By Greg Jones
Last Sunday, the Lord gave us quite a bundle of sayings about the Kingdom of Heaven. What do they mean? What is Jesus saying in these parables?
Consider, He says the Kingdom of Heaven is like:
- A tiny mustard seed: Something very small, yet very powerful, which went planted grows immensely, offering its branches in service to other creatures;
- Or a bit of yeast: Able to transform the entire substance in which it has been mixed, turning dough into risen bread;
- Or a treasure: Found and cherished after being long ignored or disregarded.
- Or a pearl; A beautiful gem created by an unbeautiful creature which the Law of Moses declares abominable.
These are powerful parables, which describe the Kingdom of Heaven as treasure of great power which grows out of surprising places, effecting all around it. These are fairly easy to grasp too, when Jesus asks, "Do you understand," it's not that hard to say, "Yes."
But what about the last parable today? The hard saying? The one where the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net filled with every kind of fish, of which those judged good will be kept, and those judged bad will be destroyed? What do you do with a parable like that?
Do you ignore it? Do you decide to keep the four 'good' ones and toss away the one 'bad' one? Do you presume to judge the teachings of Jesus this way?
No. But what?
A wise priest once said that interpreting the Scripture is like eating a trout. Some bites are fleshy and fall right off the bone, easy to eat and tasty. Others are spiny and hard to swallow, the small bones sticking in your throat.
This fellows says, "as with the Bible, go for the easy parts first, and when you've learned how good they are, and how good fish is, then go after the hard bites." It's a mistake to go after the hard spiny parts first - for once they stick in your throat - you may never learn to appreciate the whole.
Of course, the earliest Christian symbol for Jesus Christ is the fish. The first letters of the Greek phrase - "Jesus Christ Son of God Savior" form an acronym - ICTHYS - which of course also means 'fish.' And isn't it true that the Gospel of this Son of God can be a hard fish to eat sometimes? Especially because of the spiny parts - the hard parts - the parts which affront and confuse our sense of things?
As with today's parables, the Gospel is not always easy to hear, learn, swallow and inwardly digest. However, the strategy of the wise priest is the way to go. Begin with the fleshy, easy bites of the Gospel - the easier to swallow sayings of Christ - in order to form the trust that these teachings are good, precious and life-giving food. And when you are coming to believe that this fish is worth eating - entirely - then tackle the harder parts.
If you have learned to trust in Christ - with Paul in Romans 8 - that Christ has come to you, for you, and with you, and loves you so much that you cannot fathom the depths of his loyalty to you - then maybe you will be able to trust also that this hard parable of judgement is also trustworthy, good and necessary. For by trusting that the good fish, Jesus Christ the Son of God Savior, is the powerful seed which will transform the world around it into a treasure coming from a surprising place, then you will then have the confidence that you want and need the hard parts, the spine, the piercing truth of the Gospel: hard wood, nails and all.
After all, it is by the hard wood of the cross, and the piercing truth of Christ's love, and His resurrection from the grave, that Christ reassures us that God's kingdom will prevail in the world in which it has been planted, and sin and death will not, and those who enter into the kingdom will be changed.
Yes, the dangerous part of the Gospel is the implication of all these parables today that once the Kingdom of Heaven is planted (in a person, in a people) it cannot be stopped from ultimately taking over the whole of it - such that only the Kingdom will remain, and all else will fall away.
This is a dangerous message, because it threatens everything about us that is not of God. For though we are all made in God's image, the scary news is that we have also remade ourselves by choices not in God's image.
To some extent or another, these choices begin to define who we think we are. Yes, the Gospel is that God loves all people, but He doesn't love all our choices.
The work of the disciple of Christ is to make choices which please the Lord, and which will spread the Gospel like a tiny seed, like leaven, like treasure, like a net - so that all may enter the Kingdom in joy.
The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. he is the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), and blogs at fatherjones.com.