Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
I once read a murder mystery in which the secret lay in patchwork quilt in a farm in north Wales. It turned out that an old lady had inadvertently discovered a particular mathematical formula years ahead of the academics, as she had stitched together her quilt.
Patchwork is what we have this morning in our gospel story, and we might discover hidden treasure we haven’t seen before, but I hope we’ll get to 11.30 am without murder. So many images of God’s kingdom come one after the other in such rapid succession. What’s the kingdom like? Well, it’s like this… Or like this… Or like this. What do you see in these images? Nothing? Go on, use your imagination! What do YOU see? Jesus’ teaching here is not about carefully detailed description or carefully nuanced analysis. It’s about looking, seeing, imagining, responding and thus grasping something of the wonder, joy and challenge of the kingdom.
So let’s take Jesus’ advice and use our imaginations to see the kingdom that comes in and through Jesus. Here’s a mustard seed and a big tree, big enough for birds to nest in. Let’s not worry too much about horticultural accuracy, let’s rather notice the great contrast between the very small seed and the very large tree. The kingdom is like that. From small, threatened, and vulnerable beginnings there is an organic process of growth, development and maturity. What a contrast between the fragile beginnings in Palestine and the promise of a kingdom that embraces humanity in all its diversity and the cosmos in all its wonder.
An organic process is suggested by the leaven in the dough too. You can’t see what’s going on. But given time and a little warmth, the miracle of rising and newness and transformation happens. The kingdom is like that too. Not always visible, not always dramatic to see, but always creative, always renewing, always empowering a rising to new hope, new love and new life. Like the leaven in the dough, the organic growth of the kingdom in the lives of persons, communities and cosmos creates a maturity and fulfilment that is beyond our imagination.
Sadly, few of us find buried treasure! But just imagine what it must feel like. The laws about treasure trove are different now from how they were in first century Palestine, but the human responses must still be the same. There is wonder and joy and incredulity here that are beyond ordinary, everyday human experience. That’s what the kingdom’s like, says Jesus. It’s a discovery – sometimes sudden, sometimes gradual, after a lot of digging and searching – that opens up for us depths and heights of meaning, purpose, love and hope never before imagined. Life transforming, future re-shaping, destiny fulfilling. Buy the field! We can argue, as interpreters have over the centuries, about the morality of what this man does. But that’s not the point – the challenge is to stake all you are and all you may become on holding on to that incomparable kingdom treasure, found and to be found in Jesus. Stake your life on this unsurpassable discovery that’s not buried in a field but alive in today’s world!
Pearl merchants, of course, spend their life among pearls. This is what they know. They build their fortunes on being able to discern quality and value. So this pearl merchant is an expert. He knows his pearls, and he hasn’t seen the like of this one before. This is the one pearl of great value. So all the other pearls are expendable now; they can be sacrificed for the sake of possessing this one pearl. Is this the culmination of his life’s work? Is this the fulfilment of his dreams? Is it the end of his searching? It is, if we’re talking about the kingdom of heaven.
There are other pearls, of course; other aspects of our lives, other people, other experiences, other cultural riches, other intellectual pursuits, other spiritual insights that give our lives unfathomable depths of meaning and soaring heights of joy. But, shining and sparkling as these may be, they are as nothing compared to this pearl, compared to the miracles of joy and hope, love and compassion, mercy and forgiveness that become ours when we decide to take possession of this one life-transforming, eternity-promising pearl of the kingdom of heaven offered to us in and through Jesus. To find the kingdom is to find Jesus; to find Jesus is to find the kingdom. But unlike even the most valuable of pearls, this isn’t just for you or for me, it’s offered to all who decide to trust in the promise of God in Jesus, who decide to live the life of the kingdom, who trust the crucified and risen Lord to be the pearl that shines through suffering and joy, through oppression and freedom, through despair and hope, and stake their lives on this one discovery.
And finally, there’s the image of the drag-net. It’s an unforgiving method of fishing. Everything is caught in the net, but not all are kept. The fishermen must sort out the catch: good fish (that match the regulations?) are kept, the bad (that the regulations don’t allow?) are thrown away. Matthew offers his interpretations of what this means: at the end of the age, the angels will do the sorting: the evil ones (the bad fish) will be thrown into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. The righteous – though we aren’t told this in so many words – will continue to live the joyful life of the kingdom. Some of us may well feel a little uncomfortable with this interpretation – is this really what Jesus meant? There is another way of looking at it. The offer of the kingdom is universal, it is made to all, for all are caught in the net, and it’s up to us to choose whether to accept it. The off of the kingdom is eternal promise and hope.
So what’s the kingdom like? Certainly, it’s not a place. Rather, it’s a life-changing reality. It’s not an achievement, but an offer made by God in Jesus, that we may embrace or reject. It’s a living out – in time and in eternity – of God’s offer of life in all its fullness, of wisdom that gives us imagination and discernment. It’s about receiving with joy and celebration treasures of spiritual wealth, riches, discernment and imagination that lift us beyond the earthly realities of the everyday, to glimpse and taste and touch eternity touching time, heaven touching earth.
And at the heart of it all is Jesus. Mark talks about the kingdom of God, Matthew talks about the kingdom of heaven. But both invite us to recognise here the invitation of Jesus. Wonder at the miracle of the fragile seed that becomes a great tree; be astonished that the leaven works its miracles undiscerned; buy the field where the treasure is hidden; sell everything to buy the one pearl that is the fulfilment of all you are and have; and caught up in the net of the kingdom, embrace God’s offer of life – now and for ever – in Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, the eternal priceless treasure. This is the kingdom. This is life in Jesus. This is our joy and our destiny.