He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed … like yeast … like treasure hidden in the field … like a merchant in search of fine pearls … like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray this, many of us, every day – asking that God’s kingdom would come, and that God’s will would be done here on earth, just as it already is being done in heaven. Today, our gospel reading is all about God’s kingdom, or reign, or dominion. So, let me start by asking the obvious question: What is this kingdom that we are praying for? What is the kingdom of heaven?
There are two ways to think about this, Martin Luther teaches us in his catechism. First, he notes that God’s kingdom comes now, through the Word and faith. And second, he points out that God’s kingdom will come in its fullness, for all of eternity.
Someday, this second coming of the kingdom of heaven will happen, and the promised vision that John offers in Revelation will come to pass. The new Jerusalem will come down out of heaven from God. And God will then dwell with all this world, wiping every tear from our eyes, putting a final end to death, and to mourning, and to crying and to pain forevermore. That will be a glorious day, indeed, when the reign of God comes in its fullness. And we pray for that, and hope for that, and long for that.
But that is not the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is describing in today’s gospel reading. He is describing the other way that God’s kingdom comes, as taught by Luther: through the Word and faith. The way that the kingdom comes now. It is very different, but no less important. Which is apparent, because Jesus spends a great deal of time describing it.
Today, we hear five different descriptions of this kingdom of heaven, and each description offers us an important detail. And all together, they give us a good sense of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is so eager to share with us, and that he teaches us to pray for. So, let’s look at each description in turn, and then put it all together.
First, “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds,” Jesus said, “but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs.” The mustard seed is not technically the smallest of all seeds, but it was used by those listening to Jesus as an expression to describe something very small. The kingdom of heaven that Jesus is teaching us about starts out very, very small.
When you think about it, lots of things start out small. Think about COVID-19, as an obvious example. It couldn’t have started smaller, but look what it is doing to our world! Can the kingdom of heaven be like this, but in a positive way? A virus of faith, hope and love that spreads through all the world and changes the way we live? Why not?
Think about God’s plan for ushering in the kingdom. It started small, too. A person, God’s son, entering our world in the most humble of ways, in a small, out-of-the-way community. Growing up quietly in another small community. Even when he began his public teaching and ministry, it was at first with only twelve close followers. And his ministry never involved an attempt to overturn governments and gain worldly power. The movement that Jesus began started in about as small and insignificant a way as you can imagine. The mustard seed seems like a perfect analogy.
That’s also true of the church that Jesus founded. A mustard seed that has grown through the centuries to be a place where millions of people come to find hope and healing, in Jesus’ name. The church is not always a beautiful cedar tree. A mustard bush is probably a good image for it. A humble image. But, again, the mustard bush provides shelter for all sorts of strange birds, like you and me; and provides a place to be nurtured and cared for.
Small. Hidden. But powerful. Like yeast – the second image that Jesus offers for the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Anyone who has baked bread knows the difference that a little yeast makes. It can’t be seen once mixed in, but it transforms the dough in a way that is easy to see. Can the kingdom of heaven be like that? Hidden, but changing us and our world in powerful ways? Can we be the yeast? Scattered throughout this world, often in ways that are unseen, that don’t make headlines or the news? Can we be the yeast for this world, changing it to look more and more like heaven?
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Can we not just pray this prayer, but be at least part of the answer to this prayer? When we do this, we are acting as mustard seeds and yeast in our world, helping the kingdom of heaven to be planted here among us.
Treasure Hidden in a Field
In the next image of the kingdom of heaven, it is still hidden, but incredibly valuable. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,” Jesus teaches us, “which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
Lest we think that the kingdom of heaven is not very valuable, just mustard seed or yeast – Jesus compares it to a treasure hidden in a field, that is worth selling all that we have for. There is nothing more important, more valuable, more worth our sacrificing for, than the treasure of God’s kingdom.
Seek first this kingdom, Jesus teaches us elsewhere. Give up whatever is in the way of this kingdom. If we are looking for meaning and purpose elsewhere, repent. Change our minds. For nothing else will give us what we are looking for. We can gain the whole world, but without the kingdom of heaven it will all be worthless, all vanity, a chasing after the wind.
Pearl of Great Price
The kingdom of heaven is the treasure hidden in a field. And it is also the pearl of great price, Jesus teaches us. What is the difference? In both cases, the one who found it sold all that he had to buy it. In the case of the pearl, though, it is clear that the merchant was searching for it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls,” Jesus taught; “on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Here, Jesus seems to be reminding us that we shouldn’t wander aimlessly through life, waiting to stub our toe on a treasure in a field. It’s better to work at our faith, to search for the treasure. To pray and study the Bible and practice our faith, even when we aren’t sure where this treasure might be. It’s worth the effort. There is a pearl of unsurpassed value just waiting to be found.
Of course, once we find it, we realize that this priceless pearl was actually looking for us, too, in some mysterious way. Just as our faith is a pearl worth searching for, we are pearls to Jesus, worth his searching for. And everyone in this world is a priceless pearl to God, being searched for by Jesus. Every person a treasure, made in God’s image, worth sacrificing everything for. Which is exactly what Jesus did.
A Net Thrown Into the Sea
Maybe that’s why Jesus finishes this collection of parables with the one about the net that is thrown into the sea and catches fish of every kind. Eventually, the good fish and bad fish are separated from each other. But for now, this kingdom net is catching everything. Jesus, it seems, is not content to fish with a single hook and a little bait. He wants to catch everything. So he throws a net into the sea and catches us all. And he wants us as a church to do the same.
Now, there will come a day when Jesus will judge the fish that he’s caught. This parable makes that clear. But, for now, Jesus is out to catch every fish that he can, without judgement. And he calls us to do the same – to cast our net far and wide, and draw all people into this blessed community called the church, where we are sheltered, nourished, and given the hope and the peace and the joy that is only found in Jesus. Jesus wants us all to throw this kingdom net into the sea, in whatever way that we can in these strange times. It is not up to us to judge, or to sort what is caught. It is up to us simply to throw the net. And to throw it wide.
In every corner of our world, plant the seed, mix in the yeast, share our faith and hope and love. Tell others of the treasure we have found, the pearl of great price, the one thing that matters more than anything else, worth giving our lives to, worth whatever it takes so that we can be part of it.
It is priceless. But, miraculously, it is given to us freely. The kingdom of heaven is a gift to be received, and a treasure to be shared. It is a net to be cast into the sea around us, with the hope that all will be caught up in the love of Christ; that all will discover this priceless treasure that gives meaning to our lives, and that fills us with hope come what may.
One day, the kingdom of heaven will come in its fullness, and what a day of celebration that will be. But, in the meantime, we pray that God’s kingdom will come to us, and through us, until all the world is caught up in its love. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen