The Kingdom of Heaven: Pie in the Sky or Arc of the Moral Universe?

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Matthew 13:31-33; 44-53

I had a couple of ideas involving news stories as writing prompts this week, but decided to go back to the liturgical calendar for theological reasons. Karl Barth is widely quoted as saying that one should “read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other”, but there’s an important addition often omitted from that statement: “But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”. Newspapers, he says, are so important that ‘I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there is peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?’”

The problem (at least for me) in using news stories as writing prompts is that it winds up being primarily the news story that is speaking to me, rather than the Bible. It’s too easy for me to read a news story and think of related scriptural passages, and if I am entirely honest, to think mainly of those passages which support my point of view. Reading and reflecting on the Bible systematically forces me to think outside my own confirmation-bias boxes. And that, I think, is a major part of spiritual formation. We are not supposed to use God for our own purposes; we are supposed to be transformed by God.  Don’t be conformed to the pattern of the world, writes Paul to the Romans. Rather be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

In the Gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus uses several metaphors in an attempt to explain the Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God to his followers. Matthew prefers the term “kingdom of heaven” whereas Luke and Mark use “kingdom of God”. They refer to the same thing: the world as it was meant to be rather than the way it is. One explanation for the difference in terminology is that Matthew, who was Jewish, was uncomfortable using or even writing the name of God, whereas the Gentile writers Luke and Mark were not. The metaphor of the mustard seed is found in all three synoptic gospels; the leaven metaphor is found in both Matthew and Luke; and the metaphors of the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the fisherman’s net are found only in Matthew. (Click here for an interesting chart which compares the parables of Jesus in different sources).

Jesus often used metaphors and stories to explain concepts which were otherwise difficult for his listeners to understand. The writers of the gospels collected these sayings and stories and compiled them to suit their own unique narrative perspectives. I like stories. They are often truer than facts, and they frequently have the ability to speak across time and space. We can read the parables of Jesus today through our own lenses of life experience and longing, and they can speak to us where we are as meaningfully as they did to those who first heard them. Here’s what these parables of the kingdom are saying to me today.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like a mustard seed. It begins as something very small and seemingly insignificant, but it takes root and grows into something that cannot be overlooked, something which provides food and shelter to the birds who take refuge in its many branches. The mustard plant is rooted in the earth, not the sky, and it exists not only for itself, but to meet the needs of others. That’s how God designed the world to be. The kingdom of heaven is not so much “pie in the sky by and by” as it is God bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.    As N T Wright has written in “The Day The Revolution Began”, pie-in-the-sky theologies are a form of “Platonized eschatology” that bears little resemblance to the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. Although I certainly hope to enjoy pie at the heavenly banquet one day, the Kingdom of God is something that God intends to intrude into our present reality.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like a woman kneading bread. If you’ve ever kneaded bread by hand, you know that a fair amount of work is involved in the process. You don’t just toss the ingredients in a pan and wait for it to rise. You have to push and pull and manipulate the dough, adding additional flour or water as needed, until it is firm and elastic and no longer sticky. Only then do you wait for the yeast to work its magic and the bread to rise. Again, the metaphor implies that the kingdom of God starts small and grows into something big, but in this case human effort is also involved. God expects the effort and involvement of human beings in the bending of the arc of the moral universe to his design.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like buried treasure or a very expensive piece of jewelry. It’s valuable, but it is also costly. The person who finds hidden treasure forgotten in a field, or the merchant in search of fine gems, think that their finds are so valuable that they happily liquidate all their other assets. Do we feel the same way when it comes to following the way of life taught and modeled by Jesus? When we reduce the kingdom of heaven to a get-out-of-jail free card easily obtainable by assenting to a correct set of theological beliefs, we’re in danger of succumbing to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the fallacy of “cheap grace“. Not only that, we’re also in danger of missing out on the full value of the treasure God wants for us- and the entire created world- to have.

The kingdom of heaven is like a fisherman sorting his catch, keeping that which is good and getting rid of what is bad. Unlike the previous parables, this one implies that the road to the kingdom of God isn’t pot-hole free. In the words of Frederick Buechner,  “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid”.  I have vivid memories of “going shrimping” as a child growing up on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Shrimping involves casting out and pulling a large net behind a slow-moving boat for an extended period of time. After sufficient time had elapsed, we’d haul in the net and begin the process of sorting our catch. We kept the shrimp, crabs, and other tasty edibles, but threw back pinfish and other “trash” fish, along with rocks, oyster shells, and assorted useless debris. We had to watch out for stingrays, which were sometimes embedded in the nets, and could inflict a painful wound if you weren’t careful. Those we chopped up and used for crab bait. It’s interesting that this parable is the only one in this set that is given an explanation. The most interesting piece to me isn’t that there is an element of judgement, although I certainly hope not to be found useful only for crab bait. It’s that human beings aren’t in charge of the judging. God seems to cast a pretty wide net while trolling for citizens of his kingdom. Maybe we should, too.

 

 

 

Mark: The Kingdom is at Hand

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.”

Mark is the shortest of the four gospels and probably the first to be written. Tradition attributes it to John Mark, Simon Peter’s protégé, who was also possibly the young man who fled naked from Jesus’s arrest scene. Mark’s telling of the Jesus story certainly seems in line with the way I imagine Peter would have told it: action oriented and fast-moving.  There is an urgency in Mark’s gospel; he repeatedly uses the adverb “immediately” as he describes events unfolding. If I had to assign the four gospels Myers-Briggs types, Mark would be an SP. Mark is the Captain Kirk of the New Testament.

