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The Empire of God

Text: Matthew 13:31-32

I love word puzzles. Not that I am particularly skilled at solving them, but I love them anyway. That is surely why I love Matthew 13. It is a chapter full of what Matthew calls “parables,” and I call “word puzzles.” They tease the mind, wake up lazy thinking, and make you consider deeper possibilities when you would rather just skim along the surface.

Even though I love the word puzzles that Jesus tells, I am not at all convinced that they are helpful teaching tools. More often than not, as soon as Jesus tells a parable the response is, “Interesting story, Jesus, but I don’t get it.” It is a fair response because word puzzles, especially those told by Jesus, are deceptively complex.

The late 20th century noted American preacher, George Buttrick, visited the campus of then Union Theological Seminary in Richmond during my seminary years. Many years later, I still remember a story he told. While I have no idea if the story he told ever really happened, I have no doubt that it is absolutely true.

In the story, Dr. Buttrick recalls sitting on an airplane and busily writing notes for his upcoming Sunday sermon. The man in the seat next to Buttrick inquired, “Say, 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 at a university.” “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?”

At first glance, the parables of Jesus, his “word puzzles,” look simple enough, a perfect fit for the preference expressed by the astronomer, “I like to keep it simple.” For parables use common images in everyday life. They use words that require no one to open Google to get a definition or to rush to a dictionary to do the same. That, though, is where their simplicity stops. Take a second or third look or listen to any parable of Jesus and you will find that they are intricate and maddeningly complex.

Each parable in Matthew 13 uses simple language, familiar images, while trying to reveal something of the mysterious complexity of the “Kingdom of Heaven” or as Mark and Luke call it, “The Kingdom of God.” I have heard and used “Kingdom” language about God’s rule since my childhood, even though I have never lived in a kingdom, with kings and queens on the throne. Kingdom language rolls easily off my tongue and is certainly not alien to my ear even though I have long wished that this language was not so male oriented or language that assumes military prowess.

Ironically, the crowds who listened to Jesus did not live in a kingdom either. They lived in an “empire,” the Roman Empire, 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 really,” says Jesus. And without so much as a moment’s warning, Jesus goes and gets political in Matthew 13. He tells parable after parable, word puzzle after word puzzle, to provoke the political imagination of the crowd. His word puzzles invite them to imagine living in an empire not controlled by Rome, but by the overpowering and overwhelming grace of God.

Jesus says that the Empire of God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a mammoth tree. I imagine that when he spoke these words the crowd laughed or shouted out, “You are surely a carpenter’s son, because you know nothing about seeds and plants, Jesus.”

The word puzzle only gets worse when Jesus goes on to say that the Empire of God is like this seed that matures into a tree that provides a great canopy of shade and a nesting place for all the birds of the air. Once again, the crowd must have shouted, “No, it doesn’t, Jesus. Mustard seeds never grow into huge trees with lots of limbs and leaves for shade. On their best day, mustard seeds grow into modest bushes where a few small birds might find some shade.”

Jesus is not dissuaded by such literal-minded objections. For he is not giving a lecture in flower gardening. He is pushing the edges of dulled human imagination. He invites the crowd, invites us, to see beyond the obvious and simple, to picture a day when God’s reign on earth will explode in ways that cannot now be conceived and will provide shade and safety for those who are melting in the fierce heat of oppression and fear.

Pastor and poet, Thom Shuman uses his own word puzzle to unpack Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13. In his poem, “Tis,” Shuman writes:

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.

The word puzzles told by Jesus in Matthew along with the word pictures of Thom Shuman push us to resist the urge to make life too simple, too literal. That is never what God calls us to do. In fact, to follow Jesus is to do just the opposite. We are called to soar beyond the simple and literal as we travel on the dangerous but redemptive road to the Empire of God, an empire where injustice and lies are not rewarded and treated as truth, where violence and shaming are not encouraged as signs of strength, where demeaning and degrading are not applauded as the way of the world.

Even for the garden-challenged among us, like me, our calling is to scatter mustard seeds of God’s Empire wherever we go. And as we do, never to stop believing what God is making possible from our most meager efforts and our most imprecise words. Our calling is to believe in the life-shading, life-changing power of God when the mini-empires around us laugh and taunt, saying, “Friend, you’re just wasting your time.”

The kind of empire Jesus invites us to imagine in his word puzzles is one with no armed forces, no smart bombs, no nuclear capability. It is an empire equipped with the unstoppable power of forgiveness, the redemptive power of mercy, and the restorative power of love.

If you have ever asked yourself, “What is God calling me to do?” the word puzzle of Jesus in Matthew provides the answer: God is calling you, calling me, to live with both feet firmly planted in the grand and glorious and wonderfully shaded Empire of God and to invite anyone and everyone we know to join us.

By God’s grace, that is a word puzzle that you and I can finally solve.


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