At the end of all of the stories about the kingdom of heaven in Chapter 13 of the gospel of Matthew, strung together like a handful of the pearls that feature in one of the images, Jesus the spiritual teacher asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they say, “Yes.”
Well, bully for them.
Kingdom of heaven?
What are we even talking about in the first place?
Pearly gates? No, just one pearl, in hand.
Otherworldly? No, seed planted and treasure buried, in this earth.
After death? No, embodied; put into us like yeast in dough.
So that’s what it isn’t. But what is it, the kingdom of heaven?
Maybe what we’re talking about is a capacity. Amongst the definitions of capacity is “innate potential for growth, development or accomplishment.”
Now “capacity” on its own is a neutral word.
And “capacity” defined as “innate potential for growth, development or accomplishment” can go either way.
When cities start realising their capacity for growth by spreading out further and further we call that, pejoratively, sprawl. It is not necessarily a good thing, especially when inner city properties fall into disuse and what develops in abandoned neighbourhoods are ghettos and blight.
Think of the capacity for nuclear power, but remember the annihilating “accomplishment” of the atom bomb which terrified even the scientists who developed it. J. Robert Oppenhiemer famously breathed, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” On the brink of marking the beginning of the First World War, with conflicts raging in so many places, we are far too aware of human capacity for destruction.
These kingdom of heaven stories are not cautionary tales, however. If anything, they are the opposite. We have images of people recklessly throwing themselves – all they have and are – to acquire the goodness of the kingdom of heaven.
There is an image of the innate potential for goodness hidden amongst the images of the kingdom of heaven in the gospel of Matthew, much like the kingdom itself is hidden in fields and loaves of bread. The gospel writer is making a hyperlink to Daniel 4: 10-22, particularly verses 11-12, which use a tree as an image for the great kingdom of God which is visible to all and for all:
11The tree grew great and strong,
its top reached to heaven,
and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.
12Its foliage was beautiful,
its fruit abundant,
and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it,
the birds of the air nested in its branches,
and from it all living beings were fed.”
Now we may be getting somewhere.
The kingdom of heaven is the capacity, the innate potential for growth, development and accomplishment, that results in:
everyone having enough
a perfect harmony amongst all living things – animals in the shade, birds in the branches, everybody fed
…how’s it that Jesus puts it elsewhere: abundant life
I’d sell it all to buy that.
Which is to say that I believe it to be our true capacity, wholeheartedly.
I’ve got a treasure in a field, and a pearl in my palm.
A belief in my heart.
I’m in, all in.
Turns out there is more to it than that, though.
There is the great work of casting the nets and fishing for what is useful to the pursuit of realising this vision.
That work includes careful discernment about what’s in and what’s out.
And, most disturbingly, it involves letting go of everything we think we know.
Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you understand these things?” And they say, “Yes.” And then Jesus says, “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.” The word translated as “brings out” is actually better translated as “throws out.” Yet another image of reckless abandon – sell it all, sell it all, sort it all out, then throw it all away.
Don’t get stuck on the answers, keep living the questions…with “all in” commitment to the vision of abundant life for all…and with “all out” humility.
For further reflections on the theme, visit Michael Leunig
and scroll to the prayer that begins, “Dear God, we pray for another way of being, another way of knowing.”
posted 31 Jul 2014 by Jana