“The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Matthew 13:31
Jesus’ words are a great encouragement; for those of us who belong to small and traditional churches, who sometimes become discouraged, who sometimes wonder about the future, they are a great encouragement. Jesus tells us that things that are small and the ordinary and the diverse and old can be used to build the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus tells us that big things can can from small things. In Saint Matthew Chapter 13 Verses 31-32, he tells his listeners, “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, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches”. Jesus is saying that it is not how something starts out that matters, it is how it finishes.
How we finish depends on us. The mustard seed is taken and sown in the field, in order that it may grow. Are we prepared to move from where we are and perhaps have to face unfamiliar things in order that our church can be part of the kingdom of heaven? “The birds of the air come and make nests in its branches,” the mustard seed becomes a shrub that hosts those who are unfamiliar; if our church is like a mustard seed, how ready are we to welcome newcomers and strangers? Don’t we prefer our own company, don’t we prefer being among those whom we know? If we continue that way, how shall the tree grow?
Small things can bring big changes. In Verse 33, Jesus says,”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”. The small amount of yeast can leaven the large amount of dough. Our task is to be like yeast, to change things, our task is to have the confidence to believe that in our own small ways we can build up the kingdom of heaven.
Big things can come from small things and precious things can come from ordinary things. Jesus uses two examples of people searching for precious possessions in Verses 44-46, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it”.
Jesus is saying to his listeners that the kingdom of heaven is so precious that they should be prepared to give up everything else in order to be part of it. Yet it may not be obvious to see, the treasure in the field is found, and hidden in order that the finder can devote himself to buying the field. Jesus would say to us that the kingdom of heaven is among us, but how ready are we to devote our whole selves to the kingdom?
The merchant finds the pearl of great price and he sets aside all the ordinary things in his life in order to have that pearl, which for him has become the most precious thing of all. If the kingdom of heaven is like that pearl, how ready are we to give up everything else for the sake of the kingdom? Jesus is not saying that the kingdom of heaven is like something easily achieved; he is saying there needs to be sacrifice, sometimes the sacrifice of all we have.
Big things from little things, precious things through giving up ordinary things, Jesus then tells his listeners that the kingdom of heaven can be one thing gathered in from many and diverse things. In Verses 47-48, he says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad”.
The kingdom of heaven is not one kind of fish; the net catches fish of every kind. The fish are not sorted by species, they are sorted by whether they are good or bad. Jesus is giving a word of warning; heaven does not come through being a member of a particular group, it comes from being judged on how we have responded to him. There is always a temptation, particularly in traditional churches like our own, to feel that our place in the kingdom of heaven is guaranteed by our church membership – it is not. In the parable, the bad, whatever sort they might be, are thrown out. The parable is a warning to us.
Big things from small things; precious things from ordinary things; one thing from many things; and new things from old things. Jesus questions his listeners in Verses 51-52, “Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’
For a small and traditional church, these are reassuring words, not only are we offered the chance to be like the mustard seed, to seek the kingdom as something precious, to be part of the catch, but the master of the household has in his treasure things both new and old. The scribes were those who preserved the Scriptures and the traditions; Scripture and tradition are part of the treasure of the household of God.
We have a contribution to make to the kingdom, as church members encouraging the the church to grow as the mustard seed; as committed Christians, seeking the kingdom before all things; as those caught in the net of the kingdom, who will be sorted on the day of judgement; and as people of Scripture and tradition who offer old treasure to with the new.
The kingdom of heaven is like many things. May we, by God’s grace, be part of it.