The term “kingdom of heaven” permeates Matthew’s Gospel. John the Baptist declares it at hand, Jesus repeats John’s claims to his first disciples, preaches about the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount, and teaches about it wherever he goes. If Jesus were a character in a 1970s sitcom, “kingdom of heaven” would be his lame catchphrase. And his actions narrate its meaning for us. We know what he is talking about because he does it. He returns to this image as we return to the same stories to explain God’s work in the world. We turn to Good Friday, or Easter, or Creation. Jesus in Matthew turns to kingdom of heaven. The term is shorthand for stories that explain our experience. One of the functions of narrative, according to theorists like P. J. Rabinowitz and Terry Eagleton, is to legitimate what we experience. We have stories to reinforce that what we think happened, happened and means what we say it means. An example of this is Judah before the Exile.
Over the centuries, the Kingdom of Judah developed a state doctrine that the Lord had granted them special status among all people. He liked them the best, rescued them from Egypt, had given them special Laws that made them his special people, and guaranteed their kingdom would always be independent. Judah always survived: when Assyria crushed Israel; when Assyria besieged Jerusalem; when King Josiah died fighting the Egyptians; when young King Jehoiachin surrendered himself as a hostage to Babylon. Judah seemed to have a charmed life, and they credited it to God. In 587 BCE it ended. For the second time in 10 years the Babylonians came to Jerusalem, and this time they destroyed the city, looted and demolished the Temple, murdered the king’s sons, and carried most of the population into exile in Babylon. Even the most ardent believers in Judah’s eternal independence had a problem. When your faith tells you your country is special and God will keep it independent and then you wind up conquered and exiled, you’ve got a bit of a faith crisis on your hands. Turns out Judah was small, very small, in a big, bad world. And then it happened again! Centuries passed, the Judeans came back, and it seemed maybe that Exile was an aberration. Then, in the year 70 CE, the Romans crushed the Judean rebellion, plundered the temple, and dragged people away—this time to Rome.
In the years following Rome’s victory, there came to be a little book called Fourth Ezra. It’s in Orthodox Bibles, and influenced early Christian writings; you won’t find it in standard protestant Bibles. It matters to us today because it deals with that crisis of faith that arises in being made to feel small, and it does so in terms like Jesus’ in Matthew 13.
In the story, a man named Ezra confronts God. He retells creation according to Genesis 1, reminds God that of Adam’s descendants Judah is God’s favorite, and then he demands to know why Judah has been made so small. An angel tells Ezra that the path to a greater, immortal world is narrow, and your people haven’t walked it. He lays out a system we Lutherans would probably call “works righteousness”: follow the Law and God will love you. Ezra rejects this. The angel asks him about his enemies who don’t follow the Law, and Ezra finds himself defending his enemies. The angel tells Ezra praying for his enemies is futile. Ezra prays for them anyways, and begs God not to see their sins. Then the angel tells Ezra—in words familiar to us—“Just as the farmer sows many seeds in the ground and plants a multitude of seedlings, and yet not all that have been sown will come up in due season, and not all that were planted will take root; so also those who have been sown in the world will not all be saved.” Ezra replies, “That’s horrible!” The angel says, “Well, don’t worry. You’re one of the seeds that sprouts!” Ezra says, “That’s still horrible! What the hell is God thinking?!”
The angel tells Ezra, “Look, I’ve gotta go. Pray about this.” Ezra prays. While Ezra is praying, God flips the seed sowing metaphor on him, and God says through Ezra, “I sow my Torah in you, and it shall bring forth fruit in you, and you shall be glorified through it forever.” Ezra realizes, God has planted the Word in him, and in everyone. The Word will bear God’s fruit one way or another. Ezra’s job is to bear fruit. In prayer and discernment and struggle with God, Ezra has learned that he, like God’s Word, is sown in the World. His previous ways of thinking about God perish. God is not the national protector of Judah, any more than God mercilessly condemns all people who don’t follow the narrow path. God puts us here to do God’s work.
