July 30, 2023 — Ryan Pemberton

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Visions of Heaven: God’s Curveball Stories

Recently I was sitting on a park bench on a sunny Saturday afternoon not far from here, and I was struck by a scene I don’t imagine I will soon forget. It was both entirely ordinary and piercingly extraordinary, all at once.

My son and I had visited the local farmers’ market that morning, filled with beautiful sights and mouth-watering smells. We took a seat on a bench to enjoy our lunch—farm-fresh raspberries, grilled salmon sandwich with a dill cream sauce, and sizzling carnitas, sprinkled with fresh chopped onions and cilantro—we ate as we listened to a group of students playing their stringed instruments on the sidewalk.

Afterward, we walked to a local pool for a swim, sunlight dancing on the water’s surface as children laughed and splashed.

And after all that, I sat down on a park bench to read a new book from one of my favorite authors, while my son played on the tree-framed playground.

In a word, it was one of those days that felt ‘heavenly.’

No words

What do you picture when you hear the word “heaven”? And what has shaped that picture for you?

In addition to experiences like this one, moments that take our breath away or invite our tears, it can be a particularly formative piece of art that informs our understanding of heaven.

What films, books, or pieces of music have informed your vision of heaven?

Several films have contributed to mine. I think of the 1997 film Contact, for example, and especially the climactic scene in which Jodie Foster, who plays a scientist, is invited to make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. She boards a space craft and approaches some radiant celestial scene she cannot put into words. And at this point, she begins to sob; the experience is so overwhelming.

“No… no words, no words to describe it,” she says, breathless and between tears. “Poetry! They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful… beautiful… so beautiful, so beautiful. I had no idea.”

This speechless moment captures something of the ineffable nature of God’s kingdom. Which is, perhaps, why Jesus responds to the question, What’s the kingdom of heaven like?, as he does.

The Nature of Parables

Speaking of hidden and ultimately inexpressible realities, metaphors are the language we’re forced to use to turn the un-imaginable into the imaginable.

“[Jesus] suggests rather than spells out,” Frederick Buechner notes. “He catches us by surprise.”

When asked about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus refuses to answer our questions directly.

Which isn’t to say they’re the wrong questions, per se, but that perhaps the answer is not so much the point as we think.

“It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question,” the late Orthodox priest Bishop Kallistos Ware writes, “but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not the object of our knowledge [so much] as the cause of our wonder.”

Jesus responds to our questions on heaven with awe-inspiring images intended not merely to inform, but to draw the hearer into a new way of seeing and being in the world.

Jesus’ parables on heaven are offered to be lived, not merely understood.

And their strangeness is not accidental, but essential. Never what we would expect, they’re meant to shake us up, to wake us up, to surprise us.

If my natural inclination is to describe a day at the farmers’ market and park in an affluent, homogeneous neighborhood as ‘heavenly,’ I imagine Jesus inviting me to imagine Aurora Ave—with its for-hire day workers and night workers—as somehow representative of God’s inbreaking Kingdom, too.

That’s the kind of surprise we encounter in these curveball stories; that’s the imaginative invitation Jesus has for us here.

Parables, of course, are not unique to Jesus—they’re a contemporary rhetorical device for their speaker. But in Jesus, we encounter the embodiment of these surprising, apocalyptic stories. They unveil reality as it is, embodied in the person of Jesus.Jesus, you see, is the parable of God.

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52: 5 Curveballs

In this morning’s text, which one biblical scholar describes as the central chapter and point of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus offers not a single answer, which could never be enough, but a series of stories stacked on top of each other in response to the question, What’s the kingdom of heaven like?

More and more images he throws at us: It’s like this, he says. But it’s also like this…

The kingdom of heaven is like amustard seed, growing until it provides housing for all the birds of the air (vv.31-32), he says. And it’s also like leaven, working its way through the entirety of a large piece of dough (vv.33).

It’s like treasure hidden in a field, which is itself worth far more than the field (v.44). It’s like someone looking for fine pearls and discovering the singular jackpot of all pearls (vv.45-46).

It’s like fish of all types caught in a net, and then separated (vv.47-50). It’s like a householder who brings new and old things out (v.52).

One word of warning before we get any further: as early as the fourth century, John Chrysostom pointed out that any attempt to interpret Jesus’ parables literally only leads to absurdities.Instead of taken individually, literally, and dissected to death, these images should be taken together, working in a mutually informing way.

These images offer a symphony of potentially troubling and corrective reminders of God’s kingdom.

As we listen to these stories of what God’s future kingdom of heaven in the present world is like, it’s worth asking: How does Jesus’s teaching trouble our own pictures of heaven? Would we recognize God’s inbreaking Kingdom as it’s described? A few suggested takeaways, then.

