Today’s gospel reading concludes our foray into the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. For three weeks in a row now, we have heard parables that describe God and God’s kingdom which Jesus had come to preach and teach. The reckless sower who is impartial about the type of soil in which he sows his seed. The reality that bad seed gets sown in with good seed, that evil will continue to coexist with good until the end of the age. The first two weeks of these parables taught us that the ways in which God establishes divine rule in our world is contrary to our human sensibilities – the order and control that so dominates our thinking about the way things ought to be is upended in both the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.
And today, Jesus shifts from speaking about the God of this kingdom to the kingdom itself – the kingdom is like a mustard seed or leaven hidden in the flour. Both seemingly insignificant, small, miniscule, yet the mustard seed produces a large enough shrub to house birds and the leaven extends the three measures of flour into enough bread to feed hundreds of people at a feast. The kingdom of God is like that. It begins as a small, seemingly insignificant presence but it spreads, exponentially, infiltrating the lives of those whom Jesus touches, heals, teaches, eats and drinks with.
“The kingdom of heaven is like…”
I wonder how you would finish this statement. Do you recognize the kingdom when you see it? Is the kingdom here, now? Is it something we aspire to, something we build, something yet to come? What, exactly, is the “kingdom of heaven?”
I remember a painting I saw as a child. The predominant colors were golds and yellows and soft whites. Jesus stood on a hill, face lifted up and looking away from the viewer, arm extended toward the sky as if beckoning us to look where he looked. Beyond his hand, there was a break in the clouds and there within the clouds was a heavenly city, perfectly built, clean lines and orderly buildings. This kingdom of God’s was a place, the territory of God’s reign was in heaven, disconnected from the earth on which I stood. It was “up there” or “out there” somewhere, undetectable by the naked eye. It has been years since I have seen that painting and yet the image has remained with me. It seems so contrary to what we hear of in the gospels and the images that Jesus describes to help his hearers understand what it is.
Perhaps the artist of that painting fell prey to the same trap that so many of us fall into. We hear the word “kingdom” and it conjures up empires that are rooted in a particular place, a locality that can be drawn or marked on a map, a territory with borders and guards and all the structures that maintain a way of life that belongs only to those within. I suspect that this is not what the gospel writers had in mind when they used that word. It seems better translated as the rule or reign of God. And the reign of God transcends the borders of all earthly kingdoms and empires, is inclusive of all territories and localities.
The reign of God is like… a mustard seed, small and insignificant. In first-century Palestine, it was considered an unruly weed. A seed would drop, or be blown away in the wind and as soon as it found its way into the earth would germinate and grow, and soon would be nine feet tall – a shrub masquerading
as a small tree, providing shelter to birds. This was not the way Jesus’ early followers expected the reign of God to be established. Once again, Jesus’ parable subverts the common expectations, turning upside-down the anticipation of a powerful imperial rule on earth. The reign of God was not the coming of an earthly theocracy. No, the reign of God is like yeast hidden in three measures of flour, permeating the dough as it’s kneaded, causing it to slowly rise and expand to produce a bounty of bread.
Both of these parables suggest that the reign of God is not a thing or a place that will be revealed in some cataclysmic event at some undefined moment in the future. To be sure, each of the Gospel writers hold in tension a present and future dimension of the reign of God, and this is especially true in Matthew. There is a future reckoning that will come, a time when the seeds of the gospel will be ready to be harvested. But that harvest is not disconnected from the here and now – seedlings of God’s reign have taken root, they are sprouting and bearing fruit in our world and in our lives.
Sometimes, I wonder if it’s easier for us to hold onto that image of Jesus standing on a hill, pointing toward the kingdom in the sky. If the “kingdom of heaven” was “up-there” it would surely be easier to explain the presence of evil and injustice that permeates our world. We may find that we would not be left with so many questions about why God would allow tyrants to maintain the power they do, why black and brown people are murdered in our streets, why children are locked in cages. We could understand that these things happen because God is not presently “here” but is “out there” somewhere, waiting for the right time to bring the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
And yet, these parables of Jesus have something to say to those of us who get caught up in that kind of thinking. They encourage us not to despair when we find it difficult to perceive the fullness of the reign of God among us. Jesus assures us in these parables that the reign of God is not only present but is growing even now and that what it will become in its fullness will surpass all expectation.
The reign of God is manifest in us – we embody it every time we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned. We embody it in the care we offer to those around us, in the phone calls we make to those we’ve not seen in months, in the steps we march alongside those demanding justice. And in each of those acts, we plant the seeds of the gospel in new soil where the reign of God takes root – yes, it may seem small and insignificant, but like the mustard seed and the yeast, it will produce a divine bounty beyond anything that we could fathom.
I wonder how you would describe the reign of God? What signs do you see of it? What seeds of the gospel are you sowing? And I wonder, what seeds of the gospel is God sowing in you? Do you feel the leaven of the reign of God permeating your life?
May we have eyes to see and ears to hear the abundance of God’s mercy that strengthens us and makes us holy.