When you think about it, the Kingdom of Heaven is a funny idea. Clearly it is not like kingdoms on a map, where Heaven is this pink country, over here between the green and the purple ones. It is not like the plant kingdom or the animal kingdom. Heaven, which is Matthew’s way of saying “God” because, as a good Jew, he is shy about using the divine name, has to include all countries, all plants and animals. Because God created everything, and sustains it, and his sovereignty over it is unlimited and eternal. That is elementary biblical monotheism.
The Hebrew scriptures say that it really is that simple. But they also tell us, and our own experience confirms this, that from the human point of view, the picture is more complicated. And it is that complicated human situation that Jesus is addressing with his parables. Jesus isn’t a theologian, he’s a preacher. So the purpose behind his parables is not to convince people to get new ideas about God. It is to train them for the Kingdom of Heaven. It is to give them a way to follow that leads through the tangle of human complications to the simplicity of life in God, with God. It is to help to see how God really is present and active and working in the world around them, in their lives. The parables are meant to show people how to align themselves with the flow of God’s power, to go with it, and to let it carry them where God wants to go.
But when we hear parables one after another the way Matthew’s Gospel presents them, it seems that they are not all saying the same thing. For example, there are those that compare the Kingdom of Heaven to a person who discovers something unique and particular: a pearl of great price, or a field with a buried treasure. That person then goes and sells everything else that he has in order to purchase that one precious thing. But others say it is like something extremely common, a mustard seed or yeast in dough, that grows and accomplishes its purpose easily and naturally. Is it like the dragnet that catches every kind of fish in the sea, so that they can be sorted into good or bad, or like the one we had last week about the field where the wheat and the weeds are growing up together, and it does more harm than good to try separate them? If you were trying to turn these sayings into a consistent doctrine of what the Kingdom of Heaven is and how it operates, you’d have to conclude that Jesus is a pretty poor theologian.
But, again, that would be to misunderstand what the parables are trying to do. As we’ve said, they are not aimed at getting people to understand a concept, but to go in a different direction with their lives. I think it helps to see how this works if we imagine that Jesus spoke each of these parables on a different occasion. Each time, there were people in the audience who hadn’t been there before. Each time, the setting was a little different—a market town, a fishing village, or a farming community—and the situation was different—the news from the capital, the questions people asked, the things that had been going on in their lives. The parables seem to say different things because each circumstance and audience called for something different.
And, in particular, every person and every crowd that Jesus spoke to had its own form of resistance to his message. We all have our habitual, unexamined ways of thinking, which are a way of keeping God at a distance. So if you inviting people to get involved in their lives in a different way, to be a part of what God is doing in the world right now, you need words that take them where they don’t expect, and maybe don’t want, to go. The author of Matthew understands this, and he uses Jesus’ parables in a way that he thinks will have the most impact on his audience, and will speak to their situation. For his community of marginalized Jewish Christians, the parables manifest the unique importance of Jesus as a prophet and teacher. They speak to the mystery of why it is that so many of their brothers and sisters not only fail to understand his significance, but strenuously, even violently oppose it. Matthew makes the parables, with their unexpected reversals of meaning, a metaphor for the Gospel as a whole. He turns the drama of understanding or not understanding the parables into the prelude to the final judgment of the world. Matthew sharpens the parables into a sword, to cut through fear, confusion, and indecision and show how high the stakes are in this fight and to say that it is time to take sides.
And, just so we understand what he is doing, Matthew concludes this section on the parables in the following way: Jesus asks, "’Have you understood all this?’” and the crowd all answered, ‘Yes.’" (Again, the focus of the passage is that the people should grasp what they are hearing and decide about it for themselves.) 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.’" This could be a reference to Jesus, who quotes the law and the prophets, when it helps to get his point across, but also feels free to create surprising new teachings. But it could just as easily refer to Matthew himself, who has the audacity to write a new book of holy scripture for the sake of his community. He works creatively with all kinds of old material—the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, different collections of the sayings of Jesus, many would say the Gospel of Mark—and shapes them into a new story that he hopes will wake people up to see what they could not see and do what they fear to do.
This process didn’t stop with the writing of the Gospel of Matthew. The Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t frozen in that moment, like an insect in a lump of amber. It has kept growing, like the seed of a mustard plant, so the process of trying to communicate it hasn’t stopped either. And if we want to perceive the working of God in the world in our own day, to align our lives with it, and to help others to get into that flow, the question of what language to use looms large. What treasures can we bring out of the storehouse, both old and new, with the power to change the way we see, and the way we walk? Of course, as a preacher, I wrestle with this question almost every day. But I don’t think this is just my work, or just my responsibility. I’ve been trying to introduce it into the discernment conversation that is happening in formal and informal ways in our congregation right now—as we seek to clarify our shared understanding of who we are and what we need and what we are called to become, I keep wondering “what are the images and stories from our tradition that speak most powerfully to our circumstances?”
And this needn’t apply only to our life together in the parish. For our personal faith to come alive, and for us to become effective Christians in the world, we all need some training as scribes for the Kingdom of Heaven. I think some regular reflection on the scriptures, in private reading or familiar conversation, even if it is just to take the little lectionary insert from the bulletin home after church, to read again and think about it during the week can be really important. Not in order to construct a theological system, or to be able to quote verses for the sake of argument, but to rummage in the storehouse of our own imagination, to wonder about what those ancient people said, and why it was important to them and how it might be important to us. And if you are already doing this you know what kinds of surprising treasures you bring out of it, some of them old, and some of them new.