He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. 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, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
It has been said that believing in God is a lot easier than talking about believing in God. I’m sure you too have had the experience, where someone asks you why you believe, or how your life is different because you believe, and there are just no words that are true enough, right enough, big enough to answer. Everything sounds either too vague or too pious. This isn’t something to be ashamed about though; how can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can mere words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of the incomprehensibility of God?
We don’t do it well, but we must still try. And we do this, we describe the holy by talking about the ordinary, and trusting that the listener will make the connections. Believing in God is like coming home, or like being born again. It is like jumping off a cliff, or getting struck by lightning, or like falling in love, or like having a strangely warmed heart. We cannot say what it is, but we can say what it is like.
This way of talking, for the English nerds among us, is called talking in metaphors: talking about one thing by referring to another. Sometimes these comparisons are comfortable and familiar: her eyes were sky-blue, or sea-blue. At other times, the comparisons are jarring or confronting. Her eyes were blue as a bruise, blue as depression. When these comparisons catch us by surprise, they make us stop and think. How in the world can these two things be alike? What do they have in common? How deep does this connection go? When comparisons catch us by surprise, our everyday understanding of things is broken wide open, and we are invited to explore them all over again, perhaps to find something new.
Our buddy Jesus did this all the time. Throughout the Gospels, particularly in Matthew’s Gospel, he was always making comparisons. Sinners are like lost sheep; the word of God is like seed sown on different kinds of ground; the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast; God is like the owner of a vineyard. He kept starting his parables with these words: “the kingdom of heaven is like this…”, and would then tell his followers odd stories about brides and grooms, sheep and shepherds, wheat and chaff.
My husband was originally trained as a mechanical and mechatronic engineer, and his mind still works in that way. So he often wonders why Jesus taught that way; why he didn’t just come right out and say what he meant. If anyone in the world and in history were qualified to speak directly about God, it was Jesus, and yet he always spoke so indirectly, making surprising comparisons between the holy and the ordinary. Why?
The passage we have today has a tennis match of such comparisons. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like buried treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast into the sea. The images come quickly, one right after the other, with zero preparation or explanation, no time for questions and answers. It’s actually not like Jesus to be in such a rush. He usually gathers his listeners around him, and slides into his narrative with one of those time-honoured introductions, like “there once was a landowner”. And when he does this, his followers get comfortable, knowing that the story will be full of meaning for them, knowing that they had better listen closely.
But these flashes of the kingdom come so quickly that there is no time for us to settle down at all. These images come at us like snapshots, like scenes glimpsed through the windows of a fast-moving train. It is almost as if he doesn’t want us to think about them, like he doesn’t want us to get stuck on any one of them, but rather to be dazzled by the number and variety of the things this kingdom of heaven is like.
Now, you’ve all heard a myriad of sermons on this passage, so you’d know a lot of this. Mustard seeds and yeast are nothing much to look at, thoroughly unimpressive at first. But give either of them something to work with – sow the seed or add flour to the yeast – and the results can be astounding: a tree big enough for birds to feed on, bread enough to feed a family for a month. The kingdom of heaven is surprising, and potent, and more than meets the eye.
Then we have more difficult comparisons: a poor man who finds buried treasure, and a rich merchant who finds a pearl. The first becomes rich through luck; the second becomes richer through skill. But rich or poor, each man finds something of immense value, and sells all that he has to make it his own. Each man finds something that makes everything else he owns trivial by comparison, and neither think twice about trading it all in. The kingdom of heaven is rare but attainable for those who are not only willing but eager to pay the price.
Then we have the final comparison, a fishing net, which takes a different tack altogether. Thrown into the sea, this net gathers fish of every kind, good and bad, which are sorted once the net is full. The kingdom of heaven is not something we find, but something that finds us like fish, and hauls us up into the light.
That’s a lot to digest in one sitting, but I want to draw your attention to a striking thing about all these images: their essential hiddenness: the mustard seed hidden in the ground, the yeast hidden in the dough, the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl hidden among other pearls, the net hidden in the depths of the sea. The kingdom of heaven is not something readily apparent to the eye, but something that must be searched for, something just below the surface of things waiting to be discovered and claimed.
It is that aspect that is the stuff legends are made of: sunken treasure, secret knowledge, a long-lost masterpiece gathering dust in an attic, suddenly discovered and found and claimed and enjoyed, amid much celebration. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus says. Whether it begins as a seed hidden in the ground, or a treasure hidden in a field, the Kingdom becomes manifest when it is revealed: when the tree is grown, when the treasure chest is opened, when what was lost is found and what was secret is known and what was hidden is brought forth for all to see.
This is an exciting part of Jesus’ Good News, but where does it leave us? Without a treasure map or a rich old aunt or capacity to mine for rubies, where do we start looking for this hidden kingdom of heaven? It seems like we ought to start somewhere really holy, right? A medieval monastery, translating ancient texts with the best scholars, or perhaps in the slums of Calcutta, caring for the sick and dying with Mother Teresa’s sisters. Maybe we should head to the Holy Land, or the Vatican, or one of the cathedrals in the city. Or, maybe it may not matter where we are, as long as we keep our eyes open for clues wherever we are, looking out for heavenly visions, listening out for heavenly voices. Because if the kingdom of heaven is hidden in this world, it must be hidden really well, and only the most dedicated detectives among us stand a chance of finding it at all.
But then, there is that possibility that God has resorted to the oldest trick in the book, and hidden it in plain view, in the ordinary circumstances of our mundane lives, like a real silver spoon in the drawer with the stainless steel others, like a diamond necklace in the jewellery box among the plastic trinkets. Maybe the kingdom of heaven is all mixed in with the ordinariness of our lives.
Yes, maybe this is the case. And Jesus knew it all along. Why else would he talk about heaven in terms of farmers and fields and bread and merchants and fishermen, unless he somehow meant to tell us that our treasure is not buried in some exotic far-off place, but that X marks the spot right here, right now, in the ordinary people and places and activities of our lives?
If we want to describe God, or describe heaven, or describe the holy, Jesus seems to say we can begin by talking about earthly things, using words we do know, like man, woman, field, seed, bird, air, yeast, bread, pearl, net, sea, fish, joy. Or in the church: bread, wine, water, a book, a handshake, a cuppa, a hug, a conversation. The Kingdom is like these ordinary things. These are the places to dig for the kingdom of heaven. Where will you dig? Amen.