What is the kingdom of heaven like? There are few questions more worthy of our consideration, few questions so central to the teaching of the Old and New Testaments. One could say that the Kingdom of Heaven is what the entire Bible is about, from cover to cover.
And there were so many opinions about it in Jesus’ day. Since the time of Daniel, and then the Maccabees, and the development of the Pharisees and Essenes, a belief had grown that God would come miraculously, from God’s other-worldly place and establish an earthly utopia of peace, community, and everyone having enough. The ancient teachings of God’s people living the Torah and being a light to the nations remained alongside this teaching. People were so tired of oppression, so discouraged, that this other-worldly perspective was popular.
So when Jesus began to teach about the kingdom, he relied on parables. The kingdom does not lend itself to formulas, facts, expectations, or any of the ‘this-worldly’ or ‘other-worldly’ theologies. Jesus chooses stories, questions, metaphors, hyperbole – things with fuzzy edges, surprises and little humor.
To what would you compare the Kingdom of Heaven? It is like finding when you were cleaning out your attic, the technology stock you bought in the 1980s for $50 and suddenly realizing you are a millionaire. It is like the owner of DeBeers finally finding the perfect diamond and selling a billion dollar empire to have it. It is like the harassed physician tired of the medical insurance nightmares, selling home and BMW and finding bliss in a little clinic in Africa.
First, let’s get one point of confusion out of the way. When Matthew uses the term, “Kingdom of heaven,” he is referring to what is called the Kingdom of God elsewhere. He uses the Jewish deference to the name of God by substituting the word heaven, the place of God’s presence.
Sometimes we get confused between the kingdom of heaven and heaven as a place we go after we die. The Bible gives us precious little information about the after-life place, but it has been the subject of much poetry and story-telling since the first days of the church. So, put away images of somewhere-else heaven for a moment. The kingdom of God is right here. It is something of earth. Jesus, and the other schools of thought agreed about this much.
The kingdom of God was to be an earthly thing, a place where God’s glory would be made known and would be recognized by all. They misunderstood that it was for the people of Israel only, with Jerusalem as its center. They would be the rulers in the kingdom. They got ‘perfect peace’ and ‘enough for all’ mixed up with being on top of the heap. It is alluring to imagine that the kingdom is finally being in charge, in control.
So, to put the listeners just a little off balance, Jesus told parables, gave them word pictures, to try to break through what they thought they knew. We need parables today for the same reason. May these stories plant a seed in us which will grow into a tree to shelter the birds, and the nations.
Matthew 13 has seven parables in which Jesus tries to point at what the kingdom of God is like. Some of them are similar to each other, others have unique teachings. All of them are suggestive. None of them gives us a one-paragraph definition. Instead, they give us images to build a whole picture. Spiritual Directors and Life Coaches often use the technique of building a vision board. They have students sit down with magazines and clip out pictures or words which speak to them. Nothing else. Then mount them on a poster board to put up in their rooms to ponder, inspire and motivate. Matthew 13 is like Jesus’ vision board. No one image stands alone. No one image says it all. Together they capture an image of the passion of Jesus’ life!
Let’s look at just two of these parables. “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. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, she went and sold all that she had and bought it” (Mt. 13:44-46).
Staccato images. Some interpreters call them twin parables. But something I know about twins – however much they may look alike, they aren’t! Each one has its own way.
Let us begin with the ways in which these twin parables are alike. They have the same pattern – something of value is found. Then the finder sells all they have to purchase what they found. This simple pattern leads us to focus on the overwhelming value of the Kingdom of God, and its great cost to those who enter it. The cost of discipleship is simply everything – our whole lives – and worth every penny.
It reminds me of the story of the rich young person who came to Jesus to ask about what to do to inherit eternal life (or, kingdom of God). Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. A good answer, but the young person is not satisfied. It is not the thing of value he seeks. He knows there is something more. So Jesus gives him the rest of the treasure – go and sell all you have and give it to the poor. Unlike the heroes in our twin parables, he goes away sad. He does not recognize that he has found the perfect pearl. To sell everything and give it away is treasure!
To give up everything we know as valuable in this life doesn’t sound like a treasure, and not many are willing to try it! In these two parables, the finders go “all in” – they bet everything on this one thing of value. And Jesus says, this is what the kingdom is like.
So, the kingdom costs us everything. And it is worth everything. That’s what we have so far.
Now the differences. In the first parable, the finder is a worker, perhaps a client of a landowner. Clients, in Roman society were like serfs in the medieval feudal system. They worked the land of the landowner for the privilege of being included under their protection, which required rent as well as daily service to the landowner. It was only a step above slavery.
The renter discovers a treasure in the field, probably while working the land. It sounds a little bit odd, but in those days, people did bury treasure rather than keeping it in their houses where thieves could break in and steal. Had the renter been dishonest, he would have just stolen the treasure. But instead, he chose to do the legal thing and buy the property with which it was included.
This first finder was totally surprised by his fortune. He was not looking for it, but tripped over it, maybe literally. And he was overcome with joy. He knows he is a lucky man!
Some people find the kingdom of God just this way. By accident! George Hunsberger, a contemporary theologian, reminds us that when it comes to the Kingdom of God, we neither build it nor bring it. We are invited to enter it and receive it. That is exactly what this man did. He received it. He did nothing to earn his treasure. It came to him and he did what it took to receive it.
The second finder, was a diligent seeker. She was a pearl merchant, always looking for the perfect pearl. And when she finds it, she recognizes it immediately sells everything in order to have it. It was her life’s goal. She could die a satisfied merchant, just knowing she had found it!
Some people find the kingdom of God this way too. They seek in every church, every religion, read books, talk with people, looking for God’s presence, the place where God reigns. Many seekers find what they seek, even if they don’t know it. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt. 7:7).”
I remember the story which concludes C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. The world as they know it ends in this tale. And one particular follower of Aslan’s enemy finds himself in Aslan’s new kingdom. He is confused and dazed. But Aslan finds him and reassures him, that he had been seeking Aslan all his life, only under a different name. Now he had been found. He was welcome!
In terms of the kingdom of God – seekers find! And yet, people who aren’t looking for it find it too. There is no formula. We don’t make it happen. God comes to us, wherever there is an opening. And if we recognize the voice, the way, the spirit – if we recognize the value, we just have to change our whole lives for it.
I must confess that I am often more like the rich young man. I regularly let things much less valuable than the Kingdom of God take on ultimate importance in my life. I get distracted by the desire to do just the right thing to bring the kingdom of God, that I forget that is not my job. The kingdom is already here. I just have to welcome it, receive it, enter it. Whether seeking it or stumbling over it, the kingdom is among us already. The presence of God has never left us and never will.
“What is the Kingdom of Heaven like?” Jesus did not go to Websters Dictionary for a precise definition. Our life with God is better than the most breath-taking thing we can imagine. And it is not easily defined, for that would limit it. When we find the divine presence, nothing else can compare.
These little staccato stories challenge me into a daily awareness of the Kingdom of God breaking in all around me. It is there if I can lift my attention from lesser things. The Kingdom is around us. It may look tiny and powerless, but watch out! It is a God thing. And when God is in the middle of something, it gets wings.
We can see the Kingdom in every unemployed person who finds a job, every addict who gets sober, every child who stays in school and gets an education, even the mustard flower that grows from a tiny seed to a great and glorious plant. These are the treasures which keep our hope alive. They are around us, if we only open our eyes.
As Jesus said, the kingdom is among you! Open your eyes, open your arms, and get ready to change your life!