I just love summers in Year A of the lectionary cycle! This is the chef’s kiss of lectionary sections. Here we have Jesus’ ministry.
We talk about crucifixion, death and resurrection all the time. Sometimes I feel we’re more interested in our Christologies and doctrines than we are in Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. One of my favorite scholars of the history of Christianity, the late Jaroslav Pelikan, often pointed out that the early creeds skip most of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry and instead jump from his birth to his suffering at the hands of Pontius Pilate. But in these summer readings is the teaching of the Messiah, from God and from Galilee, about the kingdom of heaven. This week, and for the next several months, we get to focus on Jesus’ words and teaching.
Jesus centers his ministry on the kingdom of heaven. He talked about it continually and insisted that those who follow him preach the good news of the coming kingdom. What is the kingdom of heaven like?
It is like a mustard seed. Despite its inauspicious beginning, the seed grows to become the largest of garden plants and provides homes for those without them (the birds of the air). The kingdom provides an expansive welcome.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. When even a small amount is mixed with about 50 pounds of flour, yeast causes the whole mass to rise. The kingdom changes everything.
It’s like treasure hidden in a field. A man hid it again (perhaps foolishly) and then (wisely) sold everything he had to acquire the field and the treasure therein. The kingdom is of surpassing value.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls. When he found one, he sold everything to acquire it. (Note: the kingdom is the merchant here, not the pearl.) The kingdom of heaven will not hesitate to give up everything to acquire its goal (you and me!).
The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that scoops up everything in its path. The angels sort the catch at the end of all things. Again, following the pattern from parables discussed in previous weeks, at the end of the age the wicked will be removed from among the good, not the inverse. The kingdom of heaven comes for all.
While these teachings are known to many, they are no less radical and revolutionary in their familiarity. And some of this can be difficult. Some have taken to changing the language used here to speak about the “kin-dom” of heaven. That can be lovely and does remind us of the knitting together of the diverse members of the body of Christ. And, we must be honest, there is some sovereignty stuff going on here as well, according to Jesus. The kingdom of heaven acquires. The kingdom of heaven scoops in. But sometimes we focus a bit too much on the “kin” and lose sight of the “King.” (And, of course, sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way as well). The King of the kingdom of heaven is active and doesn’t just wait for us to decide if we are in or out.
I would like to step back one layer and ask, “Why all the talk of the kingdom of heaven?” Why not ask, “This is what the messiah is like?” I think Jesus is telling us what he is like by speaking about God’s mission and presence in the world. Jesus doesn’t give, at least here, a direct lesson about the person of the Messiah. Instead, he focuses on describing—poetically, cryptically—the humble beginnings of the kingdom of heaven; its massive, irreversible impacts; and, finally, the way it will reclaim the Creator’s earth and all that God has created therein. Jesus is a herald of the kingdom of heaven!
The kingdom of heaven is not to be confused with Christendom or some sort of human-led theocracy. That misses the whole point! The king of the kingdom of heaven is not us but God. So as Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven, let us be wise enough to not just understand what the parables are saying but also who the parables are speaking about.