A pearl you spot in the window of a jewelry store. A box of money you unexpectedly find while digging around in the garden of a house you are renting. A packet of yeast and several bags of King Arthur flour you got on sale at Market Basket – all of these are things Jesus says best illustrate the reign of God.
Not these things alone, of course, but these things with one or another of us acting absurdly in relation to them – that’s what makes for an illustration of the reign of God, Jesus says.
So one thing about these descriptions is, they are action-packed adventures. You and I are so intent on getting that pearl we go home and sell off every single thing we have. Lock, stock, and barrel, we pawn the silver, get the second-hand store to take the furniture, cash in the stocks, all this in order to be the one who owns – wait for it – not a single thing except that pearl.
And that cash box you dug up in the garden? Off you go to the bank to take all your savings and buy the house in order to get that box. How much was the box worth? Jesus doesn’t say.
So, are we damn fools? Apparently, it doesn’t matter if we are or not. What matters is our passionate and single minded focus on getting that treasure. We are all-in, without a qualm or a doubt, when we are kingdom folk.
And there’s that yeast. Well, the woman who had all that flour, and I mean a lot, warmed up that yeast and her arm muscles, kneading the whole kit and caboodle into enough bread to feed the town. Why did she do that? Jesus doesn’t say. No mention of famine here, nor is there any mention of a feast. Just a woman in her kitchen, gone mad on generosity and sharing. And this, said Jesus, is what the kingdom of God is like.
Why would you want to behave this way? According to Jesus, this is faith, doing faith’s works.
Not martyrdom, not self-sacrifice, not reading your way through the whole prayer book, not living a pious life. Not avoiding sin, not adhering to virtue, not living by the rules, not being good so God will be good to you. None of this is kingdom work, according to Jesus.
Kingdom, according to Jesus, turns everything we believe about right and wrong living upside down.
Kingdom work is eagerness, generous extravagance, not caring a fig for your stuff, risking everything for something new. Kingdom is a quest for something you’ve dreamed about, for something you found by surprise, a huge work to produce something nourishing. And you can take your pick of that list of somethings. Any of them will do, according to Jesus.What on earth can these things have to do God? People have always believed, and people STILL DO, that what God wants is obedience. Surrender, the evangelicals like to call it. Ugh, what an awful word to attach to God, who is all about freedom and love.
People have always believed, and STILL DO, that not being passionate is what God wants. Not longing for a life beyond the roles, the rules, the daily round.
Jesus turns that upside down, in every kingdom parable. And in every defense he makes of the greater faith of a prostitute than of a rich man, of an adulteress rather than pious men, of an unclean, bleeding woman rather than a rabbi in the synagogue, of a woman who has five husbands rather than of Temple itself.
These parabolic descriptions of the kingdom fall in a stream from Jesus’ mouth, according to Matthew. And it is worth noting, they are not all about riches and money.
The mustard seed is nothing. That’s the point of it. It’s small and has no value. And generally a self-sown, weedy thing. Yet it becomes a welcoming home for the birds of the air. And that is what the kingdom is like, Jesus says. Not so much a beautiful city as a sprawl you can call your real home.
And the woman with the yeast did not sell anything. She took her flour and her yeast and gave it all away as fresh-baked bread, to people she barely knew – the whole town. Ah, the aroma must have brought them in droves! What she invested was her energy and hard work. She gave herself.
So what do we learn about the kingdom of God? That the road there lies through your passions, and through your hard work to realize your dream. That your kingdom work is in pursuit of your happiness, not in duty or in chores, not in punching a clock. That you are drawn with your whole heart and soul to finding the kingdom. That the kingdom will fill your eyes, your nose, your heart’s desire, everything in you. And that you find the kingdom by surprise.
And I, for one, don’t live this way, except in moments. I am a creature of habits, deeply wired to be dutiful, and bound to family, which is something Jesus never once uses to describe the kingdom of God. But like all God’s children, I dream, I long for a better world, I long to rise. And herein lies my path to God, according to Jesus, who told Peter to leave family and duties, and to follow him.
All this I never learned in Sunday School. But it is Jesus’ teaching.
Image: Cross Keys Pub Sign. Painting on panel. Early 21st century. Great Britain. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.