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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

What’s Next?

I began this blog in January 2016 as a response to a Facebook challenge to share some thoughts each week about each book in the Bible. For many years I’ve made it a habit to read the Bible through, starting with the first chapter of Genesis on New Year’s Day and ending with the last chapter of Revelation on New Year’s Eve. So I was intrigued by the additional challenge presented by attempting to write down my thoughts about what I was reading. The experience has been both more challenging and more rewarding than I expected, and one I would enthusiastically recommend to anyone who might be interested in growing in understanding of and relationship to God.

It as been a challenge to write something every week, whether I felt like it or not. This became particularly evident as I neared the end of the project. I was already a little behind schedule when I finished the Old Testament, because I decided to do most of the Book of the Twelve separately rather than in one post. The results of the election caused a flare-up of existential depression and spiritual malaise for me, where I lacked the energy to do much of anything, and so I skipped a few weeks in November. Many of the New Testament letters are very short, meaning that by December, I was reading through several books a week and sometimes more than one in a day. As a result, I found that in order for me to finish the project by December 31, I had to write at least one blog post a day during the final week of December. But I did finish, and I’m glad I did.

When I began this project, one of my goals was to write for those who are confused by or even repelled by the Bible. I think that having a relationship with God is of great benefit, and I’m saddened to see many people decide that God is irrelevant, even as they struggle with problems with which I think God would be happy to help. But I was also writing for myself when I tried to find the good news in every book of the Bible, even the dark ones. I found that even when I thought there was only bad news to be found in a particular book, once I started writing I’d be surprised by where my thoughts led me. Especially in the last weeks of December, when I was spending several hours each day writing in order to finish, I found that my mood generally lifted after writing, and I felt encouraged. I think that was a God thing; at least I hope so. And so I plan to continue this blog in 2017, whether anybody reads it or not. I’m not yet sure what kind, if any, outline I’ll follow in choosing what to write about.  But I’ll think of something.

I enjoy reading and studying the Bible.  Through its stories of people trying to understand and relate to God, it helps me draw closer to God. I also enjoy learning what scholars have learned about the Bible through studying its historical and cultural backgrounds, archeology, and ancient languages. I find that helps me understand the confusing and contradictory parts in a way that enhances, rather than undermines my faith. I don’t agree with either the people who worship the Bible with the kind of rigid literalism that elevates it to a fourth member of the Godhead. Nor do I agree with people who practice an equally rigid literalism and want to throw the baby out with the bathwater by concluding that any inconsistency makes it totally worthless.

There’s a (maybe apocryphal but still true) story about Karl Barth being asked to summarize the theological conclusions he’d drawn over his lifetime. He answered, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so”.

I tend to agree.