Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
James V. Stockton
A mustard seed, a bit of yeast, a hidden treasure, a fine and expensive pearl, and a net that captures a great catch of fish: the Kingdom of God is comparable to many things. And it is so, I think, because it is many things to many people. It is a single tiny thought, a quiet feeling, a gentle but persistent inspiration, that grows in meaning and power to become a spiritual, emotional, and physical home for peoples of all sorts and conditions. Almost as a secret, it spreads its influence helping a person, a family, a society, a nation, a race to become more than they’d started out to be, and end up having more to share with others than anyone but God could foresee. It is a net big enough, wide enough, strong enough to hold far more in number and variety than anyone but God alone might suppose.
It is a Kingdom whose citizenship is determined not by those fishing, or as we heard last week, not by those planting its seed; but by God and by those whom God alone, at a time of God’s own choosing, will grant the frightful burden of responsibility of determining who stays in and who does not belong. The Kingdom of God is a way of being and of doing that is valuable to the health and progress of a person, a family, a community, valuable enough that the labors to hold onto it and the sacrifices to attain it are almost nothing in comparison to its benefits. By Jesus’ parables, people see that the Kingdom of God is many things to many people.There’s a more modern parable that can be helpful. It was first told in 1991. It is a movie titled City Slickers. Mitch, Phil, and Ed are urbanites, city-dwellers to the core. They decide to vacation together by joining a cattle-drive as a stark alternative to their everyday lives. Curly Washburn is the lead cowboy on the cattle drive. He is a surly, old cuss who intimidates just about everybody around him. As part of his job back in the city, Mitch is accustomed to being able to communicate with just about anyone. In Curly Washburn, Mitch meets his biggest challenge.
Curly and Mitch spar with one another for awhile, until one day, Curly decides to share with Mitch a piece of wisdom that he has gained over his long and challenging existence. “You know what the secret of life is?” Curly asks. “No,” Mitch responds. “What [is it]?” Curly holds up his hand, with one finger extended. “[It’s] this.” he says. “[It’s] your finger?” asks Mitch. “One thing,” Curly says, pushing Mitch to pay attention. “Just one thing. You stick to that,” he continues; “and everything else don't mean [spit]”.One thing. Our reading from the Old Testament today finds Jacob focused on one thing. Jacob is in a land foreign to him, and he takes refuge with Laban and his family. He works for Laban for a month, and, because they are distantly related, Laban offers to reward Jacob’s labor. Jacob loves Rachel, the younger of Laban’s two daughters. So Laban and Jacob strike a deal. In the custom of the day, it is an arrangement that will honor both Jacob’s labor and Rachel’s dignity. For seven year’s labor Jacob may have Rachel‘s hand in marriage. But Laban cheats on the deal. And though Laban has essentially violated the terms of the arrangement, there is no indication that Jacob wishes to do the same. Instead, Jacob puts in seven additional years in order to arrive at the relationship for which he has longed these many, many years.
And if so, it falls upon us to ask, “In what way might this relationship with Rachel be that ‘one thing’ in life to which Jacob clings, after which everything else means nothing?” Perhaps, for Jacob, the treasure is found in the compassion that he has toward Laban, setting aside his right to scold the man, in favor of mercy toward a father’s efforts to care for his older daughter. Perhaps it is in the patience that Jacob exercises in laboring seven years and then accepting the labor of seven years more? Perhaps it is in the affection between the Rachel and Jacob, that hints at the love of God for all, which forms and sustains the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God is rightly many things to many people. So, rightly enough, it could be any of these. Yet, I would suggest that for Jacob the Kingdom of God is something very specific, specific to Jacob himself. If Jacob knows now what it is to have been cheated, Jacob knows also what it is to have cheated someone else. As we have heard in previous weeks, Jacob has cheated his brother, tricking him to give away his inheritance. Jacob has cheated his father, tricking him to bequeath the larger inheritance that his father intended for the older brother to Jacob, instead. Jacob knows what it is to cheat, and what it is to know that what one thinks one wanted is hard to have and hard to enjoy when one cheated to get it in the first place.More than mercy, more than patience, more now even his feelings for his beloved, or hers for him, Jacob finds the Kingdom of God, and his place within it, in the restoration of his integrity. In the chapters of life to come, Jacob will indeed trick his father-in-law to prevent him from successfully cheating Jacob again. But never again will he take advantage of the right and good will of another. Jacob has realized that the integrity of his relationship with Rachel, with God, with himself, is treasure enough for him to surrender all else in order to achieve.
The Kingdom of God is many things to many people. What might it be to people, today? What might it be to the people around us? What might it be to you? to me? What might be that one thing that is worth sticking to, so that nothing else even compares?City Slicker Mitch is talking to Curly, the gritty old cowboy. “You know what the secret of life is?” Curly asks. “[It’s] this.” he says. “Just one thing. You stick to that,” he continues; “and everything else don't mean [a thing.]” Mitch waits for more, but Curly says nothing. “That's great,” says Mitch finally. “But what's the one thing?” he asks. Curly looks at Mitch and slowly nods his head. With a glimmer of satisfaction in his eye, he answers: “That's what you've got to figure out.”
The Kingdom of God is many things to many people. And this means that as many things, if not more, are, for many people, quite the opposite. What is it that keeps a person from finding the treasure of the Kingdom of God? What keeps someone from making their home in the branches of the Kingdom, in the arms of God’s Love for all? The kingdom opposite to that of God is many things to many people.The Apostle Paul reminds the early Christians in his letter to them at Rome, that for some the kingdom opposite God’s is the kingdom of hardship and struggle, the kingdom of worry and distress, or the kingdom of ridicule, persecution, hunger, poverty, or war. And so in many places where futility reigns over the dignity of labor, the Kingdom of God can remain buried and hidden from view. In many times in which despair reigns against the comfort of companionship, the influence of the Kingdom of God can remain stale and fail to spread. In many people’s lives for whom alienation, starvation, and death itself reign in place of life and truly living, the net of the Kingdom of God can seem to miss them entirely, or simply allow them to fall through.
And so, as he said to his followers long ago, Jesus says still today to you and me, and through to those whose lives we share: “The Kingdom of heaven is many things to many people, so that it can be that one thing specific for you.” “It may be for you,” says Jesus the courage welling up within you that you need to set you free from the tyranny of fear.” “It may be for you,” says Jesus, “that peace that is hidden deep within you while all around you storms and fury rage.” “It may be for you,” says Jesus, “that unique and precious hope in tomorrow that you need to lift you from today’s despair.” “Each of you,” says Jesus, “is a treasure of God, unique and precious.” Perhaps once hidden,” says Jesus, “God has found you.” “Perhaps once lost,” says Jesus, “God has claimed you.” “Against this,” says Jesus, “the rest of it doesn’t matter. For you are the Kingdom of God. You are God’s one thing,” says Jesus. “God is sticking with you now and always, and will never let you go.”
And now may Almighty God, in whose grace and mercy we are held, ever give us peace, refreshment, awe and joy, that we may know and share the blessed reign of Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, One God for ever and ever. Amen.
© 2008, James V. Stockton