Updated: Jul 30, 2020
I should preface this reflection by saying I don’t really know what the kindom of heaven, or as I will refer to it, the reign of God, actually is. I’ve seen sparks of selfless love, heard stories of restorative justice, and experienced brief moments of deep peace and spiritual connection with what I believe to be God and with people whom I dearly love. I’ve seen times when people have been able to be fully themselves and not fear that they will be detained, or beaten, or killed, or refused entry on their own land just for being who they are. I think this is a glimpse of and maybe even the fullness of the reign of God. It’s an orientation, a commitment, an experience, a balance, a hope, and probably so much more...
The reign of God is like a residential demolition worker in Detroit. He’s a man of humility, who finds honor in hard work done well. Through his actions and his words, he shows those around him that all labor is meaningful and should be respected. The sixth son of Mexican immigrants, he lives in a well-worn, poor neighborhood. He lives simply and frugally. He attends college, majors in philosophy, and is politically engaged in his neighborhood and his city; advocating for the working-class who are marginalized and left out of the system. He raises three daughters to be culturally aware, ethical, articulate, proud of their heritage, and successful in their careers. In his late 20s he records two records with politically-charged songs that encapsulate his hopes, his frustrations, and his questions. The records never catch on with the public and he ends his musical career. He continues to live a simple but meaningful life, engaged in his community and with his family.
I’ve often tried to picture myself in first century Palestine, in the crowds that would gather to hear Jesus speak. Surely by the time that Jesus was sharing these parables, he was well known as a religious heretic and a rabble rouser. But I’m curious what actually brought people to these crowds? What did they leave at home? What did they pray for as night fell? What kind of life did they hope their children would have? Did they ever imagine that they would be physically secure; financially secure? Did they ever feel that they would be free in their own land? Did they fear that the political or religious authorities would harass them for gathering to hear Jesus? Did they fear something worse? What, in their wildest imaginations, did they envision was the reign of God?
It somehow seems even harder to imagine what the reign of God could be like today. I know that I am asking this question as a white cis-gendered male. For way too many people in our city and our country today, there is a radical leap between their everyday experiences and the just society they would long for while envisioning the reign of God. Too many of my friends of color and my undocumented clients are held down and abused by violent systems.
In the midst of this context, Jesus gives us these little parables to picture God’s reign. These are stories pulled from daily life. It seems, for the most part, that the characters in these parables were a reflection of the audience. They cover a range of vocations of the ordinary people who have been suppressed, subjugated, systematically pushed aside or even worse. They are people completing ordinary tasks: fishing, farming, baking bread, trading goods. And Jesus’s assessment?: God’s reign is found in the midst of their everyday behaviors. Ordinary tasks become a venue for divine hope; the reign of God is and can be present in ordinary lives. God’s reign is lurking beneath the surface of the most basic daily and weekly routines, habits and customs.
Yet these parables aren’t mere stories of regular daily behaviors. Like so many of his parables and teachings, there was a subversive, excessive element to each of these. The parable of the mustard seed is the most well known, and probably most confusing. It sounds like a simple teaching of the vast importance of one person’s good actions. Like a COVID super-spreader chart, where hundreds of infections can be traced back to one person at the wrong place at the wrong time; it seems like a call to go out and spread the gospel. But honestly, what farmer would want to plant a shrub in the middle of her field, that spreads as fast as mint or bamboo, choking out the wheat that was planted alongside it, all the while attracting birds that eat all the grain off the wheat? Why compare God’s reign to a disorderly mess of weeds growing in a field?
The next parable suggests that God’s reign is like rotting moldy bread used as leavening hidden deep in a pile of flour large enough to feed 100 people, and then mixed in so thoroughly that no unleavened flour remained. If not used by the next Sabbath, this flour would need to be discarded.
Then the reign of God is compared to a treasure hidden in a field. When the treasure hunter finds this treasure, it must not lawfully belong to him, or else he would have taken it away. Instead he re-hides it, presumably in an even harder to find location, and then sells his possessions in order to finance the purchase of the field, thereby tricking the field’s owner so that he can take legal possession of the treasure that he had found.
It turns out that God’s reign can also be described as a merchant who converts the net worth of their entire life savings into a single pearl.
Or also, it seems, as a net that is thrown into the water and grabs everything, all kinds of fish. All are brought onto shore. Like the cookies in Jeff Gundy’s poem, all are grabbed and held together by the net that is the reign of God.
So what do we make of these vignettes. What was Jesus trying to say? First of all, I feel let down. Whether he is speaking to peasant laborers in occupied first century Palestine, to Black women and men who risk their lives at the hands of the police simply for their skin color, or to Central American migrants fleeing domestic and gang violence and being denied asylum in the United States - it seems like Jesus isn’t offering much. Finding the reign of God in everyday tasks sounds pretty minimal.
But I do see three important themes that speak to me. First, there is a sort of holiness hidden in the dullness of our days. Our regular lives and activities are the canvas for God’s reign to take hold. It is not situated in extraordinary places, seats of power, or far off lands - but in our everyday lives. God is present here; and now.
Also, it seems like the focus of each of these parables is the almost alchemical process of what is happening in each of the stories. There’s something extraordinary that drives these characters to make an extreme choice or take a daring act in the midst of their ordinary behaviors. Pulling in everything with the net, leavening an outrageous amount of bread, going broke for a pearl, deceiving your neighbor for the treasure buried in their field. But something else is happening too, the treasure seeker finds true joy, the planter of the mustard seed rewilds the land, the net welcomes all with no restrictions.
The third, and probably most important theme is that the unexpected, scandalous, and possibly unethical behaviors on display in these parables are a sign of God’s enduring love and validation of the poor and marginalized; and risks that are taken on their behalf. The pure mischief found in these parables means that disruption and unrest are holy signs of reordering in society. How can these parables discomfort us, rile us up, get us feeling a bit off balance? In what ways can they gnaw at us and our comfort? How do they bring comfort, hope, and support? How do you see God at work in the midst of ordinary behavior, or scandalous behavior?
After telling these parables, Jesus asks those in his audience if they have understood all that he has said. They answer with a simple “yes,” but it seems we should be a bit skeptical. It just seems a bit odd - Jesus speaks around the idea of the reign of God by using parables, and the audience immediately gets it? How many times in movies or novels does a character seem to know what’s happening, only to tragically learn later that they had no idea what was happening. I mean, how many times have we read or heard these parables? Do you understand them? If so, please fill me in!
Understanding is an evolutionary process. We live with some things our whole lives and never make sense of them. Or we come to see them very differently than we did when we were younger. The parables of Jesus are one of those things that we never understand but that can continue to bring new understandings of ourselves and of God.
Other things are more ambiguous or downright sinister. Sometimes stories are told, or monuments are made, that need to be unmade, reinterpreted, or retold. I recently learned a more nuanced explanation of the origin of the Christopher Columbus myth. Columbus was initially revered by the U.S. founders when they needed a non-British origin story as they were seeking independence during the revolutionary war. A century later, in the late 1800’s, a large wave of immigrants came to the United States from Italy. These Italian-Americans suffered brutal violence, marginalization and discrimination in the United States. As the country celebrated the 400th anniversary of “Columbus and the New World” in 1892, many Italian Americans funded statues of Christopher Columbus in cities across the United States, and then began pushing for the celebration of Columbus day; all in the hope of overcoming the violence and discrimination against them. In both cases, the man was made a hero in an attempt to bring power to dis-empowered people.
And so we ended up with monuments, numerous city names, and a holiday commemorating a colonizer who enslaved people, actively introduced smallpox, and encouraged outrageous violence. Our understanding of Columbus has evolved over decades and our collective memory has shifted. We now know he is decidedly not a person to be celebrated. But the holiday and many monuments have still stood. Finally, as an outgrowth of the recent Black Lives Matter protests statues of Columbus are being reckoned with and many are coming down.
I know I made a quick and drastic turn from the parables in Matthew to Christopher Columbus. But somehow it all fits in my mind as a larger question of what we do with what we have received; how we remember and reckon with the past; how and why we tell the stories we tell. As humans we often seek to commemorate experiences, people, and events. We have a whole host of reasons for doing so. Sometimes it is for nostalgia, sometimes we want to control the future, sometimes we want to retell or re-imagine the past. It’s often the people in power who raise the monuments, who tell the stories. And then, each successive generation is left to reckon with what they have inherited.
Sometimes we know from the outset that monuments have been raised in hate. Like the numerous statues of confederate leaders and soldiers that have inexplicably stood to this day; projecting white supremacy each minute of their existence. Sometimes, like the statues of Columbus, in our ignorance, blindness, or willful sidestepping of the truth, we turn a villain into a hero in order to find some hope, only later to face the bitter truth.
Our lives go on with these monuments surrounding us. Our lives go on with the false stories we tell ourselves. Our lives go on with the horrible dis-ordering of the world. Until a seed is planted; or leaven is put into the flour; or the merchant finds the pearl. A spark happens and all that was there beneath the surface the whole time springs forth. Sometimes that spark is a fearless leader like Martin Luther King or John Lewis, or it's something you read and just can’t forget. Sometimes, tragically, the spark is unthinkable and horrible, like the killing of George Floyd. But when that spark happens, the reign of God is there.
The reign of God is like a residential demolition worker in Detroit. He’s a man of humility, who finds honor in hard work done well. His name is Rodriguez. Unbeknownst to him, his music became popular in South Africa in the mid-1970s. His album Cold Fact was said to have been as prevalent in households as Abbey Road and Bridge Over Troubled Water. His music gave some young anti-apartheid whites the courage and the voice to speak and act out against the culture and political systems perpetuating apartheid. They knew almost nothing about the man, and even assumed that he was dead. But his music, filled with his character and his sense of justice, inspired them.