The Empire of God
Text: Matthew 13:1-3a, 31-32
Walk into Matthew 13 and you will stumble over a parable. Give Jesus an audience and he will tell them a parable, a cross between an analogy and a word puzzle. Jesus loves a good parable but I am not sure why exactly, for more often than not after he tells a parable, the response is: “Hey, Jesus, I don’t get it.”
Jesus tells parables to give verbal clues about the mysterious, profound, life-giving, life-transforming reign of God. Jesus tells parables to a world then and to a world today that has little understanding of selfless love, little patience with complexity, and almost no use for mystery. If you do not want to have your mind stretched and your heart expanded, if you want faith to be a list of simple little morals, then avoid reading the parables of Jesus.
Years ago, George Buttrick, the great 20th century American preacher, visited the campus of Union during my seminary years. He told a story that I have no idea if it is actually true but I have no doubt that it is absolutely true.
Dr. Buttrick was on an airplane writing some sermon notes for the upcoming Sunday, when a man in the next seat asked: “Say, I’m curious. What are you working on there?” “My sermon for Sunday – I’m a preacher.” “Oh,” the other man replied, “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of religion. I like to keep it simple. You know, ‘Do unto others as you have them do unto you’. The Golden Rule, that’s my religion!” “I see,” Dr. Buttrick replied, “and what do you do for a living?” “I’m an astronomer. I teach astrophysics.” “Ah, yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of science. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are’. That’s my astronomy. Who could ever need more than that, eh?”
Buttrick knew the complex power of parables, so he knew that we are not called as Christians to dumb down our sacred story. Instead, as our ordination vows insist, we are to live the faith with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. To do so means that we have to dig deeply into Scripture and to listen with keen hearing.
At first glance, the parables of Jesus look like they are tailor-made for that astrophysicist, a perfect fit for someone who says about the faith: “I like to keep it simple.” When Jesus tells parables, they sound simple, even familiar at first, because he uses images common to everyday life. His parables do not use words that require a trip to the dictionary, but that is where the simplicity stops. Take a second or third look or listen to any parable of Jesus and you will find that they are intricate, puzzling, and maddeningly complex.
Each parable Jesus tells in Matthew 13 shows something about the “Kingdom of Heaven,” or as Mark and Luke call it, “The Kingdom of God.” I have heard this “Kingdom” language about God’s rule since childhood, even though I have never lived in a kingdom with kings and queens. I wish that the kingdom language was not loaded with such a male-oriented image or one that assumes military prowess. It is a familiar image, nonetheless.
That was not as true for the crowds listening to Jesus. They did not grow up hearing about kingdoms. They lived in an empire not governed by kings and queens, but by emperors. Since Roman emperors deemed themselves or were deemed divine, the Roman Empire was synonymous with the Empire of God.
Not for Jesus. He tells parable after parable to provoke the imagination, the political imagination. In his parables, our sweet and gracious Savior gets political. He invites the crowds to imagine an empire not controlled by Rome or by any military entity, but one governed by the will of God. Jesus points to the real empire in power, the Empire of God. Oddly enough, he does so by pointing to a tiny mustard seed. I can only imagine that when Jesus told this parable, the crowd either laughed or shouted: “Tell us another one, Jesus.”
Their ridicule does not stop Jesus. He goes on to say that the Empire of God is like a mustard seed as it matures to provide a nesting place for all the birds of the world. The problem with this parable is that the crowd knew that the mustard seed does no such thing. The mustard seed does not result in a mighty Virginia oak or an awesome California sequoia. It does not grow into a huge tree with lots of limbs and leaves for shade. On its best day, it grows into a modest bush where a few small birds might find some shade.
Facing down the empire of Rome, Jesus calls the crowd to engage their political imagination. He invites the crowd to see far beyond the obvious and simple, to imagine a day when God’s reign on earth will explode in ways that cannot now be conceived. On that day, the Empire of God will be more abundant and generous than whatever nation or nations that are currently staking empire claims.
Pastor and poet, Thom Shuman says it this way in his poem: “Tis.”
the kingdom of heaven is like a community organizer walking through oppression's neatly ordered regulations, planting seeds which blossom into radical hope; the kingdom of heaven is like mold on a slice of bread which can cure a child's infection; the kingdom of heaven is like the young family which buys a foreclosed house in a rough neighborhood and turns it into a day care center.
Buttrick and Shuman and Jesus urge us to resist trying to keep the faith too simple. Our baptized calling is not to keep the faith simple. In fact, the parables of Jesus push us to do just the opposite. Our calling is to stir people to soar beyond the mundane, to see beyond the powers that be to glimpse into the Empire of God. In God’s empire violence does not masquerade as justice, be it in the streets of Minnesota or in any state’s death chambers. God’s empire is a reign of justice where young black men are not warehoused in prison as if that is where they are destined to be. In God’s empire, love triumphs over hate as dividing walls and divisive statues come tumbling down. In God’s empire of love, we cover our faces, wash our hands, and keep at a significant physical distance from others, not to give up our liberty but because it is the caring, the wise, the loving way to live amid a pandemic.
To live into the Empire of God was met with deadly resistance in the days of Jesus; it will meet no less resistance today. The empire of this world tells you, tells me, tells every person who follows the lead of Jesus, “Mustard seeds will never amount to anything. Don’t bother planting them. You’ll just be wasting your time.”
I will confess it is hard for me to imagine an empire today with no armed forces, no “smart” bombs, no nuclear capability, no firm national boundaries. That is one reason why Jesus tells parables, because we lack imagination. He tells parables to introduce us to and if we dare, to walk into the Empire of God. It too is a well-armed empire, equipped with the unstoppable power of forgiveness, the redemptive power of mercy, the restorative power of love.
Jesus not only told parables about the Empire of God; he embodied it even on the cross. So, no, paying attention to Jesus is never simple and never will be. Following Jesus is always hard.
Trusting Jesus, though, is a sure, a certain way to find true life in the Empire of God.