The Realm of Heaven
A Homily from Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
July 28, 2002 (17th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
I was sorely tempted not to preach this text for several reasons. The first is that it’s really five texts in one, and I generally prefer to at least try for sermons that are very tightly focused on one specific passage. Here, though, we have five different - subtly different – but still different images of the Kingdom of Heaven. In addition, they are short and concise – the sort of statements that generally stand well on their own without much exegesis; and a part of me wanted to just allow them to be read and left at that. Finally, there is the fact that the very image of a “Kingdom of Heaven” is problematic for some people – with good reason.
In fact, all of these seemed like good reasons to stay in the Hebrew Bible this Sunday. The problem is that the image of the “Kingdom of Heaven” (or Kingdom of God” as it is usually described in the other gospels) is a key theme of Jesus’ ministry. The phrase occurs over 80 times in the gospels, and thirty of them are in Matthew. Teaching His believers to see the possibilities of the Kingdom of Heaven was a significant priority for Jesus, and consequently it should remain a priority for us.
Doing so, however, requires that we discuss what the Kingdom of Heaven is and is not; and hopefully along the way deal with the issues that keep some people from hearing these texts. Most problems with word “kingdom” arise with people who are resistant to the strong, patriarchal imagery that abounds in the Christian scriptures. We no longer live in a “man’s world,” if in fact we ever did, and those of us who are passionate about equality are often uncomfortable with language that reflects an older, male-dominated worldview.
This is particularly true when it comes to God, who is so often represented as male in our Christian tradition. It is limiting for our transcendent God and limiting for our personal faith journeys to think of God as solely male or solely female, so the image of God as King is problematic for many. God is neither King nor Queen – God is both and more.
That leaves us with a problem, because in every English translation with which I’m familiar, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” appears over eighty times. In Greek, it’s not really a problem because the words for king and queen are so similar that they are both contained in the word for kingdom. For many English speakers, however, “kingdom” is not necessarily synonymous with “monarchy,” and it is therefore either a dead or a dangerous word for those who have been victims of oppressive, masculine systems.
For that reason “Realm of Heaven” is probably the best phrase, and it is also a more valid translation because of its inclusiveness. This is not an issue of revisionist translation, since “realm” really is the more accurate English equivalent of the Greek word we have in the text. There remains, however, a long Christian tradition of using the word “Kingdom” in myriad contexts to describe and promulgate (sometimes very poorly) Jesus’ vision. I hope that we will not throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject the tradition just because of its pervasive patriarchy. Instead, I hope that we can learn a broader understanding of it, hearing ourselves always included in God’s Realm when we hear “Kingdom.”
I will not, however, use the word “Commonwealth” to describe the Realm of Heaven. When I was in seminary, it was generally assumed that if you didn’t have a bee in your bonnet about something, you hadn’t been paying attention. There are so many wrongs to right, injustices to overcome, past oppressions to alleviate, that some of us never came up for air. A few of my peers were very quickly stung by the “kingdom” bee, and went out of their way to correct everyone – including faculty – who used the phrase.
Their preferred word was “Commonwealth,” and it fit nicely with their egalitarian and somewhat socialistic sensibilities. Although the word has much to recommend it, its democratic implications simply do not jive with Jesus’ teachings about the Realm of Heaven. The Realm of Heaven is not a democracy. It is a place where God and God alone is Sovereign.
In the Realm of Heaven, no human weaknesses – greed, selfishness, lust, failure – can hold sway. In the Realm of Heaven there is peace and charity. In the Realm of Heaven, the powerful learn their true powerlessness, and the oppressed see their freedom. In the Realm of Heaven, all of the mortal frailties that hold us back disappear, and the world is transformed. All of the common sense priorities of our cynical lives are turned on their ears, and by giving away we gain; by surrendering we are victorious.
Many ethical systems and religions offer this kind of utopian image. As Christians, however, we believe that only such a world comes into being through surrender to the will of God, and union with the love of God. As pithy and affirming as it sounds to say that we find such transformation in ourselves, it is not biblical to say so. We don’t have it in us. Only God can bring about that change.
It is not, therefore, the “Commonwealth” of Heaven because, even if we pooled all of our human resources together, we still don’t have diddly squat without God. It is the “Realm” of Heaven, because only with God reigning in our lives can we bring about the transformation of the world.
Consequently, for those of us instinctively rebellious and self-reliant sorts (and I count myself on that list) who might have a problem with the implied authoritarian structure in words like “Kingdom” and “Realm,” I don’t have an easy solution other than to say that we have to get over it. Part of the lesson of Jesus’ teachings on the Realm of Heaven, and in fact of His life as well, is that surrender is part of the victory.
A King who dies for His people rather than sending them to die for him understands about surrender and sovereignty.
There are many, many more images of what makes the Realm of Heaven different from the world in which we live. Jesus expounds upon them in great detail in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance. Unfortunately, we cannot focus on those powerful and sometimes frighteningly contradictory ideas here, since these particular anecdotes are not about the framework of the Realm of Heaven. They are instead about the experience of it.
