COLUMN: The kingdom of heaven is like

Published 8:50 am Sunday, August 13, 2023

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The end of the fireworks show is always spectacular. I was reminded of that back at Independence Day.  You’ve seen things in the show that cause you to say, “Wow!” along the way. But, the ending is always bigger than you could imagine.

It’s like they save up the grandest display, and unleash it all across the sky right before the last. As you thumb through your New Testament, you’ll find Jesus’ parables scattered throughout the four gospels. But, this is the big ending. At least as found in Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52. Except it’s not. 

Depending on how you count, there are as many as five or even six parables here in today’s text. Four of them are easily discernible. This is a veritable volley of parables as we end, all around the theme of “The Kingdom of Heaven is Like.”

As we listen to the common elements Jesus draws upon from everyday life, especially as we place them in their first century Palestinian context, they are surprisingly humble. Mundane. Not so big an ending. In some cases, even a little undesirable at first glance. 

Heaven. If you’re like me, you’ve often pictured the streets-of-gold images. A place decorated with beautiful and precious substances like jasper, and the notion of a Heavenly reward has kind of been a lot of the things I couldn’t have down here and now.  It sounded a lot like a trip to the Greenbrier Resort, or Sea Island’s Cloister or the seven-star place where George Clooney spent his honeymoon on the Grand Canal in Venice. 

Who knows? If we’re honest, the Bible really doesn’t give us much to go on. But, the Kingdom of Heaven? A kingdom of heaven here in the Bible actually referred to God’s reign on Earth. God’s rule over our lives here and now. 

In looking at this stretch of tiny parables, commenter Talitha Arnold manages to wonder aloud the near-unspeakable. She wonders if the crowds weren’t a little disappointed as Jesus taught? She wonders if the Disciples weren’t even, themselves, a little disappointed to hear how Jesus described things.

You see he uttered the important sounding phrase, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” and then immediately began comparing it with everyday things they worked with on a regular basis. Things they did for a living. 

He spoke of life looking like seeds and plants or being like baking bread. He used images of plowing a field and fishing. Do you think any of that sounded much like heaven to these hard-working folks in Jesus’ day? 

Arnold wonders if our congregations might get disappointed these days, too? Because getting a lot of Christians on board with biblical notions of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven is a surprisingly tough sell.

Jesus just talks about men and women. About farmers and bakers, down to earth everyday things. We strive to believe in an incarnated God— “God among us”– but when we hear Jesus describe God’s realm in this way, we suspend belief in favor of disbelief instead. That’s understandable.

So even with all these challenges within the parables, among the conclusions that we could reach is that there are real consequences or real costs to God’s kingdom and God’s way of living. Cheap, easy grace that we Christians have often tripped over ourselves to sell to others might not be the best understanding to have. 

God’s kingdom is demanding and costly. It requires a commitment that goes far beyond tepid faith. When Jesus emerged from the wilderness and began preaching, he began his messages by proclaiming that “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”

He demonstrated that nearness every time he healed someone, reached toward outcasts, respected women or cared for the poor. Everytime he included those normally excluded. He demonstrated that in using these Parables to try to explain that kingdom to us. God come near. God in human form. Immanuel, God with us. 

For Jesus, God’s kingdom is not pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. That nearness is the very basis for His call to us to follow. God is as close as the mustard bush or the loaf of bread. As close as the next catch of fish, or the next surprise found in a field. 

Jesus transforms human life not by scaring people but by helping them to see heaven close at hand. These parables tell us that hidden within what we think we see so clearly, the movement of God is subversive and grows up in unexpected ways.

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.