It’s good for us to ask ourselves sometimes ‘What are the things we treasure the most?’
Of course, for most of us, the answer will be about relationships, not material things. But still, most of us own a lot of material things! Maybe it’s not a bad thing to ask ourselves from time to time “If I had ten minutes to leave the house and I could only take a few things with me, knowing that I was going to lose the rest – what would I take?” Most people over a certain age think about grabbing photo albums – for younger folks, their photos are all on the iCloud anyway, so that’s not so crucial! But there might still be some family mementos or heirlooms that are particularly precious to us. And then there are things we love; I know I’d be trying to fit at least one of my guitars in if I could!
But deep down inside, I suspect most of us treasure relationships – with a spouse or partner, with children, with parents, with close friends. Love is what makes the world go round, and the people we love are the most treasured part of our lives.
Another angle on this is ‘What about communal things’? In other words, do our best treasures have to be things we own, or can they be things we share with others? For instance, one treasured part of my life is traditional folk music; I love learning these old songs passed down from one generation to another over hundreds of years, and I love passing them on to others in turn. The Way of Jesus is even more of a treasure to me – it’s what gives meaning and purpose to my life. These are not things that I own or even that especially pertain to me as an individual: they are common treasures, shared with many other people around the world and through time.
In two of the parables in today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as a precious treasure. Let me remind you of Matthew 13:44-46:
Jesus said, “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 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 he had and bought it”’.
Anyone who sells every single thing he owns to buy one pearl obviously treasures that pearl more than anything else in his life. We might even call him a fanatic; he’s obviously not doing it for the money, but because of some crazy attachment to the pearl. But what’s he going to live on? What’s his retirement plan? Is he insane? Unbalanced? Off his rocker?
It all depends on the nature of the pearl, doesn’t it?
So what is ‘the kingdom of heaven’? A lot of people today assume that when Jesus talked about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ he was talking about ‘going to heaven after we die’, but that’s not the case. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’, but when Mark and Luke tell the same stories, they have Jesus using the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’. The difference likely comes from the fact that Matthew was writing for Jewish people and they’re tend to be shy about speaking the word ‘God’, out of respect for God. But the two phrases – ‘kingdom of heaven’ and ‘kingdom of God’ – mean exactly the same thing. They’re not talking about some faraway, spiritual place where we go when we die. They’re talking about God’s loving rule in this world, the world we live in, in the here and now.
This world at present is full of evil and suffering, but God is working to change that situation. Jesus talks about this change in the Lord’s Prayer, when he teaches us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. The second half of that phrase explains the first: when God’s loving will is done on earth, as it is in heaven, then God’s kingdom is coming. God’s kingdom is all about God’s loving will being done on earth, as human beings acknowledge God’s rule in their lives and follow his ways. That’s why Jesus once said to his disciples, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).
This is obviously not a geographical kingdom. You can’t see it on a map, like you can see Canada or the United States. This is a community of people that has spread around the world. They come from different races and nationalities; they speak different languages and have different cultures. But they are bound together by their allegiance to Jesus, God’s anointed king, and by their commitment to following the command of Jesus: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
What does this kingdom of heaven look like? Jesus told many parables about it, but I think it also helps for us to look back at the Old Testament scriptures that would have inspired Jesus and his early followers. The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’ rarely appears in the Old Testament, but the idea itself is all over the place, especially in the prophets. Here’s Micah:
‘In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’ (Micah 4:1-4).
So we see here a time when people all over the world will turn to God and seek God’s guidance. They will come streaming to Jerusalem to receive instruction from God and learn to walk in God’s ways. And the result will be that war will be no more; people will beat their weapons into farming tools and each of them will live in their own homes in safety.
This is obviously not talking about dying and going to heaven. This is a hope located firmly on this earth. There are still different nations and ethnic groups and from time to time they still have disagreements, but they accept God’s word on the matter as final and they live together under his rule.