Jesus says, “The Realm of Heaven is like a mustard seed, the tiniest seed of all, that a farmer planted in a field and when it grew it became a tree so massive that birds swooped in and made their homes in it.” As many commentators have pointed out [Eugene Boring, et al], mustard seeds generally don’t make trees. They make small shrubs, about two feet high.
The Realm of Heaven, however, is a place of extravagant sustenance and power. Under the sovereignty of God, tiny works, small gifts, little sacrifices weave together into something unexpected and mighty. Something massive and nurturing.
Sometimes it seems that all we really have to work with are tiny seeds. Few of us have the wealth to be philanthropists or the energy to be perpetual volunteers. When confronted with the cynicism and grief of the larger world, our voices of hope and faith can seem small and frail. When we realize the enormity of the world, even our entire lives can seem insignificant by comparison.
At our most optimistic, what can we hope to harvest from such small ingredients? From your average mustard seed you get a small herb bush. From a mustard seed touched by the hand of God, however; you get a tree the size of a massive oak that shades, and nurtures everything around it. That’s the Realm of Heaven, a towering transformation of our tiniest gifts.
The Realm of Heaven is also like a bit of yeast that a baker once took and hid it in about ten gallons of flour. The yeast worked its way into all of the flour, transforming it into bread that could feed many households.
Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition, yeast is often an image of corruption. Its insidious ability to pervade and ferment whatever it contacted made it potentially dangerous stuff.
Yet so also is the Realm of Heaven. It’s contagious. Even a small amount, hidden away, can transform everything around it into something far greater than anyone could have expected. Looking at the world the way Jesus did. Seeing opportunities not obligations, seeing in every lonely face a chance to bring hope, seeing in every empty heart a place that God could fill with love, seeing not just need but the potential for sustenance – even a few people who see the world that way can completely reinvent it. Such is the Realm of Heaven.
The next to images for the Realm of Heaven occur only in Matthew. They are a matched set, showing different routes to the same destination. In one, a man is hard at work in his boss’ field. His shovel smacks into something hard, and it turns out to be a vast treasure. He immediately goes and sells every last one of his possessions so he can buy that field and the treasure that is buried there.
First things first, this is not really a lesson in ethics. The moral of the story is not to try and supplant other people’s mineral rights. What the farmhand found was so incredible, though, that nothing else mattered. He was willing to give up everything else to have it.
The Realm of Heaven may look tiny and worthless, like a mustard seed or a bit of yeast, but it’s potential is so much greater than anything we could buy or acquire. It’s worth surrendering everything we have or hope to have just to have the chance to bring it into the world. Such is the Realm of Heaven.
The Realm of Heaven is also like a merchant searching for fine pearls. She is an expert, and has gone out to look for the very best. She finds one in particular that is so perfect that she sells everything else she owns, including all of her other fine gemstones, to buy that one pearl.
Unlike our friend the farmhand, the merchant deliberately set out to find what was best. She did, and it was worth everything else she had ever found – combined.
Some of us take the farmhand’s route, stumbling into the mysterious, benevolent grace of God. Once it finds us, though, we never let go – because everything else is pale and empty by comparison. Others of us got here as part of a deliberate journey, testing each bit of faith like a bartender in the Old West tested gold coins. When we finally found the love of God in the example of Jesus, we knew we had come home – and that making this home open to all who sought it was the greatest gift of all. Such is the Realm of Heaven.
The Realm of Heaven is also like a large dragnet towed behind a fishing boat. Such a net catches everything, and when it’s full the nets owners pull into shore and sort out the useful fish from the worthless. This parable Jesus takes the time to explain. “At the end of the age” He says, “the messengers of God will come and separate the evil from the righteous, and the evil will be thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Gee, and we were doing so well there for a minute. It’s tempting to try to rationalize away this particular image: “Oh Jesus, you’re just trying to scare them.” Well, yes. But He’s also trying to scare us. As one commentator points out [Texts for Preaching], this is a reminder that – for all the images of hope and promise in the other parables – this is serious stuff. The Realm of Heaven is not just about making the world a better place. It’s about our priorities, and about choosing to focus our mortal lives on the eternal rather than the convenient.
Jesus asks his disciples if the understand. They say, “Yes.” We’ll later learn that they didn’t, and it’s probably safe to say that we don’t either. If we could understand the Realm of Heaven, we could control it and create it on our own.
Perhaps there is no one way to understand the Realm of Heaven. Jesus goes on to say that those of us who have been trained for the Realm of Heaven – whose lives have shaped us to seek it – are like those who can create beauty by combining old treasure and new. The needs and nature of the world around us are always changing. As citizens first of the Realm of Heaven, it is our privilege to take the timeless teachings of Jesus and find new ways to combine them with the challenges of our time.
Alone we aren’t much. Singly, we’re almost insignificant – and the brokenness of our world is vast. Yet, as people of faith, we can see the hand of God in everything, and where others see just the brokenness we can see the potential for miraculous healing. Such is the Realm of Heaven. Amen.