Sunday 26 July 2020
Before we consider the contents of the Gospel reading from today, I think, from past experience, that we need to settle two questions first.
We will be considering today what are commonly referred to as parables of the kingdom. There are five distinct parables in all. They all start with the phrase “…the kingdom of heaven is like…”. I am going to reflect on four of those parables which seem to be complementary pairs.
So the important questions are: Is the Church the same reality as the kingdom of heaven? In other words, can we apply the meaning of these parables directly to the Church? And: Is the “kingdom of heaven” the same reality as the “kingdom of God”?
The second question is probably best answered first.
You will recall that God revealed God’s name to Moses in the encounter at the burning bush in the Book of Exodus. Even after that, the Old Testament in particular and the Hebrews in general were very respectful of the name of God and tended to use elliptical references rather than using the precious name of God. So the term “kingdom of heaven” is probably best understood as being the equivalent of the term “kingdom of God”, but one demonstrating a reverence in not using the very name of God.
So, if we regard the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God” as equivalent expressions, can we regard the Church as equivalent as well?
Well, no. The Church is the community of believers who witness to the kingdom, but the Church is not equivalent to the kingdom itself. One observer has even suggested that Jesus came and proclaimed the kingdom, but what we ended up with was the Church – as if we have short-changed ourselves.
Having said that, I think it is legitimate for us to apply these parables to the Church as witness to the kingdom as long as we retain the reservation that the kingdom and the Church are not identical realities, but certainly related to each other.
The first two parables – the mustard seed and the woman baking with yeast really look at the kingdom from the point of view of God’s action on behalf of the kingdom. Although it begins from very small beginnings, like the mustard seed, God will give the kingdom the growth so that it becomes large, able to provide a dwelling for many. The generosity of God is apparent in the baking parable as well. Again, the sense is that something small, like the yeast ingredient, can give rise to a great batch of bread. The commentators suggest that the three measures of flour would be enough to feed 100 people with bread, way more than just a household.
Perhaps the tentative learning we could take from these parables in relation to the Church is that God can give growth to small entities – even small entities like our parish community.
Even more to the point, perhaps it is only God who can give the growth. We already recognise this to some extent in that we pray every week in our Holy Communion Service for God to give growth to this Church community. In recognising that it is God who gives the growth though, we don’t want to lose sight of our role in contributing to that growth.
It seems that our role is picked up in the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. These two parables do not speak so much of the growth of the kingdom, but of the responses of the protagonists to finding the kingdom. Interestingly, one finds it by accident and one finds it after a great effort searching for it. Regardless, the response is what is important – wholehearted. Both protagonists sell everything else that they own in order to obtain the kingdom.
It really is worth our while reflecting upon this notion of wholehearted response. We live in an age of distraction. For example, it could be argued that never before in the history of the world has it been so possible for humans in our sphere of the world to indulge themselves in amusements and entertainments. When I was in high school, I remember being absolutely envious of one of my teachers who was a single man and who told us that he went to the pictures – remember, that’s what we tended to call them then, not movies – he told us that he went to the pictures at least once a week. My peers and I could hardly comprehend it. We might go to the pictures once during each school holidays if we were lucky. Or, our youth group might watch a movie every so often with a dicey 16mm projector and an operator who barely knew how it worked or how to correct the various operating difficulties that arose.
Now, kids of that age watch movie after movie on their phones. And that is not to mention the all absorbing presence of social media interactions in their lives. And we don’t want to think that it is just youngsters that are awash in wall to wall external entertainment. We adults live in the same world of distraction and ubiquitous external stimulus. Even our news bulletins now are about entertainment for the most part rather than information. How often do we see inserted in the news a description of some innocuous event from some obscure part of the world simply because there are pictures available and they are curious or humorous or stunning?
In this world of blanket entertainment and stimulation, we are called to be wholehearted about our commitment to the kingdom. We are called to give everything for the sake of the kingdom – to put everything else aside. That gives rise to several questions. What are we prepared to give up in order to obtain that treasure in the field? What are we prepared to trade for that pearl of great price?
These questions are subordinate to even more basic questions. Have we yet found the treasure in the field or the pearl of great price?
These classic parables of Jesus give us, on the one hand, the consolation that God gives the growth to the kingdom and that it is sure and inevitable, but they also give us the sobering message that our part in this growth of the kingdom requires a wholehearted response on our behalf. Our prayer needs to be that we will each respond in that wholehearted fashion, because without that prayer, the necessary level of response will be beyond us.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen