Deacon Ray is preaching this weekend at the Mass I am celebrating, so here is one from a past 17th Sunday, Year A.
The kingdom of heaven is like…. There are lots of parables that begin with those words. Maybe we can do a thought experiment – a kind of fill-in-the-blank thing. Keep your answers silent within your own thoughts. And since no one is listening, you can be completely honest with your answer. For you…. the kingdom of heaven is like……. What? (No hurry, I’ll wait….)
I suspect our answers cover a range of responses that are amazing. Some answers will focus on meeting God and joining the heavenly chorus of praise. Some thoughts will include pearly gates and St. Peter, followed by a fair amount of clouds/angels/harps/walking with Jesus. There will always be an overtone of peace, love and contentment – and rest. After this life, rest might just be a key theme.
“You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” (Augustine, Confessions) So, maybe our imaginings are variations of our rest and relaxation in this life. Maybe heaven is like a Saturday morning all to yourself, no to-do list, no one asking, “Mom/Dad, where is….” You have your coffee cup with the hummingbirds just outside the window. Maybe heaven is summer vacation from school. Maybe it is the family reunion with all your grandchildren surrounding you.
I would guess all of that is true in one degree or another. And all of that is incomplete in many varying ways. In the New Testament, Jesus has many parables and saying about the “Kingdom of Heaven.” The kingdom is like a shepherd having 100 sheep and loses one, a woman who misplaces a coin, a prodigal father with prodigal sons, a king whose son is getting married – and in today’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field…like a merchant searching for fine pearls…like a net thrown into the sea. Very different vision of the kingdom of heaven from our imaginings.
It was a very different vision than the people of Israel were hoping for. They wanted a top-down, benevolent dictator, fix everything kind of organization. “If only King David would return, he’d fix everything!” Sadly, the whole king-thing was ultimately a disaster for Israel.
When Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, he had a lot of perception to change. And so, he told parables. He told parables that had a subversive bent to them. Last Sunday we looked at the parable of the sower and the parable of the weeds. Weeds are not something you want in your garden crowding out roses and tomatoes. And yet these weeds, messing things up, are signs of God’s kingdom. We want things nice, we want to pull up the weeds. God wants us in the mess of the garden loving the roses and working with the weeds.
The “kingdom of heaven” parables are to remind us that the beginning of the kingdom is now – yes, obscured by weeds and our preconceived ideas, but there nonetheless. We are called to be people who, even if we stumble upon the kingdom, are called to act. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Or even if we have been looking for it all our lives. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” When we see it, we are called to be all-in and make our choice.
These parables are brief in scope. They are short on details. They tell us the kingdom of God is not easily discerned. You have to be looking and aware the kingdom looks nothing like our imaginings – as much as we want them to be. God is on the move in the here and now. We are called to keep up.
King Solomon, when asked for anything, he asked for Wisdom, “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” He didn’t keep up and became a cruel and harsh king who sowed the seeds of division and acrimony. He broke the country into two pieces, never rejoined. How about us? Are we keeping up with God revealing the kingdom in the here and now? When we get a glimpse of the kingdom, we are called to choose, act, and do what is needed.
The kingdom of heaven is like a foster home with kids and youth; when an adult finds out, they change their lives in order to be a mentor, guardian ad litem, and be the love of God for that one child.
The kingdom of heaven is a place with world-famous beaches, tourist attractions and sunny suburbs hiding an alarming secret: it is also a hotbed for human trafficking. Men, women and children are forced against their will to serve in the sex trade, domestic servitude and agricultural industries. How will we choose? How will we act?
The kingdom of heaven is like a family in which “Uncle Bob” is an alcoholic and no one else wants to upset the boat. It is like a family whose parents are being deported and the children sent to live with friends in hopes they can have a better life here in our country.
The kingdom of God is filled with grace and weeds, right and wrong. The kingdom of God is “like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus, it will be at the end of the age.”
The kingdom of God calls us to seek it out among the weeds, and when we find it, to choose and act so that in the end of days, we find ourselves sorted into the “good bucket” with all kinds of other fish, and not thrown away with what is bad.
The kingdom of God is a reminder we were born and formed to be people of God, building the kingdom of God in the here and now. We will truly rest only when we rest with God.