Five parables in as many sentences, five snapshots, five visions of the kingdom of Heaven. But how are we to make sense of such a variety of visions, how are we to avoid being overloaded with imagery, conflicting, confusing ideas of the kingdom, which now feels more incomprehensible than ever before.
Don’t mix your metaphors, we are always told. Sir Desmond on Yes Minister was famously heard to remark:
“If you spill the beans, you open up a whole can of worms. How can you let sleeping dogs lie, if you let the cat out of the bag? Bring in a new broom, and if you're not careful, you'll find you've thrown the baby out with the bath water. If you change horses in the middle of the stream, next thing you know you're up the creek without a paddle.”
Make sense of that, if you can.
Just last week, on the final of The Apprentice, Jim was asked to describe himself simply, without the use of clichés. He said, after due consideration, “I do exactly what it says on the tin”.
The truth of the matter is, that when faced with a difficult question, with the task of describing something complex and convoluted, we can often be found resorting to imagery, allegory, to parables. If you want to get really postmodern, it’s what I’m doing right now. Jesus is no different, realising that for his teaching to be effective and understood, we need concepts like the Kingdom of Heaven to be explained in terms that we understand, with reference to everyday life – mustard seeds and yeast, rather than a description of the cosmic glory of God.
Usually these parables of Jesus take the following form. Someone asks a question, Jesus tells a story rather than giving a direct answer, then his disciples take him aside and ask him to explain it, as they’ve missed the point. The meaning is spelt out to us, the literary device of the Gospel writer makes it clear to us what Jesus means. Today’s Gospel reading, however, gives us quickfire images – snapshots, a mixture of metaphors. The Kingdom of Heaven is a seed that turns into a tree, yeast that leavens all the flour, treasure hidden in a field, a merchant in search of pearls and a fishing net.
Vivid pictures indeed but somewhat hard to unpick. This is a passage which might well benefit from another read at some point, further thought and perhaps discussion. I’d like to venture a couple of points that might prompt this.
- Firstly, Jesus doesn’t say anything as clear cut or as simple as, “The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where you go when you die, full of friendly people and where England beat Australia at cricket every time they play”. Rather, he gives us the image of the person who found some treasure in a field – rather than take the treasure and rejoice that he has found it, he buys the whole field. The treasure stays put. Who knows – the field may be full of it. No rapture, no separate treasure trove. Uri Gagarin was looking in the wrong place – the Kingdom of Heaven is here, it is now, it is among us.
- Secondly, we are not passive bystanders. If the Kingdom of God is among us, bursting forth into the timeline of the human story, then we are the yeast, the leaven, at work in the world. We have the potential, living as forgiven people, to enable God’s work in the world, to bring about all the age-old descriptions of heaven here on earth.
- Thirdly, we are commissioned to do so. We are scribes – trained for the Kingdom of Heaven, charged with bringing the best out of our society, our world, each other. Now that might be what Mr Cameron describes as partaking in the ‘big society’ – doing our bit for each other, but it might also be getting out on the streets and demonstrating against injustices in the world. Against the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world, against the ways in which multinational corporations are systematically exploiting the natural resources of the planet. We are commissioned to summon in the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.
But where is God in this, you ask. If we can do nice stuff to each other and make the world a better place, who needs God? I point us back in the direction of today’s Gospel reading. God is the beginning, the alpha – the mustard seed, and God is the end, the omega, the branches extending and providing shelter and safety, shade and comfort for all. All things begin and end with God, and in between, encompassed by his love, we live and move and have our being.
At a time when our thoughts and prayers are rightfully with the victims of and the families affected by the recent attacks in Oslo, it is more important than ever that we turn our attentions to bringing about visible signs of God’s Kingdom, present here on earth. One of those is being here, together, partaking together in this heavenly banquet, united together as Christ’s body here on earth, but what we do out there is just as important. Jesus calls us – scribes – training for the kingdom of heaven – to train others and to recognise them as fellow treasure, buried together in the field, waiting to be found.
Having just mixed my metaphors, I should draw to a close. But first, Belinda Carlisle.
They say in heaven love comes first, we'll make heaven a place on earth. Ooh heaven is a place on earth.