Ezra discerns after wrestling with faith and real life. He struggles with feeling small when he had thought God would make him big. We grow in faith and understanding through such struggling. Jesus’ parable of the sower poses the same challenge of feeling small despite the promise of a “Kingdom of Heaven.” By being a parable, it encourages us to struggle as Ezra does. Just as I revisited the story of the Exile a while back, Jesus revisits the kingdom of heaven. I mentioned his actions have narrated its meaning. Over twelve chapters Jesus has shown us that the kingdom of heaven is a demanding divine presence that disturbs and reorients us, and releases us from the destructive, creating wholeness and community.
Jesus invokes these stories of healing and teaching, calling and preaching, and then unleashes a parable—a curveball. Something not straightforward. It doesn’t work as a straight up allegory: at first Jesus is talking about the Word sown on the path, but then he talks of the people being sown (like in Ezra’s dialog). And that easily, Jesus has us struggling to understand. Jesus has us challenging him: Are we the soil or are we the seeds? And what does it mean? What does it mean that some “fall away,” some “don’t understand,” and that some are “choked by the cares of the world?” Is that, like, forever? How is that fair? What about people who “fall away” because the church is being persecuted and they want to protect their children? And those returns on the seed! A hundredfold yield? Best estimates are that in those days tenfold yield is a bumper crop; sevenfold is normal. How the heck am I supposed to produce a hundredfold? Or even thirty? If I don’t, am I one of those who don’t understand, got choked by the world, or fell away?
We find ourselves struggling like Ezra did. Just as God flipped the metaphor for Ezra, God flips it for us: God has sown the Word and it will bear fruit one way or another. The seed is small. Its goal never was to become a really big seed. The goal was the crop. The seed may lie in the ground many years before it sprouts. It may sprout at an odd time, or it may seem that our sprout isn’t all that spectacular on its own. But that was never the goal. The goal was the crop, the kingdom of heaven.
The parable is, in its way, the kingdom of heaven. The parable is a demanding divine presence. In it Jesus disturbs us—I was okay before I read it. Through it Jesus reorients us—that guy had me praying for my enemies and abandoning my cherished myths! Of my own free will! Through the parable Jesus releases us from the destructive—I’m not concerned with feeling small, neither down on myself because of it, nor trying to make others feel it. In the parable Jesus creates wholeness and community—I find myself among people who struggle with God and thereby find peace, acceptance and fulness in the community.
In the parable, Jesus challenges us to join the struggle that the story of 4th Ezra narrates to us. He challenges us to take that faith journey ourselves. Our stories in the Church aren’t like those of most institutions. Most institutions are like Judah was before the Exile—the stories legitimate the status quo and invoke God to bless it. The Church’s story disturbs and disorients us. Oh, it’s been used to legitimate every situation under the sun, and God has been invoked to bless everything you can think of. But the kingdom of heaven is at best an awkward fit in these situations. It is a seed threatening to sprout unexpectedly and do something unpredictable. If our stories legitimate our experience, they legitimate our experience of the kingdom of heaven, of being disturbed and reoriented, of having new possibilities opened to us, of being released from destruction, of being brought into community.
Our stories wait, like the kingdom of heaven, like the parable, like the small seed. They wait to disturb us. It happens to me every Sunday this time of year. I know it’s coming; still gets me. I’m presiding at communion, singing the preface, and I say the words, “Jesus Christ who on this day overcame death and the grave.” And I sing it knowing that I’ve put the bodies and ashes of grandparents and uncles in the ground, buried loved ones and strangers, and I am fairly confident they’re where I put them. But all the challenges of resurrection versus death are at the front of my mind. (Why is Jesus risen and Grandpa isn’t? If my uncle is free why am I stuck here?) The Easter story starts playing, joyful funerals are coming back to me, and I’ve got stuff to do: I’m still chanting, here, I can’t stop. And yet I am in the struggle again. Jesus disturbs and reorients me (at a really lousy time) and it is wonderful. Such is the small seed. Such is the church’s story. Such is the kingdom of heaven.