isn’t about Jesus as a dictator. The miracle moving these parables forward is this: if we’re not actively engaged with what we might otherwise discredit or ignore; the kingdom of heaven doesn’t function the way Jesus intended.
The last kingdom of heaven comparison is the longest of the five. Here’s where things get strange. I need to tell you up front. I don’t like this comparison. I wish he’d stopped with the Pearl of Great Price. However, it’s there so let’s deal with it. Jesus’ earliest and most loyal followers had been peasant fisherman and farmers. Fishing examples were his stock in trade. As we’ve seen with all of the previous examples, everything about the kingdom of heaven exists in tension with itself. Things are seen but unseen. Others are large but small. Items of value appear worthless. This tension isn’t quite as obvious in Jesus’ last illustration. In this story, there are many fish. The value of the fish is not in dispute. That many fish could be sold for lots of money. Fish were a valuable commodity. You know this. You catch fish then you sell them for top denarius. Your family can buy its own food. No one doubts the premise of Jesus’ story. They know the lake (the Sea of Galilee), the boats, the nets, and can envision a catch like this of their own. Unlike the minimalist vision of the kingdom of God in the other sayings, Jesus is going large.
Those nets, they catch a lot of fish. Matthew says all kinds of fish. I love that. I’m big on diversity. Here’s how I read that: the kingdom of God is all encompassing. We all get caught up in the net. That should be comforting. God catches us and brings us safely into the boat. (Until you realize the fish get eaten.) Everyone and everything is part of the largeness of the kingdom of God. In one fell swoop, we’re brought out of the water and onto the boat. There’s no differentiation. We are whatever the net takes. This is us. Then we are taken to the shore for sorting.
I told you it became uncomfortable. What’s the sorting business? The fish, minding their own business, fish of all different shapes, sizes, and varieties were brought to the boat to be in the kingdom of heaven. Apparently it’s not enough to be swooped up and live happily ever after in the kingdom of God. Someone has to die. Death needed to be introduced into the equation. Apparently, being caught up in the kingdom of heaven puts your life at risk.
The fish didn’t know they were good or bad, imbued with morality of any kind, until they were caught and brought to the shore. Evidently, now that they’re on shore, they are fish to which qualities of good and evil can be attached. Moments before, they were all fish, living together in relative harmony under water. Now some are good and some are bad. Is that us, one day we’re good and the next day, for no good reason we’re sorted into the bad? The Good fish are saved into containers. The bad fish are thrown away. I told you, I don’t like this version of the kingdom of heaven.
Here’s where Jesus looses me. He says, “This is how it will be at the end of the present age.” I’m sorry. Some people will be discarded and thrown away like dead fish? You have got to be kidding me, Jesus? Nope, he’s not kidding. Angels will go around separating the righteous from the evil people. The evil ones will end up in a furnace. The only thing the fish did to deserve sorting into “good and evil” was being pulled from the sea. There were no objective ways to measure their righteousness or unrighteousness. How can it be with us the same way at the end of the age? How can it be with humanity, that we are hauled into God’s kingdom and sorted into piles of predetermined goodness with no consideration given to anything other than random chance?
Jesus asks, “Have you understood all these things?” Yes, Jesus, I understand. I understand that if I follow your similes and sayings to their logical end, I’ve got a 50/50 chance of going to heaven or hell, no matter how I live or what I do. Mustard seeds and pearls be damned, if I’m thrown into the wrong pile out of the net, nothing I’ve done will matter to you or your angels.
People are too important to discard. I know you know this Jesus. And besides, when is the last time we welcomed a new United Methodist because they were afraid of being thrown into a fiery furnace? It’s never happened to me.
Jesus, I understand scaring people with the idea of burning in Hell forever is stupid and counterproductive. Let’s leave these verses on the ash heap of history.