Scripture: Matthew 13: 31-35; 44-46 Nigel Bunce
The new normal and the Kingdom of Heaven
Will the new normal that we hear about these days usher in the Kingdom of Heaven? Or will it be like the old normal? It’s our choice.
Today, Matthew tells us that Jesus talked to the disciples and the crowds in parables. Jesus and the Gospel writers were all excellent story-tellers. In their mostly non-literate society, they had to make their message memorable. Dry lectures would not have cut it! As a university teacher, I automatically got in the habit of telling stories about toxicology and environmental chemistry. I enjoyed presenting the material that way. I hope that the students did too.
Four little parables and the Kingdom of Heaven
We just heard four of Jesus’ shortest parables. They told his hearers what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like. The first two explain that the Kingdom will be something you would never have guessed. A tiny mustard seed grows into a great shrub. That’s the image of Paul and Barnabas touring the Middle East. They made new converts and changed whole areas to what would later become Christianity.
Jesus also used the image that a speck of yeast can leaven a whole loaf of bread This is an interesting metaphor for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. As I said to the children, Jesus seems to suggest that those of us who try to follow his teachings might be able to leaven those around us. That would bring the Kingdom closer.
However, leavening happens unseen, stealthily. First century society did not know about the existence of yeast. People used a small piece previously leavened dough to make leavened bread. Like using sourdough. Leavening must have seemed like magic. That made the Temple authorities suspicious of leaven. It seemed to be sly, not really pure. That’s why Jews had to remove all leavened products from their homes to prepare for Passover.
The other two parables depict the Kingdom as incredibly valuable. Like a field containing a buried treasure chest, or an amazingly beautiful pearl. You would sell everything you had to buy it. In our day, people risk their lives trying to leave North Africa on overcrowded boats to try to reach the European Union. Or walking to the US through dangerous Central American countries. They pay human traffickers everything they have to get to their Promised Land.
Jesus preached a similar message to the Hebrew prophets
Most of Jesus’ other parables consider what it would be like if life on earth operated on God’s rules, not human rules. Like the prophets before him, Jesus promised a new age of righteousness. First century Jews lived under Roman occupation and oppression. They hoped that the new age would come on earth. It would not be a spiritual rebirth in a spiritual heaven, as many modern day Christians believe.
The new normal and the Kingdom of Heaven
The hope of a better world exists in Canada today. COVID19 has opened society’s eyes to injustices that we have wilfully ignored. Terrible conditions in homes that provide long term care for our frail elderly citizens. And for the migrant workers who pick our fruits and vegetables. Lack of affordable housing in our cities. Low pay for those we have called essential – or front-line – workers.
Will we wake up to the fact that all these injustices are the result of how we allocate our money? That those of us who live comfortable lives do so because other people do not live in comfort? Will we pay the staff in care homes and grocery clerks (to take two examples) wages and benefits to let them to live in dignity? Or will the “new normal” go back to being as close as possible to the old normal? Like removing the $2 /hour extra pay to grocery staff on June 30th.
Jesus said a lot about what the Kingdom of Heaven might be like. I think he was really telling people that he had a dream – the same dream of peace and justice of the Old Testament prophets.. No corruption. Fairness for everyone. This summer, Black and Indigenous people have pushed heir grievances about lack of equality to the fore. They realize that the Kingdom of Heaven will not arrive stealthily on its own. They must make a noise, to be in other peoples’ faces, so as to be heard.
Hopes and dreams
We use the expression ‘hopes and dreams’ to capture the idea that I am trying to convey. So I think that we could sum up Jesus’ parable about the Kingdom of Heaven as God’s dream for us. It represents how we behave towards each other. That is the message of the hymn, “I am the dream, and you the dreamer.”
In that song, God dreams about what we might become or achieve. That is very different from God as ruler of a conventional Kingdom, making laws we have to obey. Two different metaphors for the Kingdom of Heaven. Either God sets the rules, and forces everyone on earth to be just and righteous. Or God inspires the dream of justice in us. We saw the second model last week when God inspired Jacob in a dream. It changed Jacob’s life.
It’s no coincidence that Martin Luther King used the metaphor of a dream in his famous speech. He dreamed of equal civil and economic rights for African Americans in the United States. That dream is alive but unfulfilled right now in Canada. Especially for equality of treatment and opportunity for Black and Indigenous people. Last month, Michelle and I found the huge Black Lives Matter march in Guelph incredibly inspiring. Thousands of young people marched for justice after the murder of George Floyd.
Could the new normal really usher in the Kingdom of Heaven
Perhaps this moment will begin the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven as the “new normal”. Or will the old normal return? That is up to us, individually as well as collectively. Perhaps dreaming puts it too passively for us, here in Canada, in July 2020. Because the Kingdom of Heaven can’t be just an intellectual exercise. Dreaming about it isn’t enough.
Protest marches are important, because they draw attention to injustices. But are we who are comfortable, willing to relinquish some of our privileges in society to help those who have less? Are we willing to pay higher prices for our groceries so that the store clerks get decent pay? Will we accept higher taxes to pay for better care for the elderly and to build more affordable housing? Will we vote for candidates who demand an end to injustice?
You may ask why God doesn’t just take the short cut and impose the divine will on us? I’ve addressed this before. God created us with free will. Imposition of the divine will would make us merely robots. God probably grieves when we mess up the world. But, as Pelagius wrote 1500 years ago, the freedom to choose evil is actually evidence of God’s care and love for Creation.
Whether we make the new normal into the Kingdom of Heaven is our choice
In the song, “I am the dream, and you the dreamer,” God is the dreamer. We are the action part of God’s dream. We can choose, or not, to be the leaven that helps make God’s dream, the Kingdom of Heaven, come true. Is the Kingdom really a pearl of great price that we will pay big money for? Will the new normal bring the Kingdom of Heaven a little closer? Or will it be like the old normal? It’s our choice.