Parables of the Kingdom
I think the disciples must have been a bunch of liars. “Have you understood all this?” Jesus asked, and they answered, “Yes.” That’s quite a bold claim, that I don’t think I could make. Could you? I imagine I could (and probably will) spend years wrestling with this cluster of parables. What is the “kingdom of heaven” like, or as was said in the introduction to our scripture reading, what is the “Realm of God” like? In today’s reading we have five different parables trying to begin to answer that question. The one thing I DO understand from this, is first that the Reign of God is possible, and second, that it is a process with humble beginnings, and not an instant event. This fills me with hope, and strengthens me for the journey.
Let’s start by looking at the opening line of these five parables:
- The Reign of God is like a mustard seed that was planted
- The Reign of God is like yeast that was mixed
- The Reign of God is like treasure hidden in a field
- The Reign of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls – wait, did you think it was like the pearl of great value? I did at first, but that’s not what Jesus actually said.
- The Reign of God is like a net that was thrown in the sea – wait, not the fish or the fisherfolk? Ah, more to think about!
What do you notice? I notice that they all involve action – planting, mixing, hiding, searching, throwing. There is nothing passive about the Reign of God. And if you think about who is doing the action, they are all ordinary people – the farmer, the baker, the small landowner, the small merchant, the fisher. How do we know the landowner and the merchant are “small”? Because they had to sell everything else they owned to get what they wanted. Neither of them had money to burn.
The audience to whom Jesus spoke in Roman Palestine was likely just such people. They were a conquered people, oppressed by the Roman Empire and a social system that valued some lives more than others. They were of the Jewish tradition and had faith that God would restore justice and send a Messiah to save them. Most probably expected this to be a military leader who would rise up suddenly to crush and punish their oppressors because that was what power looked like in the world they knew. Jesus turned those expectations upside-down.
What does power look like in the world we know? Does it still rest with a wealthy elite as it did in Roman times? The idea that 1% of people hold 90% of the world’s wealth might suggest such a thing. Is social order maintained largely through violence as with the Romans? Some of the footage from Portland, Oregon lately suggest that it is true for our neighbours to the south, and footage of an RCMP officer with her foot on the back of a medical student in need of help gives us pause here at home. Are there still some people whose lives seem to matter less than others in our social system? We would like to think not, but ask the mother of a black man, or notice that Canadian prisons contain a disproportionate number of indigenous people, and you may have to think again.
Let’s put that on hold for a moment and go back to our parables. Look at the objects in the parables. Mustard plants come in a number of different varieties, but the one that grew most commonly around Galilee was Black Mustard, which was basically the dandelion of Roman Palestine. Yes, it can be good to eat with the right preparation, and yes, it has medicinal value, but it would be foolish to deliberately plant it in your garden! Yeast, of course, is universally present, even in the air. But also, yeast was avoided on Jewish high holy days, when unleavened bread was eaten, so it is an interesting choice of an image by Jesus.
The treasure might seem extraordinary, but the field it was buried in seems like an ordinary field. Plus burying one’s money to keep it safe was also a common practice among ordinary people of the time. Robbers, soldiers and tax collectors couldn’t raid your house and take everything away from you if your savings were safely hidden in your field. The fishnet and fish were definitely common things, especially on the seashore, where Jesus was when he told these particular parables.
The only thing that doesn’t really fit the mould of common objects is the “pearl of great value”. Pearls were one of the most valuable of all gems in the Roman Empire – remember this was in the days before the process of culturing pearls had been developed, so they were extremely rare. In fact, they were so valuable and so in demand among the Roman aristocracy, that there was a movement in the Roman Empire to ban all people considered “unworthy” from wearing pearls. Ah, now this is starting to sound more like a Jesus image – the lowly merchant surely would have been deemed “unworthy” by the empirical powers.
Jesus spent a lot of time talking about and talking with the humble and lowly. He raised up those who had been cast down by society, sometimes literally, such as when he made the lame walk again, sometimes figuratively, when he said things like “blessed are the poor in spirit”. Certainly, in these parables, he is raising up the ordinary as being a part of the Realm of God. He is also calling his listeners to action, to active participation in the Realm of God, but life-affirming action, not military action. The judgement and the punishment of the oppressors is not our job. The angels, we are told, will take care of that in the end.
The job of the farmer, the baker, the small landowner, the small merchant, and the fisher is to use their skills for the growth and discovery of that which is good. Those who have been trained for the kingdom, who have an understanding of God’s Realm, are “like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” We bring what we have to God’s work of love in the world. We start with small things and let it grow. We prepare ourselves that we may be called to leave behind all we have and know, to give it all up for a new kind of treasure, the treasure of God’s love and justice. We also recognize that the Realm of God takes time and effort. It does not magically appear.
Back to the question of what does power look like in the world we now know? Is wealth, physical dominance and racial or class supremacy really power? If it is, how can it all be brought to its knees by a tiny virus-like Covid-19 that isn’t even technically alive? The power to stop that virus lies in the ordinary acts of love by ordinary people, such as staying home when we can, keeping our distance, and wearing a mask when needed. The heroes of the here and now are the medical staff, the grocery store workers, the cleaning staff at businesses and institutions everywhere, and the medical researchers seeking vaccines and cures.
The Realm of God starts in small and ordinary acts by ordinary people. Environmental justice begins with simple acts like driving less and planting more. Racial justice begins with mothers of all races answering Floyd George’s cry for help and using whatever gifts or privilege they possess to help stop another person from being treated like they don’t matter because of the colour of their skin. Social justice begins with each of us standing up for those who are bullied or denied basic rights because of their economic background, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, age, or whatever category of “other” they have been shoved into.
The Realm of God is here, within our grasp, hidden within the ordinary. We need simply to take action and live into it.
May it be so.