Who is the kingdom of heaven?
Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A) | Fr Benjamin Earl explains why the right question isn’t what is the kingdom of heaven but who it is.
St Matthew’s gospel, in telling us the story of Jesus from his birth to post-resurrection commission, is structured around five discourses of Jesus. Five times we have extended passages where the Lord speaks and teaches; some suggest as a deliberate mirroring the five books of the Jewish law.
Today’s gospel passage comes from the middle of the third discourse – the fulcrum, one might say, of Jesus’ teaching. This discourse contains seven parables about the kingdom of heaven; the parable of the sower we heard last week, three we hear today, and three we will hear next Sunday. Today’s parables all start with a reference to the kingdom: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed…”; “the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard…”; “the kingdom of heaven is like leaven…”.
It would be something of an understatement to say that the kingdom of heaven seems to be quite important to Jesus. Not only is it the theme of this central discourse, but, like John before him, it is the first thing Jesus preaches in his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
All this proclaiming of the kingdom and saying what it is like begs a question: “What is the kingdom of heaven?” A hint: it’s not a place with clouds and angels and harps. Nor really is Christ speaking particularly about a happy afterlife, although that is certainly part of the picture.
Actually, “What is the kingdom of heaven?” is the wrong question. The first of today’s parables tells us “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed” – not to the seed, nor to the field where it is sown, but to the man who sows it. And later, in his explanation of the parable, Jesus says, “He who sows the good seed is the Son of man”, which is his way of referring to himself. In other words it is Christ himself who is the kingdom of heaven. So the question is not “What is the kingdom of heaven?” but instead “Who is the kingdom of heaven?”; and the answer is Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom Peter will later describe as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. When Christ says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”, he’s effectively saying, “Repent – because I am here!”
The coming of Christ signals a new nation, a new people of God, a new reign. And returning to the parables we can perhaps now better understand that reign.
When Christ says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed” he is saying, “I am like a grain of mustard seed. I – who am greater than anything of which you could conceive – have humbled myself and made myself tiny; but from that tiny seed, that tiny human being, the greatness of God will be revealed.”
And when Christ says, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven” he is saying, “I am like yeast hidden in the meal. I am present throughout the whole of creation, often unseen and unnoticed, but quietly working to transform the universe. Indeed, I will raise up all creation.”
And the parable of the weeds among the wheat Christ tells us, “I am the one who sows what is good in the world, and I will not allow that good to be destroyed by evil and corruption. You whom I have sown will not be cut down for the sake of the evil in the world, but I will gather you to myself at the close of the age.”
“I am the God of whom the book of Wisdom speaks, who cares for every thing, who is merciful and mild in judgement, who grants the grace of repentance to those who sin, but who in my supreme strength will see justice done.”
This is Jesus Christ, the kingdom of heaven, who is proclaimed by the gospels and whom we are called to follow. Repent – and rejoice – for he is at hand!
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the apse of the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome.