When I begin the training for new CRE Teachers I usually lead a devotional thought on the Kingdom of Heaven based on the Kingdom parables we find in Matthew 13.
When we are involved in our own denominational and local church work our understanding of church very easily latches onto the idea of who belongs and who does not belong – as the most important thing. Church people, it seems to me, spend an inordinate amount of time determining who is IN and who is OUT. That is what the CREEDS are all about. That is what MEMBERSHIP is all about.
And it is very common for us to think of this as being all about THE KINGDOM OF GOD because surely, where we are, in our church, there is the Kingdom of God.
So, it comes as a bit of a surprise when we begin to rightly apprehend what these parables in Matthew 13 are all about. Let me recall them briefly to you.
The chapter begins with what we call “The Parable of the Sower” and this is the only one that does not begin with the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven is like ...” But in the little interlude Matthew creates between telling us the parable and having Jesus explain the meaning of it, Jesus explains that he wants to speak to them in parables so that they might understand “the secrets of the kingdom of Heaven.” And in the explanation of the parable Jesus refers to the seed sown as words of the Kingdom.
So, in this parable, we see Jesus explaining that the words of the Kingdom will be broadcast freely for all, and, yes, the effect of them on people will be variable, but no-one is excluded from hearing it.
The next parable we call the parable of the “Weeds Among the Wheat”. The sower and the field create the image of the Kingdom here, and when weeds are seen to grow up among the wheat, in a sense contaminating the crop, the sower restrains his workers from the desire to decontaminate the crop by pulling the weeds up. The sower knows that purging the crop like this would actually undermine the viability of the wheat – it, too, would die.
The important idea in this parable is that the sorting of the good from the bad is something God would do at the end of time – the harvest – it was not something for us in the here and now.
Jesus then tells a number of very short parables – the Mustard Seed, the Yeast, the Treasure, the Pearl and the Net. Each begins with the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven is like ...”
The Mustard Seed creates a great tree that can provide shelter for all the different kinds of birds of the air. A little bit of yeast in the loaf is enough to transform it (in other words the church doesn’t have to dominate the political system in order to transform society). The treasure in the field and the pearl of great price show the Kingdom to be something that, once found, whether by accident or as a result of a careful and exhasutive quest, one would be willing to give everything in return for.
It is the final parable, I think, that ties all these together, and is the one I draw my prospective teacher’s attention to.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a NET.” The story goes on to explain how the net gathers in all sorts of fish. The NET gathers them in – they are all in the Kingdom. But as with the Parable of the Weeds in the Wheat, the sorting out of the good and the bad is something reserved for the end of time, and for God’s angels in heaven. It is not something we should attend to in the here and now.
This clearly paints a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven as an INCLUSIVE place and a public school classroom must also be an incklusive place. But most of us don’t realise how radical this claim of Jesus was in his time and place.
Jesus, in his teaching and in his actions, challenged some of the fundamental ideas of the religious elite of his day.
The Scribes and Pharisees had created a religion based on two pillars – LAW and COVENANT – but these gifts of God that had been intended as a blessing had become a burden, even a curse, to the people.
Through the LAW they created a PURITY CODE by which people and things were all categorised as CLEAN or UNCLEAN and certain highly controlled rituals were necessary to transform UNCLEAN things or people into CLEAN things or people.
Reliant on the LAW these same people corrupted the idea of COVENANT from something centred on intimate relationship with God into a system of REQUIREMENTS and REWARDS – “If you do this and this and this, God will give you this and this and this.”
It was all very neat and mechanistic.
But Jesus challenged and indeed repudiated all these things – no wonder he got it in the neck.
Which brings me, at last (you probably wondering why did we read from Luke if he was going to preach on Matthew?) to the story we have in Luke’s Gospel that was read to us just now.
If you were a Jewish person of the first century hearing this story for the first time you would have immediately seen two very big RED FLAGS at which you would have been outraged.
Firstly, this woman was well known or visibly seen to be a person of ill-repute and touching her, or letting her touch you, would mean that you would be ritually unclean for at least a week.
Everyone knows this. Jesus should have known this.
But even worse, Jesus let her touch his feet. This was a very rude thing for her to do. Remember the story of Naomi and Ruth in the Hebrrew scriptures? Naomi told Ruth to go to Baoz and after he had eaten dinner, drunk too much wine and gone to sleep, she was to go and “uncover his feet” and lie there. When he awoke, Boaz would reasonably assume that “something had happened” that night and that he was now obligated to marry Ruth.
If the story were set in our time I guess the woman would embrace and kiss Jesus in the most passionate way possible in public.
BUT JESUS DOES NOTHING.
Now Simon, Jesus’ Pharisee host, recognised this straight away and his mind was racing with outrage, but he was too “polite” to mention it.
However, Jesus isn’t afraid to barge in. Just as the Pharisees often tried to trap Jesus, I think here Jesus traps Simon. His story of the money-lender and gratitude sets the scene for Jesus to gently scold Simon for his lack of hospitality which demonstrates that his efforts to live an exemplary and “sinless” life have actually diminished his capacity to love God – to be grateful.
Jesus then addresses the woman with these words – “Your sins are forgiven,” and “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” When some people retell this story the blend into it words from another story of Jesus with a woman “Go, and sin no more” but these words are not present in this story.
I find these words remarkable in our time, as much as they were remarkable in Jesus’ day. As well as adding “Go, and sin no more” most of us want to hear Jesus asking the woman to “repent of her sin” but these words are not present in the story and they outraged the first hearers of the story as much as they might outrage you, now that I have drawn your attention to them.
As you go through in your mind the stories of Jesus encountering so-called bad people – The woman from Samaria, Zacchaeus and others, and even the people in the stories he related like the Prodigal Son, Jesus never challenges these people to “repent” of their sin. We generally associate repentance with Contrition or being sorry for what we have done and determining never to do that again. In the Hebrew mind repentance is simply about “turning to God” or binding yourself into relationship with God. This is what has the power to transform the lives of the people in these stories – not the determination to BE GOOD NOW.
So, here is Jesus breaking all the rules, challenging people to think about old things in new ways – these are the treasures Jesus refers in that last story in Matthew 13.
And Jesus is creating a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven that isn’t quite what our template says it should be.
He sees the Kingdom of Heaven as an inclusive place, a place where all are gathered in, and where our place together is based on nurturing our relationship together with God, where God’s grace can abound and is celebrated. This is the place where transformation can take place, something that God wants us all to experience.
So, if we develop an approach to church that excludes people because we think they are not good enough yet, then we are preventing them from being in a place God needs them to be for that transformation to take place. So long as we don’t know the end of a person’s story we, none of us, can even hint at the possibility that they were IN or OUT.
We are easily inclined to creating all sorts of hurdles for people to go through to “get in” and to “stay in” but this story, and so many of the stories that are told of Jesus’ encounters with people as well as his teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven would suggest that we are called to a different way – a way that could lead to social and even ecclesiastical outrage – as we welcome all sorts, the “outcasts” of our day, to join us in the Kingdom of Heaven. We might even think it creditable to be regarded as a “friend of sinners, a glutton and a wine-bibber.”
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