Have you understood all this? Jesus asks his disciples. “Yes,” they say. Were the disciples lying to Jesus? “Yes, we understand all this.” Could they even keep a straight face at that point? Have you understood all this? OF COURSE NOT, JESUS! WHO CAN UNDERSTAND ALL THIS?!
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s talking about noticing God at work in the real world, right now. Some scholars think that Matthew writes his gospel using this phrase “kingdom of heaven” to show respect to Jewish believers who avoided overusing the name of God.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, Jesus is not talking about heaven as an afterlife, a place to go after you die, somewhere in the distant, unsearchable future. Jesus is talking about right now—God is present in the world right now.
We talk about the kingdom of God, or the reign of God, and what we mean is: wherever God is in charge, wherever people are letting their lives and their decisions be led by God’s priorities for the vulnerable, the poor, the outcast and marginalized.
Jesus could have talked about the reign of God or the kin-dom of God—kin-dom like “family”—in terms of doctrine, but he chose to provide illustrations. How will you know it when you witness it?
I liked the descriptors I found in a blog post this week on Living Lutheran, written by Pastor Cory Driver, serving as assistant to the bishop in the Indiana-Kentucky Synod. Pastor Driver breaks it down this way, about God’s reign:
“It is like a mustard seed. Despite its inauspicious beginning, the seed grows to become the largest of garden plants and provides homes for those without them (the birds of the air). [God’s reign] provides an expansive welcome.
[God’s kin-dom] is like yeast. When even a small amount is mixed with about 50 pounds of flour, yeast causes the whole mass to rise. [The kin-dom] changes everything.
It’s like treasure hidden in a field. A man hid it again (perhaps foolishly) and then (wisely) sold everything he had to acquire the field and the treasure therein. [The kin-dom] is of surpassing value.
[God’s reign] is like a merchant seeking fine pearls. When [s]he found one, [s]he sold everything to acquire it. (Note: the kingdom is the merchant here, not the pearl.) The kingdom of heaven will not hesitate to give up everything to acquire its goal (you and me!).
[The kin-dom] of heaven is like a dragnet that scoops up everything in its path. The angels sort the catch at the end of all things. …following the pattern from parables discussed in previous weeks, at the end of the age the wicked will be removed from among the good, not the inverse. The kingdom of heaven comes for all.”
All of these examples in these parables, they’re so ordinary! You’re included, no matter your economic status, no matter your religious background, no matter what industry you work with, no matter your birth order or marital status or gender or race or whatever else.
Wouldn’t you expect the reign of God to be something religious? But in these parables, Jesus doesn’t compare God’s reign to anything we do in worship, or how we relate to one another as a community of faith. Apparently, the reign of God is bigger than whatever we do in this sanctuary.
And this was probably difficult to understand—that’s why Jesus checks his students and keeps asking his disciples, “What have we learned?” And they lie to his face and say Yes, we’ve got it! But they don’t. They don’t got it.
We don’t got it, either. We’re still struggling to understand, all these years later, still struggling to believe that God actually cares about this world, and still struggling to believe that God actually loves each one of us, and still struggling to believe that God actually provides what we need, whether we acknowledge it or not.
We’re also still struggling to understand our traditions and where we come from. Jesus says “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.” What treasures do we keep, and which treasures can we let go?
There have long been Christians who want to let go of the entire Old Testament, because they believe whatever Jesus said or did is more important than anything that happened in the Old Testament. As Christianity developed a doctrine in the years following Jesus’s death and resurrection, that idea of throwing out the Old Testament became a heresy—I think that particular heresy is called Marcionism. We kept the Old Testament because there’s too much good stuff there, and that’s also what helps us understand the significance of Jesus’s teachings.
This summer, we’ve been reading the semi-continuous readings from the Old Testament, which means we’ve read selections from Genesis, mostly in order, though not all of the stories, just some highlights. This week is a weird story about Jacob—who’s his father? Isaac. And who’s Isaac’s father? Abraham. So these are patriarchs, and there are matriarchs, too.
Jacob was the one born with a twin—that twin’s name? Esau—and though Jacob was born second and Esau was the firstborn, there’s an elaborate story about how Jacob tricked Esau into getting the birthright. So Jacob gets a reputation as a trickster. In today’s story, it’s Jacob himself who is tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he actually wanted to marry.
There’s a lot to study in these ancient stories of our ancestors, because these are our family stories, which we share in common with Jewish people still.
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament scholar who is Jewish, and she has long advocated for Christians to have a better understanding of the Old Testament.
In a podcast last week, she talked about how Christians should have a better sense of the Old Testament because Christians have often interpreted the stories of Jesus as an innovation or a correction of Jewish teachings, which wants to diminish Judaism. This kind of interpretation is, at best, lazy, and at worst, dangerous for Jewish people, relating to anti-Semitism. We understand Jesus so much more when we know where he comes from and the tradition he’s speaking within throughout his lifetime.
Dr. Levine also spoke about why she speaks of the Old Testament in such terms. She said she used to call it the Hebrew Scriptures, but that didn’t quite make sense because not all of those Scriptures were composed in the Hebrew language, and it also erased Jews from their own tradition. Jews read the same Scriptures—though the books are organized in a different order—but call it the Tanakh. So if you hear Jews referring to the Tanakh, that’s the same as the Old Testament.
Dr. Levine said that if Christians want to refer to the Old Testament, then it would be clear that these Scriptures are being interpreted through a Christian lens: you can’t have a New Testament without an Old Testament. She said as long as Christians understand that the “old” in Old Testament does not mean outdated or used up or worthless, but old means foundational, precious, and valuable. A treasure.
I could say a whole lot more about old versus new—old or new? Old or new?—but who wants to stay here all day? And why would you?
There’s a whole kingdom still to discover, the reign of God hidden in plain sight, tucked into the details of your everyday life.
Have you understood all this? Tell the truth! Don’t worry. I don’t understand it all, either. But we’ll keep trying. There’s treasure yet to be found.
 From an article for this Sunday, July 30, 2023, on SundaysandSeasons.com  https://www.livinglutheran.org/2023/07/lectionary-blog-parable-palooza/  Nerds at Church, hosted by Rev. Emily Ewing and Rev. Kay Rohloff.