What is the kingdom of heaven, anyway? Jesus refers to it again and again in these parables…and we might be tempted to think he’s talking about “heaven”…as a place…where we go when we die…with the pearly gates and St. Peter and all the rest. But that’s not at all what Jesus is referring to here….we do better to pay attention to the “kingdom” part. Interestingly, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is only used in the Gospel of Matthew…and throughout the gospel, Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are used interchangeably to mean the same thing. And we know throughout all the gospels, Jesus is always talking about the kingdom of God….but he is clear that it is not something that is off far away on some distant cloud. No, instead he keeps talking about the kingdom of God as something as something that is here…now…among us, around us, and within us.
Now, we know what a kingdom is…a kingdom, of course, is a land ruled by a king, and it’s people are subject to the king’s laws and to the king’s way of doing things. So…Jesus says….what does it look like…here…now…among us and within us… when we are subject to God’s laws and God’s way of doing things?
And he uses parables to paint a picture of that kingdom. In fact, throughout this chapter in Matthew, Jesus has been sharing various parables about the kingdom. We’ve heard a couple of them the last couple of Sundays here at church….stories of farmers and seeds. One week we heard Jesus talking about the kingdom being a place where a foolish farmer planted seeds in his good field…but also threw them in the weeds and on the rocks and on the path. Then, last week, we heard Jesus talk about the kingdom being a place where a farmer sowed seeds in a field and someone else – “an evil one” – planted weeds among them….but the farmer decides to let them grow together instead of plucking them out. But now, this morning, we that the kingdom is like a farmer who decides to plant the weeds himself in the middle of the field for the birds to nest in. Most farmers put a scarecrow to keep the birds away. This one, creates a shelter for them. These farmers certainly do not paint a consistent picture of life in God’s kingdom…they are contradictory…and basically foolish.
So, just in case we might need more clarification…Jesus goes on…and gives us more parables. He says the kingdom is like a woman who “hides”…that’s the actual word….who “hides” leaven in 3 measures of flour. At first glance, it just sounds like she’s baking bread ….but here’s the problem. 3 measures of flour is way more than any woman would use to bake in a day. But the little leaven she put in affected all the flour and can’t be removed…so basically she has ruined the rest of her flour.
But to confuse matters more, in Jewish culture…3 measures of flour was a standard term used for a sacrifice made at the temple…it was the amount used for an offering. And it had to be unleavened. If it was leavened it was ruined. Defiled. So the kingdom of God is like a woman defiling her offering? This connection is so troubling to some folks that they have turned the parable on its head and interpreted the woman as the evil one in the story whose corrupting influence spreads to destroy the holy people of God. I kid you not. I came across that interpretation in some studies. They just couldn’t stomach the idea that the kingdom of God was something that might “corrupt” people’s purity. But Jesus says the kingdom is like the woman.
And then, Jesus goes on…the kingdom is like a man finding a treasure in a field that doesn’t belong to him- and he sells everything he has to buy the field. Never mind that it was pretty sneaky to hide it again from it’s rightful owner. Jesus says the kingdom is like a man so carried away with joy that he is willing to be sneaky to get what he has hoped for.. And then he also says it’s like a man who sells all he has to own the perfect pearl….seriously? You can’t eat a pearl. A pearl will not keep you warm at night. But Jesus says the kingdom is treasured above all things…it is the most valuable thing we can possibly imagine. More precious that all that we have.
And then, finally…Jesus says the kingdom is like fishermen who use a dragnet….who indiscriminately catch all the fish — and haul them ashore, and simply throw to waste the ones they don’t want. I don’t know about you…but many fisherman I know think that is the most unethical way to fish. It’s wasteful. But the kingdom isn’t about being cautious…it’s about bringing absolutely everything into it’s nets.
Yes, this is the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says. And then, my favorite part of the gospel this morning is when Jesus asks his disciples, “have you understood all this?”…and they, of course, reply “Yes”. Somehow….I doubt it. Because for 2000 years we’ve all been scratching our heads, puzzling and puzzling til our puzzlers are sore….trying to figure out Jesus is getting at. So now, I’ll ask you? How would you answer Jesus? Have you understood all this? Or is your puzzler sore, too?
There are more sermons to be preached on this odd assortment of parables than I can imagine…and each one will capture a glimpse…a small piece of what the kingdom might mean. But maybe that’s the point. We can’t understand. We can’t plumb the depths of these parables and lay out a clear picture of the kingdom. Basically, what we take from this is that we simply won’t be able to grasp God’s way of doing things. Because no matter how hard we try, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways are not our ways. In our world, God’s way is irrational and subversive and sneaky and passionate and wasteful and foolish.
But guess what? That’s the place we are invited to live. Here. Now. Among us…around us…with in us. You know, we become so acclimated to the way things work in the “real world”, that we miss the kingdom. We miss the love of God happening among all the farmers and bakers and fishermen and treasure seekers in our midst We miss the love of God changing the world through ordinary people who do crazy things. People who are like that fisherman, who welcome people indiscriminately, not judging first, but letting things sort out later. People who are like the treasure hunter, who recognize what is precious in ordinary fields and get carried away with joy. People who are like the woman, and who remind us that something little…like kindness maybe, can affect big things…mixed into it and changing it forever…and maybe matter a whole lot more than our purity and religious practice. And people like the pearl buyer…who treasure what is beautiful more than what is practical. And people who are like the schizophrenic farmer…who foolishly spread goodness even where it seems underserved and unwelcome…and who aren’t worried about keeping the “bad people” out, because they recognize that there is good and bad in all of us…and who actually plant weeds themselves, compromising their own crop, to care for the birds…or provide shelter and care for others who might need it.
Yes, these people are crazy…and the kingdom of heaven is foolish. But here’s the rub — we will only find it’s joy for ourselves, when we allow ourselves to be swept up in its foolishness as well. That, for many of us, for me….is a scary thought. I like things to make sense. To be practical. To be reasonable. But you know…every once in awhile, when I actually get it….when I actually have a moment where I truly glimpse the radical depth and breadth of God’s love….the love that nothing can deter…nothing can stop. The love that we cannot be separated from …not by death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor all the what ifs or anything else in all creation. When I catch just a glimpse that unreasonable and absolute love, I realize that Jesus’ kind of foolishness in the face of the world’s madness is our only hope. Foolish welcome. Foolish joy. Foolish appreciation for beauty. Foolish welcome. Foolish generosity. Foolish kindness. And that…is just a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.