Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Last week’s Gospel reading was the parable of the weeds and the wheat. This week’s focuses on five shorter parables, tumbling out one after the other, though the subject is still Jesus’s teaching on what he called ‘the kingdom of God’. The stories, only two or three lines long, tend to speak for themselves – for those who have ears to hear. I think it is highly significant that these parables are placed right at the midpoint of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s as if the writer is telling us it is ‘the kingdom’ which lies at the heart of what Jesus’s ministry was all about, and when Jesus tells these stories, he is inviting his hearers to enter into his vision of what the kingdom of God is like. And he uses things from their own experience – like seeds, yeast and fishing nets – to fire their imagination and invite them to discover God’s presence and potential in their own lives. This isn’t the stuff of a soporific story time, with gentle Jesus meek and mild delivering a few comforting tales. As Matthew tells us, his followers are being ‘trained for the kingdom’, so he says things that will both surprise and challenge them. The mustard tree, for instance, for this largely peasant and agricultural people, (and despite Jesus’s description of it) was not a beautiful plant, but an everyday weed that grew unchecked and rampant and could choke other growth. And then there’s the yeast, which would routinely have been used as a symbol of contamination or corruption in Jewish tradition. (Remember when Jesus said: ‘Watch out and beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’, or Paul writing to the Corinthians, ‘So let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’) The kingdom, it seems, will be revealed through unexpected, perhaps even scandalous means.
We cannot divorce Jesus’s notion of the kingdom from the politics of his day – or, indeed, by extension, from our own. The very word ‘kingdom’ is a political term. Jesus could have spoken of the ‘family’ of God, or the ‘community’ of God, but he chose to speak of the ‘kingdom’ of God. And though we might speak of family politics or church politics, neither of them is intrinsically political, whereas ‘kingdom’ is. Also, the people to whom Jesus spoke lived in a world where there were real kingdoms. Kingdom was not associated with fantasy, like some Magic Kingdom created by Disney. It didn’t even refer to a parliamentary democracy, like our current United Kingdom. Rather, ‘kingdom’ referred to the political system under which they lived: the ancient domination system ruled by powerful and wealthy elites. Thus, when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, his hearers would have heard an immediate contrast. They lived under other kingdoms, of Herod and of Caesar. They knew what those kingdoms and life in them were like, and now here was Jesus speaking of the kingdom of God, turning all other notions of kingdom on their heads. So what is the political meaning of the kingdom of God? In a sentence or two, it is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The kingdom of God is about God’s justice, in contrast to the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and domination systems of this world. And Jesus does speak of God’s kingdom being not about heaven in the future, but is about the earth and now, which is why he taught his followers to pray not only ‘Thy kingdom come’, but also ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it already is in heaven’.
How can that possibly happen? Well, it is the 16th century mystic Teresa of Avila who gives us the clue: Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
As Jesus intimates, the kingdom is within you. The parables paint pictures of how the kingdom works. Just as Jesus used the images people of his own day people would have been familiar with, so the wisdom we need is to see how that all translates into our contemporary world and context, employing the images of our day. Rather like we might say ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’, so the stories of the mustard seed and the yeast speak of the potential for growth, change and new life that can lie hidden in the smallest and often seemingly most insignificant things. There is a sense of both unpredictability and excitement in all of this. Small, ordinary, run-of-the-mill things take on a life of their own and become much more significant and influential. The disciples were being encouraged to see that the apparent smallness of the Gospel, and the ethical life they were being called to live, would have consequences for the whole world, and not just for their own immediate context. In the face of persecution for Matthew’s fledgling church, this was an important message to hear. Their teaching about a Messiah who died powerless as an outcast on the cross, a seemingly little life, was to have consequences far beyond their hopes, imaginations or expectations. They would come to see that their risen Jesus really was to be good news for the whole world.
These parables invite us to become aware of the possibility and potential of the little things God places into our hands every day – the seeds that bring new life and growth out of what looked unpromising, even dead: the moments of enlightenment and awareness of what might be possible, the potential for transformation, on even the smallest scale – the smile that can say so much; the well-placed question that opens up the opportunity for listening to the concerns or anxieties of another person; the smallest act that helps the environment….
The kingdom of God is present among us, often in the smallest of ways and, given half a chance, it can steadily grow. But that in itself is a challenging thought. When we see the struggle of beleaguered Christian communities across the Middle East, and when we have been brought up short by – for instance – yet more indiscriminate violence between Israelis and Palestinians, or the conflict in Yemen and the resulting cholera outbreak, don’t we wonder just how the kingdom of God is active? Also, as we look back, as we do this weekend, to the Battle of Passchendaele, a time to commemorate those vast numbers of people who died or were scarred for life, a powerful reminder of when humanity has got things so badly wrong and wasted so much human potential. Well, we have to trust the activity is in the hard work behind the scenes to broker peace, or in the care of the sick, or in the many prayers and petitions, the smallest moves towards reconciliation and solidarity – tiny seeds of hope and faithfulness – that go on and on, regardless of whether the news is good or bad.
It was moving to hear on the radio this morning of efforts being made to prevent people trafficking, exploitation and modern day slavery. Far from being debilitated by cynicism about the state of things, we have to discern where the work of the kingdom is steadily going on around us. It may often be far from obvious. One of the paradoxes of the kingdom is the reminder of the seeming hiddenness, and yet the power and fruitfulness, of God in the world. The beauty of the smallness of God’s kingdom as an agent of change that is living and active, even if we can’t see it, and especially if what we are seeing or experiencing – or the powers and forces in the world – tells us otherwise.
In the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great value, we see first the joy of the discovery and then the effect this joy has on the lives of those who find it. Without prompting, their discovery leads both of them to change their lives completely. In both stories we hear that ‘they go and sell all that they have.’ Without this change of heart and life, they cannot possess the priceless thing that they find. Perhaps Jesus is telling his followers that they – we – will not be able to help ourselves from changing our lives around if we discover the riches of the kingdom. Lives transformed and made new. This is what the kingdom is about.
When you pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ in the Lord’s Prayer during the Eucharist, think of the ways that your life might have reflected the kingdom of God this past week, and also how you can enable the kingdom to flourish and grow and influence your lives in the week ahead.