The Kingdom of Heaven is a Verb

From the Revised Common Lectionary reading for Sunday, 27 July, 2014:

31 [Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 ESV)

“The kingdom of heaven is like…” Jesus does a lot of speaking in parables. A lot of comparing. A string of similies hung together, each bearing witness to some aspect of God’s coming kingdom. (As a general rule, Jesus uses the term “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew, and “Kingdom of God” elsewhere, though Heaven is found only in Matthew and God is used heavily in Luke to describe the same oncoming reality.)

Note what’s going on here. The kingdom of heaven is not a noun. It is not like a seed, or leaven, it is like a very tiny seed that a man takes and plants, a seed buried in the ground which then grows tall enough to provide shade, and a home for the birds. And again, this kingdom is like leaven — a packet of yeast — mixed through a mess of flour and water so that the leaven itself is lost but allows this mess of flour and water to rise. It is this whole process, from beginning to end.

For people is Jesus’ time (and for much of human history), this leavening, this germinating and sprouting, was a mystery. You could do the work, prepare the ground, mix the flour and the water, and then take that tiny seed and put it in the ground, but there was a whole that the planter, the baker, simply had no control over. There was a lot of waiting, and watching, and hoping. Under the right conditions, the seed would sprout and grow, the leaven would mix and make the flour and water into proper bread dough.

Like with last week’s readings, there’s a lot of work that is simply done all by itself. I won’t call it magic, but there’s a lot of labor we simply cannot do. We can prepare ground and plant seed, we can mix flour and water and work leavening through it, but in the end, the real work of this kingdom — the growing, the rising — is beyond us. It’s a mystery we cannot control.

UPDATE — This also suggests there is something deeply hidden about the working of this kingdom. Leaven, in this context, is like sourdough starter. Worked through, the leaven itself disappears into the dough so there is no distinction. The mustard seed is tiny, and is destroyed as the plant grows. Again, in both instances, the central thing working or being worked on in these parables disappears, and does its work mysteriously, ceasing to exist independently as it does so. Not sure quite what that means, but it is something to contemplate.

So far, so good. But what about the rest of these parables? “The kingdom of heaven is like” a treasure hidden in a field, which a man finds and then hides again. He then goes out and buys the whole field. Or it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who sells all he has to buy one pearl of great price. Or it is like net thrown into the sea that brings up all sorts of fish, some of which will be kept and some tossed back (or thrown away, τὰ δὲ σαπρὰ ἔξω ἔβαλον). Again, in these short parables, we have action. In the case of the treasure and the pearl, we have the discovery of something hidden, something so worthwhile that twice, finders sell all they have to acquire them.

In the case of the treasure, this boggles the imagination. If I found a treasure in a field, I’d find some way to take it right then and there, lest someone else find it. Sure, it’s clever to sell all I have and then buy the field (this assumes there is a willing seller, but then too much reasoning and logic ruins these). What is clear in these first two is that what is sought is of such value that all is sold to acquire them.

I can’t help but see an allusion to crucifixion here, to the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are the treasure for which God gives of God’s-self, which God pays “all that he had” to buy. If this is an appropriate way of reading this passage of scripture, and of looking at the “kingdom of heaven,” then what is described in these second two parables is the process by which God redeems Israel — redeems us. Israel, the called-out people of God, is the treasure hidden in a field, is the pearl of great price, that must be redeemed by selling “all that he had” to buy it. Note, not buy it back, but simply buy it.

Finally, we have a parable of the end, very similar to the way Jesus described the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Fish are hauled in, and then separated into those worth keeping and those not worth keeping. Again, this is done by Angels “at the close of the age,” and not by the fish themselves, while evoking Jesus’ calling of the first disciples in Matthew 4:18-22. (There are no sleeping slaves in this parable.) Again, this sorting will result in a burning (ick!) and a “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The coming judgment is a harsh and terrible thing, in which God’s angels will separate weeds from wheat, bad fish from good.

But I’m honestly not sure what to do with the last bit. “Therefore let every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” There is something of a prefiguring of the Great Commission here, I think, at least that’s what I hear in this short passage. But it is also the last of “the kingdom of heaven is like” parables as well. Which means we who have been told these things, we scribes who have been trained for the kingdom, are also masters of sorts. And we have treasure. It’s the new and old here that throw me, that I am uncertain about. Perhaps this saying is a command to keep Jesus’ teaching fully grounded in the teaching of the prophets to Israel, in the story of Israel and Israel’s encounter with God. That this new thing Jesus is doing is not a departure from Israel’s story, but a continuation.

That’s just my musing on it. Clearly, I’m going to just have to sit with this for a bit, and see what sense it continues to make.