Our reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew:
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
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He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. “Yes,” they replied.
He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)
There are so many beautiful themes in this week’s reading for us to dive into. First let’s consider the language here that refers to Jesus’ vision for human community as a “kingdom.”
Remember, Jesus’ gospel in these stories was not instructions for nor good news about a pathway to a post mortem heaven. Jesus’ gospel was good news that announced and called people to a new vision for human community in the here and now. A human community where those presently being marginalized and pushed to the undersides of society find a world that is safe, just, and compassionate for all.
The term “kingdom” combined the imperial culture of the Roman empire with the restoration hopes of the indigenous Jewish people of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee living under Roman imperial colonization. It is the language of that time and place. Today we rightly recognize the kingdom language as hierarchical and patriarchal. It is my studied opinion that we would harmonize more with Jesus’ vision of community cast in the gospels if we referred to this community in more democratic terms, in ways reflected in the democratic principles practiced in the book of Acts by early Jesus communities.
I also argue that the cosmic, post resurrection Jesus became the King of the early Jesus communities. Kingdom imagery was intended to help the church replace any earthly “king,” and make way for a more egalitarian community. Consider the following:
“And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.” (Matthew 23.9-10)
Don’t have kings among yourself, you have one King, Jesus. All of you are to relate to each other non hierarchically as equals:
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. (Matthew 23:8, emphasis added.)
Again, this language attempts to communicate egalitarian siblinghood and yet even this version only mentions “brothers.” Today, we might say “brothers and sisters,” or more simply “siblings.” We can push this language to be more inclusive of women and nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and other people, and still be in perfect harmony with the trajectory of the intention of the original egalitarian and non-hierarchical passage.
We’ll unpack the Mustard Seed parable, in part 2.