God’s Kingdom requires patience (vv.31-33)

The twin agricultural images of a mustard seed growing until it becomes large enough to house the birds of the air, and leaven working its way through the entirety of a piece of dough work together to offer the reminder that God’s kingdom does not come on our time—it requires waiting, and waiting is perhaps what we find most difficult.

The kingdom of God requires our patience, these twin images suggest, which feels, to be honest, like a cop out in the face of so much injustice—political, racial, economic, environmental… the list goes on.

This month we’re seeing record heat waves across our country, caused by our own inability to take seriously God’s call to steward creation with care, the effects of which are deathly, and getting worse.

If we’re listening to the work of those who have devoted their lives to this research, we know that we do not have long to act if we’re going to right our devastating impacts to this planet. In fact, the authors of the book The Future We Choose insist that this is the decisive decade that will determine the kind of future our children will inherit.

In the face of such grave warnings to insist on the slow but inevitable nature of God’s inbreaking kingdom feels, admittedly, irresponsible. It is, of course, worth remembering that it would have felt that way for the first listeners of Jesus’ stories, too—politically, if not environmentally.

Our responsibility to take every opportunity to care for the planet and all its inhabitants is an undeniable and essential biblical mandate. But what Jesus’ curveball stories insist, in a way that troubles me, is that Jesus’ disciples need not be in a hurry.

“To be drawn into the kingdom of heaven is to participate in God’s patience toward his creation,” is how theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it (Matthew). “We must be patient [even] with those who think we must force the realization of the kingdom.”

In Jesus, God’s kingdom has come, friends—and our waiting for its full outworking is not passive, but active.

In a mutually informing way, Jesus’ parables also speak of a heaven-informed urgency motivated by joy and delight.

Urgency motivated by joy (vv.44-46)

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,” Jesus says, “which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Not fear, but “Joy is the engine of change” is how one commentator puts it (Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary).

Returning to our afternoon at the park: Hudson asked at one point if we could take a break from the playground to find a restroom. Understandable after a full afternoon of swimming and playing. On our short walk across the park, he confessed to me that he had buried the sticks he had been playing with—buried them, so that they would not be lost.

I could relate. I also felt a deep urge to protect this experience, to save it, in hopes that I might return to this moment when my boy was seven, playing innocently in the sunlight of a summertime park, and I was watching on, peacefully, book in hand. It’s the kind of scene I imagine I will spend a lifetime wishing I could get back to, even though I recognize this scene itself holds more than it can speak of.

Still, in our joy of finding such treasure, the treasures that whisper eternity to us, we wish to bury them, to protect them, to save and savor them. The Kingdom of heaven is like that, Jesus suggests—it’s like discovering that which makes us come alive in the fullest sense, and for which we’d sell it all to make sure that that life is never lost.

In its patient way and also in its urgent, joy-motivated way, the kingdom of heaven is ultimately on the side of what is right and good.

God’s Kingdom sides with and restores what is good (vv.47–49a)

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind,” Jesus says. “When it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age.”

The twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr made the suggestion that good and evil are so intertwined in our own day—in particular in the church—that any attempts to distinguish between them are futile and to our own detriment.

“[We] must remember,” Niebhur writes, “that [we] becomes evil at the precise point where [we] pretend not to be.”

We are too complicit to delineate the good and the evil in the world—the line runs through our own hearts.

But in a mysterious way, God’s kingdom is committed to the refining work of restoring the good and just inherent to all of God’s creation, ourselves included. God’s inbreaking, heavenly kingdom is actively restoring creation’s inherent righteousness, in a way that means the undoing of evil of every kind.

“Christians must continue to live as if all hangs on our faithfulness to this man,” Stanley Hauerwas concludes in his reflection on this text, “because all does hang on the reality of the kingdom as well as our response to the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed and is.”

These parables, we’re invited to remember, are meant not simply to be understood, but enacted. If they’re understood without action, we become stagnant; if we take action without our understanding informed by them, we become exhausted and fruitless.

The Lover who refuses to be apart from their beloved (Romans 8)

What does all this mean for us, then—especially when, if I’m honest, I face most days with little thought of heaven, busy as I am with today’s worries?

Personally, I found myself grateful for the brilliant lectionary pairing of these parables of Jesus on the kingdom of heaven from Matthew’s Gospel with Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, and especially these words in Chapter 8:

“What then are we to say about these things?” Paul writes. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…”

All of which, of course, are very real fears in our own day.

Or, to put a very fine point on Paul’s question, we might ask: Is there anything that will separate us from the God who is sovereign even over the angels who separate the righteous from the unrighteousness?

“No,” Paul concludes.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

To ask the question again, What’s the kingdom of heaven like?

It’s like a Lover who refuses to be apart from their beloved—no matter the cost.

Thanks be to God.

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