• Michael Van Dusen

The kingdom of Heaven is like... a contradiction July 26, 2020

The Kingdom of heaven is likea contradiction. It subverts the usual order. The gospel for July 28th (Matt. 13: 31-33, 44-52) includes four mini parables about the nature of heaven as a reversal of the first observation or expectation. The Kingdom of heaven is also about ‘things hidden’.

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Jesus put before them 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.” Mustard is a weed. The tiny seed sometimes hid in bags or pots of other seeds. Farmers would unintentionally seed the mustard with their other grains, then have to pull the plant from their fields when the sprouted.


It is not actually the “greatest” tree, but the point is the size of the seed in relation to the mature plant, which would dwarf the grains seeded with it. The mature size also contrasts the shrub’s small beginnings and also its value to birds, if not the farmer.

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Then, 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.” Yeast (or leaven) is a fungus… in the same family as mold, which spoils food. Yet, here, it is a positive force because a very little bit causes the bread to rise… (Yeast ferments the sugars in the flour and releases carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide cannot escape because the dough is elastic and stretchable. The expanding gas causes the dough to inflate or rise.)… The metaphor suggests that heaven ferments from within us and within community.

(In a comment on this particular mini-parable, Warren Carter in Matthew and the Margins: A sociopolitical Reading, wrote, “If a person is well-adjusted to a sick society, then corruption is the only path to wholeness.”)

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“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.”


During threat of war or unrest, people buried their valuables to keep them safe. It was plausible that a person who buried their valuables forgot the exact location over time or they were captured or killed. It seems that the main character in this mini parable stumbled on the treasure in someone else’s field. (What was he was doing digging in someone else’s property? People debated whether the would-be purchaser had a duty to tell the field’s owner. The parable assumes that he did not.) The present owner had no knowledge of the treasure. Or like the Pharisees and the Scribes of Jesus day, who saw and heard Jesus, but did not recognize him for who he was, perhaps the owner did not appreciate the value of what was in his field.


The real point of this mini parable is that he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. The hidden treasure…the kingdom of heaven… is worth more than all his other possessions combined.

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“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.” Unlike the previous story, in which the main character happened on the treasure, the main character in this story has been questing for an elusive pearl. Like the other parables in this set, the pearl… kingdom of heaven …is not obvious, but it is so valuable that it is worth all that he had.

In these last two mini parables, the kingdom of heaven is not obvious, but it is of such great value that someone who understands what they have found, would be willing to sell all they have to possess it.

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These last two mini parables ring true to me. Many years ago, when I was a financially struggling university student, I was at a friend’s house for a party. One of the other guests had brought a Martin guitar and my friend asked me to tune it and sing. [A Martin guitar is one of the finest instruments of its kind, the equivalent of a Stradivarius violin.] It seemed strange that someone would have this amazing instrument but not know how to tune it. The sound it made was like acoustic silk. After a few songs, I asked how he had come to have this instrument. He told me that he had lent a friend some money and the friend couldn’t pay him back, but he offered him the Martin as settlement. He said that he didn’t know how to play but he intended to learn. At the time I had about $800 in the bank, to last me the balance of the term, but I offered to buy the Martin from him for the $800. Sadly, he declined, knowing that it was worth far more, even if he didn’t know how to play it. I didn’t know how I would have afforded to live for the balance of the term, but I did know that the Martin would have been worth the struggle.

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The message of Jesus’ stories seems to be that the kingdom of heaven is something that isn’t recognizable or even valued by many. The birds valued the mustard tree. The baker valued the leaven. The discoverer of the treasure or the pearl were the only ones to comprehend the value of what they found. Others either ignore the what they see or treat it as a nuisance.

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· Which of these mini parables is the “most relatable” to you in your own life and experience?

· The subversive elements of these parables are subtle, yet real. How does your life express this?

· What do you value about your faith that is hidden from others? Is it peace? Trust in the face of adversity? A sense of personal alignment with the Spirit? Something else?

· The challenge of selling all that you own to acquire something, even the kingdom of heaven, is daunting. Yet, in some ways, that singular decision is simple when compared to the challenge of making hour by hour decisions to “invest” in the kingdom of heaven. What is one, additional, investment that you could make?

Peace

Michael

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