The Bits in the Middle

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

So many parables today. In today’s Gospel we get no fewer than six parables that have to do with the kingdom of heaven, several of them a single sentence. Most of the sermons given today will likely focus on one or two, but I’d like to take a larger view:

“The kingdom of heaven is like…”; “the kingdom of heaven is like…”; “the kingdom of heaven is like…”.

Jesus seems to think it’s important to talk about the kingdom of heaven, which is also referred to elsewhere as the kingdom of God. I’m going to use both terms.

Many people listen to music when they jog or walk. I don’t. Instead, I listen to audiobooks. It’s a convenient way of getting in at least part of the hour a day of study required by the Dominican Rule. My current listen is “How God Became King” by N.T. Wright. In it, Wright addresses what he sees as a deficiency in most modern Christianity – that we have elevated the creeds over the Gospels. He doesn’t downplay the importance of the creeds, far from it. Saying clearly what we believe about the nature of the Trinity is critically important. But when the creeds talk about Jesus, they start with his miraculous conception and birth, and then go straight to his crucifixion and death. They skip right over his life and teachings! They speak of what we say about Jesus, and hardly at all about what he said and taught.

This is not surprising, since the creeds were written at times in the church when the statements they make were being debated. But, Wright says, we have, over the course of time, turned them into a kind of “syllabus,” an outline that says “here’s all the important stuff about Jesus.” And we sometimes ignore what Jesus actually said and did between his birth and his death: as Wright calls them, “the bits in the middle.” The parts where Jesus did the work of God here on earth.

Bishop Wright certainly does not advocate doing away with the creeds in any way. But those “bits in the middle” are hugely important, because what Jesus did during that time was show us and tell us how the kingdom of heaven works. In the words of theologian Karl Barth, “In the man Jesus Christ, God himself has become visible and active on earth. He is the goal of the history of Israel and the starting point of the church. The whole work of God lives and moves in this one person” (Dogmatics in Outline, 39). Wright makes a good point in saying that it is exactly for this reason that he lived as he did – to begin the building of the kingdom of God. Through Jesus, God becomes King.

But we have problems with the kingdom of God, because the way Jesus describes it doesn’t fit in with the way we’ve come to expect things to work. You might think that after 2,000 years Christians, at least, would get used to the idea that God being King would turn all our carefully constructed conceptions of society upside-down. And this idea didn’t start with Jesus. It’s a thread that runs through the Hebrew scriptures. As an example, look at 1 Samuel 2:8, part of the song Hannah sings when she discovers that she is pregnant with the child who will become the prophet Samuel:

He raises the poor from the dust,

He lifts the needy from the ash heap

To make them sit with nobles,

And inherit a seat of honor;

Fast forward to not long after Jesus is conceived. In Luke, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. While there, she sings the Magnificat, a song that is an echo of Hanna’s:

He has shown the strength of his arm,

He has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich He has sent away empty.

That’s a fairly subversive message, and that subversion of the normal order continues in the Gospel today:

A tiny mustard seed grows into a huge bush.

A small amount yeast leavens a ridiculous amount of flour.

A man finds a treasure in a field, covers it back up, then sells everything else and buys the field.

A merchant finds a single gem that is so wonderful he sells everything else and buys it.

Fisherman go fishing and have to sort the good fish from the bad.

Pretty much every one of these has something in it that would leave a first-century Jew standing confused, wondering what was going on. Why would a woman be mixing up a whole bushel of flour? That’s what the “three measures” comes to. It would have made somewhere around 60 pounds of dough! Why didn’t the man who found the treasure tell the owner of the field? That would have been the honest thing to do.

And here’s the thing about the merchant: After he sold everything to buy the pearl, the merchant…suddenly couldn’t be a merchant any more! He would have had no money left and nothing to sell. All he had was the pearl. That’s crazy! I can picture Jesus’ listeners scratching their heads. Who would be insane enough to give up their livelihood for one pearl?

Like the pearl, the kingdom of God is something so wonderful that we have to be willing to literally give up everything else we have in order to gain it. I’m not saying that’s THE meaning of the parable, but it could be a meaning. When we look at these parables, let’s remember that God’s priorities are not our priorities. What they say may seem crazy to us. In establishing His kingdom on earth, God wants to overturn our precious ways of living in the world. He wants us to be ruled by Him instead.

In his book, Bishop Wright uses the term “theocracy” unashamedly, but in its exact meaning. We tend to use the “theocracy” in a political way, to mean “rule by religion,” and we consider it (rightly, in my opinion) a bad thing. But its precise meaning is “rule by God”; rule by God, with no people getting in the way. And that is what we really hope for: Rule by God. When Christ returns and makes all Creation new, we will live under the rule of God – not the religious right, not the religious left, no politics involved, living under no one’s agenda but God’s — the way Creation was originally intended to be. Through Jesus, we already know how to live that way.

God sent His son to teach us what his kingdom is like, and how to live in it, even when the renewal of Creation hasn’t happened yet. But that renewal is coming, and it’s more urgent than ever that we learn from Jesus’ life and teachings – those “bits in the middle” – how the kingdom of God works.

We should be living as if it has already come. We should be living as if God is our King now and every day.


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