The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .Katerina K. Whitley Matthew 4:12-23 Year A - Third Sunday after the Epiphany
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
“The kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s choice for the new creation the other evangelists call “the kingdom of God.” For someone like me who first heard these words in Greek, the word kingdom presents a problem. Kingdom has a masculine ring to it, whereas the original—vasileía—is a feminine noun in the Greek. There is something more all-encompassing, more nurturing, in the feminine word. So, reign would be a better choice here.
This gospel passage is coupled in the lectionary with Isaiah’s passage of coming from darkness to light and in the psalmist’s optimistic and trusting song to God as the light that takes away fear. Something good and new and filled with light is happening with the coming of God’s reign. Again and again, in the gospel of Matthew we will read stories, teachings, and parables on the kingdom of heaven—as many as 29 references.
Jesus uses homely images taken from the life of his hearers to give a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven is like:
it is like a net;
it is like a pearl;
it is like a mustard seed;
it is like the wise maidens who keep their lamps lit . .
The similes are all familiar and they make sense to the hearers. However, although these metaphors seem easy to understand, there is a profound mystery hidden in the phrase—the reign of heaven—especially for those who don’t have the innocence of children.
Why this teaching started immediately after the arrest of John the Baptizer is another mystery. One prophet’s ministry and call to repentance ends and the other prophet’s ministry of reconciliation begins—the reign of heaven is at hand.
When the imprisoned and despairing John sends word to Jesus, Are you the One? Jesus answers with examples from his healing ministry as evidence of the kingdom—what John the evangelist calls signs and Mark and Luke call miracles. And in addition to all the relief from suffering that these healings bring to the people, he adds the signature element of the kingdom of heaven: “and the poor have good news brought to them.”
These miracles at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as recorded by Matthew are so numerous that the fame of the healer spreads far and wide. And, remember, this was before the technological age, before any kind of transportation that was faster than a walker’s legs. They were bringing the sick to him from every direction of the compass.
Jesus had already moved to the shores of the sea of Galilee, a place much more accessible than the landlocked Nazareth. After his public baptism this was the next move to an open ministry that welcomed all. He doesn’t choose to live in isolation as a wise hermit to whom the pilgrims must travel with great difficulty in order to consult him.
He himself goes to the people, making himself available to all, until the crowds and their needs make it difficult for him and his disciples to deal with all of them. The pressure to heal the sick must have been so enormous that Jesus’ time was taken up with casting out demons, restoring broken limbs, and giving sight to the blind. He doesn’t have time to eat or sleep.
Besides the needs of his body, he has the urgent need to be alone in order to pray; time with his disciples as their teacher supersedes the need to heal. When the sick and the blind come to him, he still responds, but he urges them to keep the news to themselves.
During the temptation in the wilderness, he has rejected miracles as the way to bring people to God. He knows the tendency of humanity, then and now, to be attracted to the spectacular and the miraculous without giving thought or credit to the Creator of life. He knows that miracles alone are not the way to the kingdom.
Now he concentrates on teaching, bringing the kingdom of heaven with him wherever he goes. But the kingdom he proclaims is very different from earthly reigns.
Instead of favoring the rich, he favors the poor.
Instead of paying lip service to the law of Moses, he fulfills the law.
Instead of practicing violence against the enemies of the people, he urges forgiveness and the strange instruction to turn the other cheek.
Instead of keeping company with the respectable people of the synagogues and the temple, he keeps company with tax collectors and with outcast women.
Instead of fasting in public, he eats with his friends thanking God for the bread, even on the Sabbath.
The Jewish people who thought Messiah would be a liberator from Rome’s oppression now start to murmur against him. Militaristic Zealots and pious observers of the law begin to conspire how to get rid of him. After all, this kingdom of heaven doesn’t fit their idea of the Divine order.
This new kingdom sounds dangerous: it threatens the established order; it makes waves where calm is needed; it gives too much importance to the poor and the dispossessed.
Look, even fishermen and shepherds are being given credit while the piety of the religious is being questioned. We can’t have that. It will destroy our society.
We’ve learned to keep peace with the Romans by playing their game; let’s not talk about a new kingdom; let’s not allow him to cause problems with those who hold the power through armaments.
We are scared of this talk of a new kingdom of heaven that sounds so different from what we are practicing.
Listen to him saying that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Listen to him saying that children are the ones who understand what the kingdom of heaven is all about and that children are the ones who will have no difficulty entering it.
“You must become like children,” he tells them, this in a world that does not consider children or women as full human beings. This is crazy talk; it frightens us.
The preaching of a kingdom which goes against the established order still frightens us.
How can we enter such a kingdom when we spend more on weapons that on all the other needs of our citizens put together?
How can we obey such a kingdom when humility and kindness are looked on as weakness?
How can we welcome such a kingdom when popularity, fame, and wealth are worshiped?
This kingdom of heaven proclaims that it is very difficult for the rich to enter it because they are so satisfied with their possessions. No, no, we still reject this kingdom of heaven. Can it still matter?
It matters only because God wills it for us. God invites us to the kingdom of heaven still, and those who are called are eager to claim its citizenship and eager to share its joys with others. “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” Amen.
About the writer:
Katerina Katsarka Whitley is a native of Thessaloniki, Greece. A graduate of Furman University, she has spent her life teaching, writing, and sharing the good news of Epiphany through the Incarnation. She lives in Boone, NC, teaches communication courses at Appalachian State University, leads retreats and writing workshops.
Her books are biblically based. They can be found wherever books are sold: Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women; Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus; Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross; Waiting for the Wonder: Voices of Advent; Light to the Darkness: Lessons and Carols.
Also, a cookbook: Around a Greek Table, Recipes and Stories Arranged According to the Liturgical Seasons of the Eastern Church; and a novel, A New Love, on the early Christians in Greece. Her forthcoming memoir covers her Greek years and is a memory of occupation. She can be reached through her website: www.katerinawhitley.net
Scripture and Music:
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Arise, Your Light Is Come!
Christ, Be Our Light!
Christ, Whose glory fills the skies
Glory and Praise to Our God
God is my strong salvation
Here I Am, Lord
I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
In Christ There Is No East or West
O Christ, the Great Foundation
O God Our Help in Ages Past
Creator of the Stars of Night
Until We Rest in Thee
Let Us Love One Another
He Comes to Us, Jane Marshall
They Cast Their Nets
One Thing I Ask of the Lord, arr. D. McAfee
The Lord Is My Light
This Little Light of Mine
Trust and Obey