by Sara Miles
What is the kingdom of heaven like? In the parables, it’s like a tree alive with birds, a hundred rising loaves, a pearl, a net full of writhing fish. It shows forth in coins, a lamp, a dishonest steward, a lost son, a wedding feast. The kingdom of heaven is very near; it’s right here; it will come at the end of the age. The Kingdom is like the world, it is not of this world, it is the world. Parables are infuriating. Why is Jesus speaking this way?
I was talking with a parishioner a while back about how hard she finds it to engage with what she calls “Jesus-y” preaching. “Well, I’m pretty Jesus-y myself,” I said, apologetically, and then she gave me about the best compliment I’ve ever received. It was very parable-like. “No, I enjoy your sermons,” she said. “It’s like listening to someone with a rare and extremely interesting mental illness.”
She’s right. I’m crazy about Jesus. And I love hearing Jesus’ parables exactly the way I love eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
What’s revealed to me about God and God’s kingdom through the Eucharist and parables gets delivered in a way that manages to be both physical–– the detail of the nests in that mustard shrub, for example, or the taste of that yellow, sweet wine in my mouth –– and profoundly mysterious. In parables and in the enacted parable of communion, I find an overload of treasure, a frustrating excess of metaphors, a surplus of meanings. The most ordinary, prosaic gestures happen and happen again, and then time stops. Language starts out simple: bread, wine, a man, a woman…. then the words go off all over the place like fireworks, shooting up, blossoming sideways into unlikely shapes, surprising everyone into gasped aaahs, then disappearing into the night sky as you huddle together in the dark, looking up, trying to see more.
Why does Jesus speak in parables?
The parables are often paradoxical. They present as good something that Jesus’ listeners commonly thought of as bad –leaven, for example, a corrupting, rotten, sour thing that made flour dirty and unclean. They present as important things thought of as insignificant or bizarre: invasive, weedy mustard seeds, an ordinary woman baking a massive quantity of bread. They present values backward: people sell everything they have for something they find by accident. The kingdom Jesus speaks about in parables and enacts with his body has a crazy, upside-down logic: as if a pigeon-infested shrub could be the cedar of Lebanon, the very tree of life and healing for the nations. Or, for that matter, as if God the Almighty could be a helpless baby, or arrested as a criminal, or mocked and pierced and killed.
I think maybe Jesus speaks in parables because he loves us too much to talk in a more reasonable way. Scripture, the record of God’s love affair with humankind, offers multiple witness to the revelation of the living word, and the complete joy to come, in language as confusing and powerful as his passion. Being in love, after all, is much like living in the kingdom: words fail, and all you can say is that your love is like an apple, like sunshine, stronger than heights or depths. The strange becomes familiar, and the old new.
So I put this before you: the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It’s like my friend Lisa, who always prays for people while she weeds. Lisa is a priest, but her multiple sclerosis eventually made driving and standing and talking on Sunday mornings too hard. The MS made gardening hard, too, but she loved everything that grew in her foggy backyard, and kept trying to get people to come take her bulbs and slips and seeds. One afternoon we were walking very slowly together along the little pathways, while Lisa introduced me to plants she thought I might like cuttings from: this is the Graham Thomas rose, here’s a clarkia, look at that cute little succulent. “What about that blue stuff ?” I asked. “The forget-me-not?” said Lisa, “ I keep trying to get rid of it—it takes over your garden.” I looked longingly at the plants, and she yanked one up. It had tiny little burr-like seeds. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she said, “it’ll spread everywhere.” It did. There are clouds of blue flowers all over my garden now, and whenever those annoying little seeds stick to my pants legs and invade the decent, orderly beds of roses, I think of Lisa. I can’t forget her. The kingdom of heaven is like a forget-me-not.
Or the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. It’s like my friend Ruth, a baker and student of Torah who lives over her bakery. One Passover I helped set the long, handmade wooden table in her home as she told me about searching out all the leaven–everything puffed up and impure– the night before, and how she baked matzoh and wrote a blessing for “our imperfections, our burnt spots, our jagged edges.” At Seder twenty people talked and drank and ate and laughed and prayed, and at the end of the evening Ruth sent a child out to find the hidden piece of matzoh she’d stuck under a couch cushion. “We share the hidden piece,” she prayed, “as a pact to join together in the ongoing journey of revelation. ” We broke the matzoh and gave it to each other, and it was delicious, and the unclean yeasted cake a guest brought by mistake was delicious, and the dulce de leche ice cream was delicious, and Ruth said, “We have done our part, we have kept the Passover, as it has been done for three thousand years.” The kingdom of heaven is like feasting together at a big wooden table.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. It’s like my neighbor Rosana, whose first baby was stillborn, and who grieved all during her next pregnancy, picking a calla lily from our yard each day to put on the shrine she’d built in her bedroom for the lost daughter. She cried and she feared for nine months, and when the new baby was born, healthy, beautiful, Rosana named her Lily, and was radiant with joy. And one day she carried the baby over to visit us and said, surprised, “I just realized I haven’t put any fresh flowers on the shrine for a while. I guess it’s OK.” The kingdom of heaven is like finding the one thing that matters and letting the rest go.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea that pulls up fish of every kind. It’s like walking down the sidewalk on my way to the bank, and gazing at an old woman sitting by the bus stop deep in conversation with a young bearded man. At a Guatemalan Indian boy walking alone, eating a piece of pizza. At the two guys outside the fish market discussing astrology, and the older man with his pit bull, and the mother helping her chubby toddler out of a stroller; at a window full of Italian wedding cakes and a locked-up storefront covered in graffiti, at the dollar stores with their cheap luggage and Che t-shirts and plastic buckets and brooms and earrings. At the hot-dog cart and the truck full of watermelons, the hipsters and paleteros and drunks and cops and teenage girls. The kingdom of heaven is like Mission Street.
The kingdom of heaven is like you when you’re hungry, and you drinking deeply on the hottest day of summer. It’s like you fighting with your sister and you taking care of your father. It’s like you being generous, like you being rich, like you being cruel and gnashing your teeth. The kingdom of heaven is like weeds and roses, dirt and precious stones, bread and rotten potatoes: and all of it, all of it, held in love in Jesus’ heart.
Have you understood all this?
I haven’t. Listening to parables I can’t figure out what Scripture really means–– even with the most painstaking fundamentalist or feminist or historical or anthropological analysis. Because the Bible is not a system, but a relationship. And the kingdom it witnesses to is as about as easily managed as a cloud, or a fire, or living water.
And so, like Jesus, I think we need to keep asking each other, what is the kingdom of heaven like? and offer up not answers but parables, our real experiences. We need to listen carefully, because each one of us alone just gets a glimpse of heaven from time to time: it is the whole of God’s creation that is God’s kingdom, and I can’t begin to know what it’s like unless you say what it’s like too, unless the children of God all hum together, each adding her own little scrap of music to join in the angels’ song.
What is it like? Not what it means. Not how we can master it. We can’t find the kingdom of heaven if we try to explain it, solve it, or own it. The kingdom is hidden, just as our lives are hidden with Christ in God: hidden right here, in plain sight, waiting for something as crazy as a parable or the Eucharist to reveal it. And when we find it, when it finds us, it is revealed as old and new at the same time: a feast prepared for us from before the foundation of the world, a feast we can taste and chew and swallow right this moment.
We don’t have to get the parables right. All we can do is plant the weeds, eat the impure bread, gaze in wonder at the odd fish dredged up, shining, in this blessed net of life. All we can do is give thanks: 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, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.