July 30, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
I don’t want to say that the disciples lied to Jesus. That would not be fair; I have no real evidence to prove it. But I can’t believe they told him the truth, either. When Jesus asked them, “Have you understood all this?” Matthew says that those disciples gave him the straightforward answer he was looking for: “Yes.” But who really can believe that?
Jesus had been explaining the Kingdom of Heaven to them. The Kingdom of Heaven is something Jesus talked about a lot; Matthew especially emphasizes throughout his whole gospel just how much Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is not so much about what happens to us after we die. No, the Kingdom of Heaven is what Jesus came to begin in the world. The Kingdom of Heaven is the new world order; it replaces the Empire of the Romans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and all of the others who had conquered God’s chosen people throughout time. The Kingdom of Heaven is the rule of God. In the Kingdom of Heaven, God is the emperor; the king; the president, congress, and the Supreme Court; the chief executive; and the supreme commander. And the Kingdom of Heaven is so different than the way things are run now that it is beyond what anyone has ever been able to imagine, either in Jesus’ time or in our time.
Part of Jesus’ purpose was to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven. He came to get it started and set it in motion, so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it would grow and develop until it finally comes to full fruit. He started by showing the disciples what the Kingdom of Heaven is like through his miracles. In the Kingdom of Heaven, the blind can see, the sick are restored, the storms are brought to peace, and the people are fed, all of them, even if there are 5,000 there that day. In the Kingdom of Heaven, everyone is invited to the party: the common folks who do jobs like fishing and carpentry, and even the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners whom everyone else thought were unworthy of attention, much less an invitation.
Jesus didn’t just show them fun magic tricks or play host to a lot of different people, though. He also taught them about the Kingdom of Heaven by what he said. But because the Kingdom of Heaven is so different than anything they had ever imagined, much less experienced, Jesus had to teach them about the Kingdom of Heaven in ways they could understand. So, he drew metaphors and told them stories. Over the past couple of weeks, we have heard some of those stories; last week, for instance, we heard that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a field with both good wheat and bad weeds all mixed in together which the farmer will sort out at the harvest time. Today we hear a quick succession of five more parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is the pace of the delivery of the parables as well as the complexity of the metaphors Jesus drew that makes me question whether his disciples really understood it all when he was done as well as they said they did. “Have you understood all this?” he asked, and they answered, “Yes.” Really?
But I do understand why he asked if they understood. This was very, very important to him. We too easily accept the world as it is. We see the greed of corporations, we see the power-grabbing games of political leaders, we see the violence of crimes in our own communities and the violence of wars in other nations, and we grow cynical. “That’s just the way things are,” we tell ourselves. It is the way things have always been, and it seems like it is the way things will always be, and no one can do anything to change it. Jesus told his disciples that they did not have to be so cynical. Things should not be that way, and we do not have to accept that they will always be that way. Jesus was not willing to accept the world as it is; he would only accept the world as it was created to be, and as it ought to be. He wanted them to see that ought-to-be world, too, so that they would seek it, and they would expect it to become the way things are, and they might even be able to give some things up so that they could find it and experience it for themselves.
The Kingdom of Heaven, that ought-to-be world, is small and hidden now, but it will grow and flourish in unexpected ways, giving a home for all those different kinds of God’s creatures who are invited to the party. In that sense, it is like a little seed of a common weed, hidden, but which will grow up bigger and more imposing than anyone can expect it right now. The Kingdom of Heaven, that ought-to-be world, is powerful beyond its appearance, too. In that sense, it is like a little bit of yeast which gets mixed in with the flour. In that parable, Jesus literally said that the woman “hid” the yeast in the three measures of flour, enough to make bread for a whole village. You can’t see the Kingdom of Heaven right now because it is hidden, but as it mixes, it grows, so that the whole world will rise and there will be enough to feed all those who need to be satisfied.
We cannot fully understand or imagine that ought-to-be world right now, but it had a profound value for Jesus, and, he said, it has a profound value for his disciples, too. It is like a treasure, he said, and once you know where it is, you will want to devote everything you have to be a part of it. You will want to put all of your money, all of your time, all of your energy, all of your prayers toward claiming it as your own. It is like someone who found something of tremendous value, like a box of treasure, or like a pearl that is more perfect than any pearl to come out of the ocean before. A smart merchant will sell everything just to have that one item of surpassing value. The Kingdom of Heaven is valuable like that.
And we cannot take control of that ought-to-be world. We never have been able to, and we never will be able to. It is not up to us to decide who is in it and who is not, any more than it is up to us to decide when or how it comes to be. It is like a net on a fishing boat; it just sweeps along through the sea and catches up everything in its path. Then, it is up to the fisherman to determine what is useful and what needs to be thrown out.
There is much, much more to say about that ought-to-be world, the Kingdom of Heaven. Months earlier, he had told them that it would belong to the poor, to the meek, to those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and those who are persecuted for doing the right thing. He taught them to pray that the Kingdom may come. He would tell them later that the scruffy, vulnerable children who hang out on the streets would be the role models for everyone to emulate in the Kingdom of Heaven, and that getting into the kingdom will be like a camel trying to fit through the eye of a needle. He would compare the Kingdom of Heaven to capricious landowners and to rich rulers who liked to throw parties. There is so much more to say about the Kingdom of Heaven.
But in these moments, it was important to Jesus that the disciples saw the Kingdom of Heaven, that ought-to-be world, like a tiny seed, like a small bit of yeast, like a hidden treasure and a valuable pearl, and like a great fishing net pulling up everything in its path. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is too fantastic to describe it all at once. Its many facets have to be examined one by one, until we can start to see it, and begin to expect it, and prepare for it, and maybe even give some things up so we can experience it fully and freely and unencumbered by everything that has us tied up in the cynicism of the world as it is.
Have we understood all this? Maybe we have, and maybe we haven’t. Maybe we are ready to embrace the Kingdom of Heaven, or maybe we still have some questions. Maybe we are ready to give up our ties to the world as it is. We do not like the greed, the power-grabbing games, and the violence in our world and in our community. But it is all that is familiar to us, and all that is comfortable for us, so even in our cynicism about the world as it is, it might seem better than something so unknown and unknowable as that ought-to-be world of the Kingdom of Heaven. Or maybe we have to embrace it in smaller parts. After the disciples promised that they did, in fact, understand all that Jesus said to them about the Kingdom of Heaven, he went on with one more parable. The people who are ready for the Kingdom of Heaven don’t have to take it all in at once; they can be like the people who arrange their houses in such a way that it is clear that they treasure some old things while also embracing the new things.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this,” I am not sure they answered truthfully when they said, “Yes.” Because the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus was explaining was too complicated, too unfamiliar, too spectacular, maybe even too uncomfortable for anyone to understand. That is why he gave it to them in ways they could understand: one or two facets at a time, using stories and metaphors and visions which come from the world as it is, and which turn into something as unexpected as the world as it ought to be. Seeds that grow so they can shelter life; bits of yeast that transform the flour so it can feed the whole community; treasure that is hidden and pearls that are so valuable that wise merchants give up everything to have them; fishing nets that sweep everything in their path; even home decorators who both value the old and embrace the new at the same time: all of those things and more tell of this fantastic Kingdom of Heaven. My prayer this morning is that we, too, may see this mysterious, glorious, unfolding ought-to-be world, and that we may learn, as we are able, to expect it, and to prepare for it, and even to give things up so that we can experience it fully and freely and unencumbered by the cynicism of the world as it is.