Here’s Isaiah’s take on the same theme; he starts with the promise of a Messiah, a descendant of David the son of Jesse, who will be a good king over God’s people:
‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:1-4a, 6-9).
This passage is not talking about some mythical future time when the biology of lions and bears will be changed so that they become vegetarians. The animals are symbols for natural enemies; in Isaiah’s time that would have been Israel and Assyria, or later on Babylon. Today we can think of the United States and North Korea, or Russia and Ukraine. The Messiah is a good king who comes to bring peace between nations. As a result of his rule, natural enemies are reconciled with each other and don’t prey on each other any more. There’s no more hurting or destroying, and the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord – which, in the Bible, doesn’t mean knowledge about the Lord, but experiential knowledge.
So this is the pearl of great price that the man sold his house for. The Kingdom of heaven is the promise that God has set in motion a movement that eventually will lead to justice and reconciliation, peace and security. It will be an end to greed and selfishness, hatred and violence and war. It won’t be spread by compulsion; there will be no troops sent out to force other people to enter the Kingdom of God. Rather, an invitation will be sent to everyone, but the decision to come to the mountain of the Lord and receive his instruction will be a decision that everyone makes for themselves, of their own free will.
Interestingly, the early Christians did not see this as something that was going to happen only in some faraway future. They saw it as something that has begun to happen in the here and now. When the apostles and early missionaries went out from Jerusalem to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, they saw that as a fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy that ‘out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’ (Micah 4:2). The early Christians turned away from all war and violence and lived out the command to love their enemies; in this way they were fulfilling the prophecy about beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Yes, there is going to be a future fulfilment of this prophecy, but it would be a cop-out for us to consign it to the future. This is something we’re invited to live into now.
You see now why Jesus asks us to make this the greatest treasure of our lives, above everything else that we value? We’re talking about a world with no more hatred and violence, no more selfishness and greed; a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much. We’re talking about God’s original dream for the human race, living together in peace and caring for his creation as stewards of the earth.
How is this spread today? Matthew 13 is all about this question. At the beginning of today’s gospel Jesus gives us some hints:
‘“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all 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.”
‘He told them another parable: “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” (Matthew 13:31-33).
These parables both emphasise the gradual growth of the Kingdom, and its hidden nature. This is not spectacular! It doesn’t make the news; the world doesn’t notice it going on. I think about Jean Vanier leaving his naval career and moving to France to start a home with two mentally challenged people – the beginning of the L’Arche movement that has slowly and quietly spread around the world. I think about the way Habitat for Humanity started from small beginnings and has spread around the world to make life better for people who can’t afford housing. I think of the millions of people of faith around the world who quietly serve in food banks and volunteer and give consistently to projects to improve the lives of the poor. None of this is about coercion and force; it’s all about love and service.
The Kingdom of Heaven spreads one heart at a time. People hear the message of Jesus and they are gripped by it; they decide that this ‘pearl of great price’ is the greatest treasure they could possibly imagine. So they turn from their previous goals and commitments; they make a commitment to follow Jesus, and they ask him to teach them the ways of the Kingdom of God. They ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’. They make the Kingdom of heaven the number one value of their lives. And because they do this, the world is changed for the better.
This is what we commit ourselves to as baptized Christians. As parents bringing children for baptism, or as adults being baptized ourselves, our baptism is about our citizenship in God’s kingdom. As we grow, we learn to treasure that Kingdom above any other goal or aspiration in our lives. We learn to seek first the Kingdom of God. And we do our best to spread it: not by coercion or force, but by love and conversation.
This is what Jesus is all about. This is what we’re all about as Christians. Christianity is a Kingdom of God movement, and each one of us is part of it. So let me challenge you today to do as Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel: to treasure God’s kingdom above every other priority in your life, and to make it your number one value. As we do that, and as we live it out in our daily decisions and habits, the love of God will spread until ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9).
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.