As I read the Bible, I try to strip away any preconceived notions of what something might mean, and put myself in the place of one hearing its words for the first time. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the good news” seems to have been central to the messages of both John the Baptist and Jesus. It’s really quite startling when taken at face value: the waiting is over. The long-promised and imagined reign of God begins here, now. Those who want to be part of it are instructed to “repent and believe the good news”. But how can this be the correct understanding?  It has been two thousand years since Jesus made this proclamation. I don’t see too many nations beating their swords into plowshares or wolves lying down with lambs, much less everyone living to a ripe old age under their own vines and fig trees. As Longfellow wrote, “Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men”

For many evangelicals, “repenting and believing the good news” means that once you agree to a correct set of theological propositions, and say the right words, you will go to heaven when you die instead of hell.  And although this salvation is a free gift from God, new converts usually quickly are confronted with a new set of behavioral rules, which can vary considerably among different churches. But I can’t get away from the fact that Jesus consistently preached that the reign of God had begun before his crucifixion and resurrection. In addition, he also claimed power to forgive sins prior to his death on the cross. In fact, proclamations like these were exactly what caused the orthodox religious establishment to push for the death penalty. I think Jesus meant exactly what he said: the kingdom of God begins here and now. His crucifixion and his resurrection sealed the deal and proved it.  If the reign of God hasn’t been realized in the way or as quickly as his earliest followers expected, it isn’t for lack of trying on God’s part. Religious history has often had a bad track record when it comes to understanding God and what he wants us to do in his name.

I think that the meaning of Jesus’s imperative to “repent and believe the good news” has been dumbed down to the point of being totally misunderstood, if not downright distorted. “Repent”does not simply mean to stop doing x and start doing y, nor does it primarily refer to emotional responses such as guilt, regret, or remorse. The root of the word  carries the idea of changing directions, of seeing everything completely differently. “I once was blind, but now I see”. Matthew, Mark, and Luke use the word “repent” to describe this process; John uses the metaphor of “being born again”. We might call it a paradigm shift. As I understand from Jesus’s teachings and actions, what we are to turn away from is the infantile idea that “the world ought to revolve around me” and the self-centered behavior that kind of thinking produces. Instead, as we begin to understand ourselves as part of a greater whole and begin to draw energy and purpose from God, our behavior becomes increasingly other-centered.

Similarly, “believe” does not refer to intellectual assent, but to actions congruent with trust and confidence in the object of one’s faith. “So then, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven and “You believe that God is one. You are doing well! Even the demons believe that, and shudder!”  

The good news is not just that there will be “pie in the sky bye and bye when we die”, although I certainly think there will be pie. If we who claim to “believe” in Jesus would do a better job of practicing what Jesus taught, we might find ourselves surprised by the results. Kindness is contagious, and the smallest acts of it can multiply exponentially. Imagine what the world would be like if more people attempted to follow the principles of the Greatest Commandment and  Golden Rule, which form the backbone of Jesus’s teachings. The world would indeed be a different place.

I think it’s a mistake to think that the kingdom of God is something meant only for the future, whether we think of that as something that will happen in the afterlife or something that will happen after Christ’s return. When asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” and What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

The reign of God has already begun, and the Kingdom of God is growing. The arc of the moral universe may be so long as to be imperceptible, but it still bends towards justice. God has already given us all we need for “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven” God trusts us enough to put the ball in our court. That’s exciting and amazing, and it’s good news to me.

 

 

 

Esther: For Such A Time As This

 

When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai,  he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai:  “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

Esther is an anomaly in the Bible in that it doesn’t directly mention God. For that, and other reasons, many Biblical scholars have questioned both its inclusion in the canon and its historicity. Martin Luther seems to have thought that it belonged more with the Apocrypha than in the canonical Bible.  In the Hebrew Bible, it is included in the third and final section, the Ketuvim (Writings).

I don’t think it matters whether the events described in Esther really happened or not. It may very well be historical fiction, but just because a story didn’t happen the way it is told doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I’ve always enjoyed fantasy and science fiction, in part because of the way these stories are able to pull readers out of the boxes of their own perceptions and see contemporary issues with new eyes. Well-crafted stories are timeless; they speak to us just as well today as they did yesterday, and will tomorrow. That’s what I think of as “eternal” truth.

Esther’s words to Mordecai in the passage above remind me of the Doctor Who episode, “Face the Raven”. Anticipating her own death as a result of her efforts to save another character, Clara says “Let me be brave”. Esther makes the choice to try and save her people, even though she is very aware that her attempt may prove fatal. Things turned out better for Esther than for Clara, but the truth behind both stories is that doing what is right is more important than doing what is easy or comfortable, sometimes critically so.

The eternal truth in the story of Esther  reminds me of Jesus’s words: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”  I doubt (and certainly hope!) that I will never find myself in a situation as dire and with consequences as far-reaching as the one in which Esther found herself. But if I am a serious follower of Jesus, I will find myself doing things, not because I want to do them, but because they are the right thing to do.

Paradoxically, I have found that as I strive to focus on being kind, helpful, and affirming to others, I find not only that I am more at peace with myself, but that there are sometimes surprising and wonderful consequences that follow. That’s what the story of Esther says to me, and what I think Jesus meant about losing your life in order to find it. And that’s good news to me.