I love the parables of the kingdom. They are like the iTunes icon on an iPad. If you click on the Music icon, you open up an existing library of music; and if you click on the iTunes icon, you open up a store from which you can download more: treasures old; and treasures new. If you click on iTunes, you won’t get sat nav, or the weather forecast, or your photos, or text-based documents, or Angry Birds. Parables can’t mean whatever we like; but if we think we know the meaning of a parable, it is like saying of iTunes, “Yeah, I’ve heard that album.” Every time we try to pin a parable down, God in his wisdom won’t allow it: because the scope of the kingdom is too high and wide and deep to be grasped in that way. Parables reveal to us treasures new.
The kingdom was one of Jesus’ favourite themes. Mark summarises Jesus’ entire ministry with the opening declaration: “The time has come...The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). According to Jesus, the kingdom is both now, and not yet; has drawn close enough to enter, and is delayed. It is the reign of God, breaking-in to our world, driving back the reign of injustice and oppression. Way back at the beginning of our story, God had created men and women to know him and to represent him, exercising his rule on his behalf on this earth. We had abdicated our position; but Jesus came, as one of us, to win it back. And when he did, God didn’t say, “I won’t make the same mistake again; from now on, I’m keeping this responsibility myself.” Incredibly, God has restored us to our position as his ambassadors: because God never had, and never will have, a Plan B.
And so as we listen to these parables of the kingdom of heaven, we ought to ask, “What are we supposed to be like? How are we supposed to exercise God’s life-releasing rule?”
The way God’s rule is exercised is like a seed, which must surrender its existence in order that a shrub might grow.
The way God’s rule is exercised is like yeast, which must surrender its existence in order that the dough might rise.
The way God’s rule is exercised is like treasure, which is buried, abandoned, forgotten, not displayed in a place of honour – its existence surrendered, awaiting such time as someone might happen upon it.
The way God’s rule is exercised is like a merchant, who is willing to surrender his existence – for what is a merchant with nothing left that they are willing or able to trade? – in order to buy fine pearls.
And in each case, the focus is not the agent of the kingdom – the seed, the yeast, the buried treasure, the merchant – but others, described variously as birds, the hungry, a completely undeserving inheritor, and fine pearls.
What are we supposed to be like? How are we supposed to exercise God’s rule? After the pattern of Jesus, who calls us to die to self in order to live the life God has for us, and in order that others – whom the world sees as a nuisance, and leaves hungry, all the while resenting any good fortune that might come their way, and never ever seeing them as a thing of exquisite beauty - might experience the generosity of God.
It is crucial that we should understand this, because it is not inconceivable that we live in a world where individuals, and communities, who call themselves Christian and believe themselves to be acting in a way that exercises God’s rule and brings him glory, advocate and even bring death to others. There is no evil in God, and evil does not come from his hand, as a part of his plan we are simply not wise enough to grasp. Evil is the resistance against God’s life-affirming rule; and we are caught-up in a clash between two kingdoms, in the fierce fighting between the decisive breakthrough, the sacrificial beach-head of Calvary, and the end of hostilities.
And it is also crucial that we, who might never do such things, should understand this, because we are daily pressed to conform to the pattern of the world, which says you must achieve status, you must amass wealth, you must secure your future...Resistance against God’s rule finds expression in more subtle ways than a gun. God has made us co-heirs with his Son, and is at loving work to conform us to his sent and broken and glorified likeness as we live-out our fully-resourced calling to embrace death to self in order to bring life to others.
Another parable: the kingdom of heaven is like a net let down into the lake. That is, people are supposed to be caught up in the experience of the kingdom, are supposed to experience what God’s reign is like. How they respond is not for us to judge, but for the angels. We, who are invited to know God and challenged to represent him, are the net which describes the area within which people experience the kingdom.
I am struck by the accounts of Jesus calling his first disciples. Mark records that Simon Peter and Andrew were casting their net into the lake, because they were fishermen; while James and John were preparing their net. Matthew says the same. Luke’s version has them washing their nets, having returned from fishing. Now, I think it is fair to say that we tend to read this as background detail. But if it is true that the Spirit of God breathes life into all scripture, so that it becomes useful to us for our instruction, and where necessary, rebuke, then such background detail is not merely background detail. If disciples are to fish for people, then we need to understand something about how to fish.
We tend to fish the English way: as a solitary pursuit, with a rod and line, stalking one good fish at a time; meeting up at the clubhouse to tell tall tales of fish we have caught in days gone by, and the elusive Ones That Got Away...
That isn’t what Jesus would recognise as how to fish. We need a net: a net in which each one of us that has entered the kingdom is a knot; a net that can scoop up a great many fish – of all kinds, some good and some bad – at once. If we are to be sewn-together into a net, we must discover one another’s gifts, and how they work together. If we are to be sewn-together into a net, we must connect together, so that the net does not come under too great a strain at certain knots. If we are to be sewn-together into a net, we must regularly attend to those things that, left unattended, tear a net to shreds: disagreement, and disappointment, and competition. You see, the lake has always been full of fish...and disciples have always been confronted with having fished all night and caught nothing; are always invited to submit their experience to Jesus’ authority and challenged to throw out their net and draw in more fish than they can imagine.
These are the ways in which we prepare our net for fishing; in which we fish with our net; in which we clean our net having gone fishing.
Jesus ends these parables of the kingdom by asking, “Have you understood?” Have you heard the Spirit of God speak a word to you which enables you to respond with faith? That word might be the invitation to die to self, enabled by just a glimpse of the life beyond. That word might be the challenge to see others from a heavenly perspective, as birds God cares for, or fine pearls he values beyond price. That word might be go and find a partner who can work with you to prepare your net. We are entrusted with a treasure-store. Will you bring out what you have heard God speak to you today, so that the kingdom is extended, bringing life to those around you?