In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom, He is describing the observable, emergent reign of God- the condition marking a change from what we know now to that which we will know when we see the signs He describes. Jesus uses simile after simile to describe what the Kingdom looks like….symptomatic images, and clues.
When we hear Jesus speak of the Kingdom, we may first assume that He is describing the features of a finished product or completed project. He’s not. Jesus is describing the signs of a process underway and headed for completion. Much of Jesus’ Kingdom-talk describes the first manifestations of God’s sovereignty being established rather than the finished appearance of God’s reign having been completely established.
At times, Jesus’ Kingdom-talk describes an agricultural or botanical image that translates more or less effectively, and other times He describes strobe-flash moments when we see something we haven’t seen before, and instantly understand the holiness of it as the image burns itself into our mind’s eye. Whether it is a familiar, almost intuitive, reference or a flash-illuminated surprise, the signs we see are the Kingdom, and Jesus encourages us to look for such signs.
The signs Jesus uses are wonderful:
We get a mustard plant- a hardy persistent ditch weed. We get yeast, a small amount of which, unseen, changes a volume much larger than itself as it leavens bread dough.
We get a windfall treasure discovered while land shopping, and the astute real estate buyer who closes the deal before the hidden treasure can be discovered by anyone else.
We get a single pearl worth selling everything else to obtain.
We get a net that catches everything, and having caught everything, the catch is sorted.
As varied as these images are, they all point toward the emergent reign of God, and more importantly, they point toward the commitment required of us as Kingdom people.
Perhaps the pearl merchant and the mustard say it best: the pearl merchant is willing to “go all in.” The pearl merchant stakes everything else he has to obtain the one pearl he desires. That kind of commitment is required of Kingdom people; we are all called to live an “all-in” life. The pearl merchant sees the great beauty of the pearl, and hedging no bets, he puts everything into obtaining it. The pearl merchant finds the pearl of great value and commits to it completely.
The mustard demonstrates persistence of commitment. Mustard is not any of the things Jesus says about it- He’s making a joke that contemporary hearers would have gotten…a wink-wink, nudge-nudge joke….and His first hearers would have chuckled. Mustard’s value as a Kingdom simile is its persistence; it is a common ditch weed. It lives in crevasses at the edge of pavement and in roadside swales and ditches. I have seen mustard growing from beneath stones at the edge of a long stairway leading up to The Church of The Visitation at Ein Karem just outside Jerusalem….a few grains of dirt and an occasional spritz of rain, and it flourishes completely absent any attention or cultivation. Its flower is beautifully delicate and its root and stem are prodigiously robust.
Commitment manifested over time. Persistent commitment. That is where Jesus sees the Kingdom of His father. We see the pearl merchant make his commitment, and in the back of our heads we wonder: “What if he’s wrong?” Such a cautionary question may be prudent and diligent, but it is not Kingdom behavior. If that flickering thought gives us pause, we are not ready for the Kingdom. The Diocese of North Carolina knew this when they adopted their nine word mantra of Christian discipleship:
“All we are, All we have, All the time.”
The implications are vast, and they apply whether we are talking about proportional giving or personal prayer and study or public witness for Jesus. This is commitment that overrides reason in favor of faith. This is commitment that wants to deepen the covenant we have with God and one another. This is personal commitment that knows the Kingdom comes one person at a time, and desires that that personal time be now.
Cecil Spring-Rice knew it when he wrote his own beautiful Kingdom-talk:
And soul by soul, and silently, her shining bounds increase.
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.
Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, Sunday, 27 July 2014, being The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost