Thursday, July 21, 2005

"The kingdom of heaven is like ..."

In my previous message I touched briefly on Jesus' parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13.

The first parable (the sower) is about how God spreads the message of the kingdom, and how people respond to it. The good news of the kingdom must be willingly received – the kingdom is not forced upon people. The second parable (the weeds) forms a pair with it as it describes how the enemy tries to disrupt God’s work. The kingdom has entered the world and produced “sons of the kingdom” who enjoy its power and blessings, but the world, or the present age, has not been overcome by this coming of the Kingdom. The righteous and the wicked mingle together in a mixed society – the kingdom is present, but hidden – until the end comes.

The next pair (the mustard seed and yeast) is about how the kingdom begins and describes first how the kingdom has small beginnings (“like a mustard seed”) but grows quickly, and secondly how it establishes its presence without us being aware of any visible change (“like yeast mixed with dough”). First, the kingdom is present in the world in a tiny, insignificant form. The Jews imagined the kingdom would be like a giant tree under which the nations would find shelter. They could not understand how Jesus’ tiny group of disciples could have any connection to this kingdom. Second, the kingdom has entered the world in a form that is hardly seen. Jesus is revealing how that just as when leaven is mixed with flour nothing appears to happen, yet eventually something does happen and the result is a complete transformation; so the kingdom is coming into the world in a form that appears to be small and insignificant yet we will at some time in the future see a complete transformation of the world as a result of these insignificant beginnings.

The third pair (hidden treasure and the pearl) is about how the kingdom is of greater value than we can reckon, and is to be sought above everything else. If it costs everything we have this is still a small price to pay compared with what it is worth. The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would raise an army and overthrow the Romans, not the leader of a small band of men who mixed with despised tax collectors and “sinners”. The “secret” that Jesus is revealing here is that the people might easily despise the kingdom because of its coming in a way that could easily be overlooked or despised. Everyone should seek to enter the kingdom at any cost. Perhaps there is another secret being revealed here too: some people spend a lot of time searching for “the truth” and then find it in the good news of the kingdom, while others almost stumble across it. But both people, if they recognise it for what it is, will realise that it is a treasure beyond price.

The parables of the mustard seed and yeast relate to the insignificant beginnings of the kingdom, while the next pair (hideden treasure and the pearl) reveals that despite these appearances the kingdom is hardly insignificant – it is worth more than any treasure.

The final ‘pair’ (the net and the teacher) contains first a parable which describes two types of fish in a similar way to the second parable which described two types of grain or crops and how they are separated, but reveals another “secret”. While the parable of the wheat and tares reveals how the kingdom co-exists with evil in the world, the parable of the fish in the net reveals how both good and bad people exist together in the community of people who have been “caught up” by the good news of the kingdom. The Jews expected the Messiah to destroy all the godless nations and gather together a holy people. But Jesus came “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17) and brought together a group of people who were rejected by society. Rather than destroying these “godless” people, Jesus called them into His kingdom. His invitation went out to all kinds of people, and the “net” caught up all sorts of people. Sorting out the good from the bad must await the last day, when the kingdom will become a perfect community.

The final saying in this group also refers to the teaching of the kingdom in much the same way as the first story (the sower) referred to how God spreads the “seed” of the good news of the kingdom. Again Jesus challenges His disciples to recognise their role in teaching the good news of the kingdom.

Jesus’ teachings must be interpreted against His situation: the Jewish world in which He lived and their expectations. The kingdom they were expecting was not the kingdom Jesus was bringing to them. As a result they could easily reject it, or despise it. They knew that the kingdom would come, but how it would come was a mystery to them, until Jesus revealed the secret through this series of parables. The kingdom began with Jesus’ first coming, but all its glories would not be seen until a much later time. Today people still reject the good news of the kingdom because they judge it on the basis of the people who are teaching about it, so Jesus’ message about being a small and insignificant group who are often despised and rejected by society is an encouragement to His people who are continuing His work of preaching the kingdom.

There is also a reminder here to us that we should not share the good news of the kingdom only with people who meet our expectations about what kingdom-citizens should be like. Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders of His day because he was mixing with the “wrong” type of people, contrary to their expectations of the Messiah. So we should share the good news will all who need it, not only those who we think will respond in the way we expect. We should leave it until “the last day” when God will sort the good from the bad. Our role is to share the good news, and leave the judging to God.

No comments: