It is one of my favorite religious stories, so simple and so right. It is an Hasidic story about a certain Rabbi Isaac of Krakow.
One night Rabbi Isaac, son of Ezichiel from Krakow, has a dream. In it he was told that if he left his home and traveled to far-away Prague, he would discover a hidden treasure buried under the bridge that led to the palace of the King. The first time he had this dream, he ignored it. Rabbi Isaac was a practical man, not so foolish as to listen to some silly dream. But then he had the dream again. And again. And again. And so the day came that Rabbi Isaac donned his cloak and set off for Prague in search of gold.
After a long and arduous journey, he finally arrived. He found the bridge easily, but it was heavily guarded day and night by soldiers. Hours passed and then days as he waited for an opening when he could dig under the bridge for the treasure. But the changing of the guards was too efficient. Finally, he gave up, cursing himself for having come this far for nothing. But when he turned to walk away, one of the soldiers called out, “Hey, old man, for the longest time you’ve been hanging about, and now you are leaving? What strange quest brought you here, and why are you leaving now?
“I had a silly dream,” Rabbi Isaac explained to the soldier. “I thought God was talking to me in my sleep. He told me to come here, all the way to Krakow, where I would find a great treasure buried beneath the bridge. I really shouldn’t have listened.”
“You were a fool,” the soldier replied. “I had a dream like that once myself, a recurring dream. In it God told me to go to Krakow and look up a fellow by the name of Rabbi Isaac. If I found him, I was told, I would find a great treasure, buried beneath the stove in his house. Can you believe such a thing? I certainly didn’t. I’m sorry for your trouble, old fellow, but you’re much more gullible than me.”
Rabbi Isaac thanked the soldier and tipping his hat, set off quickly to return to Krakow. Where he found the promised treasure where it always was, hidden right under his own hearth.
As always, to find something you have to know where to look. And sometimes you have to be convinced to look again, right where you began in the first place, or you’ll miss finding what you’re looking for.
Jesus knew that. He knew that his followers were looking to find God in their lives in the expected places, high atop a mountain or in the Temple with the priests and the smell of incense. He wanted to redirect their attention, to get them to look in other obvious places they had overlooked. So to teach them about the kingdom of heaven, he used a series of parables to get his point across. Parables have a way of teasing the imagination. With a story told in just a few words, Jesus’ parables caused his listeners to see and understand the kingdom in a new and different way.
“The kingdom of heaven, he said, “is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of seeds, but when it grows it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in it.”
We’ve heard this before, of course. It is one of the most familiar images in the Bible. The mustard seed is a symbol of both the nature and power of faith as well as a way to envision God’s kingdom. If you paid attention in Sunday School, you probably were taught that what this parable means is that God’s kingdom can appear to begin as something small, not very impressive at first, but is continually growing into something great big. I remember my aunt wearing a necklace, which had a tiny mustard seed in the center of a small glass ball that somehow magnified the seed so that you could see it.
Well, Jesus no sooner throws out this first parable about the kingdom than he immediately follows it up with another example taken from ordinary life saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” When we hear this, it does not seem like anything special. We know that it takes a little bit of yeast to make bread rise. But when Jesus mentions that this woman put the yeast in three measures of flour, I doubt if many of us are aware that three measures represent more than 50 pounds of flour — which made it a much more dramatic image for those hearing it in Jesus’ time.
Jesus hardly pauses following these two images of what God’s kingdom is like before continuing on to tell three more parables…one about a farmer finding a treasure buried in a field, another about a merchant discovering a pearl of great value, and yet one more image about a net beneath the sea that yields a great catch.
It’s as though Jesus feels that no one, single image can begin to capture or adequately communicate what the kingdom of heaven is like. So he piles up the metaphors in a rush, one on top of the other, leaving us with the impression that the kingdom he is describing is too encompassing — and astonishing — to ever be reduced to any straightforward explanation.
However, though they may vary considerably in description, there is one constant across all these parables Jesus offers. The most striking thing about them “is their essential hiddenness – the mustard seed hidden in the ground, the yeast hidden in the dough, the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl hidden among the other pearls, the net hidden in the depths of the sea. If the kingdom is like these, then it is not something readily apparent to the eye, but something that must be searched for, something just below the surface of things waiting there to be discovered and claimed.” (The Seeds of Heaven, Barbara Brown Taylor, page 24)
Jesus chooses to use a variety of images also, I think, to help us understand that the kingdom of heaven is not a place. Nor is the kingdom something that is static and fixed. Rather it is better understood as a condition or circumstance, a revelatory experience that while hard to put into words, is very real nevertheless.
For example how would you describe your experience of love? As light and sweet like the fragrance of a rose? As awesome and breathtaking as the wonder of the night sky? Like the gentle touch of soft rain on your skin? Like the sweet, juicy taste of a fresh peach? Like your heart being filled with song? You can reach for any number of expressions to give description of the love you feel, but it’s elusive. Love has so many dimensions. To know something like love — or like the kingdom of heaven— is a knowing of the heart.
A few years ago, I came across a story told by Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church: “In a large American city, I was engaging in small talk with some families who had gathered in a sitting room. During a lull in the conversation, a three-year-old boy walked up to me rather boldly and asked, ‘Can you come with me?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. I was rather impressed that this little boy would be bold enough to take the initiative with a strange grown-up — especially one whose face was covered with a white beard and who was dressed in the long black robes and imposing neck cross…But this youngster was completely undaunted. He took my hand and led me to the corner of the room, away from the other guests. Almost before I could bend down to his level, he put his important question to me. ‘How can I see God?’ I thought about his question for a moment and then replied: ‘Most often we don’t see God on the outside with our eyes. Instead, we see him on the inside with our hearts.’”
It’s a sweet and naïve story, yes. But in its simplicity, I believe it gets at the very truth Jesus was aiming at when he used all those images to describe the kingdom of heaven. You might have noticed that they were all about people involved with their daily activity; one planting, another plowing a field, another fishing, another in the workplace and another in the market. In choosing these familiar settings, Jesus is encouraging us to look more closely at where we find ourselves, for it is quite possible that is where we will find the kingdom of heaven — suddenly and unexpectedly. The extraordinary hidden in the ordinary.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,” exclaimed Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And if we can learn how to look for it, we will experience it. To most of us the reality of God’s presence comes quietly as an awareness mixed with intuition. We might call it a feeling, or a certain sense of new clarity, or maybe just a happy moment, unspectacular as a small seed or bit of leaven, that helps to nudge us toward an inexplicable awareness in that moment of capital “R” reality that is beyond small “r” reality.
In one of his novels, pastor and author Frederick Buechner described such a moment of kingdom awareness. “I was driving into New York City from New Jersey,” he writes, “on one of those crowded, fast-moving turnpikes you enter it by. It was very warm. There was brilliant sunshine, and the cars glittered in it as they went tearing by. The sky was cloudless and blue. Around Newark a huge silver plane, traveling in the same direction as I was, made its descent in a slow diagonal and touched down soft as a bird on the airstrip just a few hundred yards away from me as I went driving by. I had music on the radio, but I didn’t need it. The day made its own music —the hot spring sun and the hum of the road, the roar of the great trucks passing and my own engine, the hum of my own thoughts. When I came out of the Lincoln Tunnel, the city was snarled and seething with traffic as usual; but at the same time there was something about it that was not usual.
“It was gorgeous traffic, it was beautiful traffic — that’s what was not usual. It was a beauty to see, to hear, to smell, even to be a part of. It was so dazzlingly alive it all but took my breath away. It rattled and honked and chattered with life — the people, the colors of their clothes, the marvelous hodgepodge of their faces, all of it; the taxis, the shops, the blinding sidewalks. The spring day made everybody a celebrity — blacks, whites, Hispanics, every last one of them. It made even the litter and clamor and turmoil of it a kind of miracle.
“…From the garage where I left my car, I continued my way on foot. In the high-ceilinged public atrium on the ground of a large office building there were people on benches eating sandwiches. Some of them were dressed to kill. Some of them were in jeans and sneakers. They were young ones and old ones. Daylight was flooding in on them, and there were green plants growing and a sense of deep peace as they ate their lunches mostly in silence…
“In some ways it was like a dream and in other ways as if I had woken up from a dream. I had the feeling that I had never seen the city so real before in my life. I was walking along Central Park South near Columbus Circle at the foot of the park when a middle-aged woman came toward me going the other way. Just as she passed me, she spoke. What she said was, ‘Jesus loves you.’ That is what she said: ‘Jesus loves you,’ just like that. She said it in as everyday a voice as if she had been saying good morning, and I was caught off guard so that it wasn’t till she was lost in the crowd that I realized what she had said and wondered if I could possibly ever find her again and thank her, if I could ever catch up with her and say, ‘Yes. If I believe anything worth believing in this whole world, I believe that. He loves me. He loves you. He loves the whole…pack of us.
“For the rest of the way I was going, the streets I walked on were paved with gold. Nothing was different. Everything was different. The city was transfigured. I was transfigured. It was a new New York coming down out of heaven adorned like a bride prepared for her intended. ‘The dwelling place of God is among his people. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.’ …That is the city that for a moment I saw.” (The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction)
Hidden and yet present. Jesus assures us that the kingdom of heaven is all mixed in with the humdrum and ho-hum of our days— on a busy expressway caught up in traffic, in words spoken, while working at our desks, while pouring cereal into a bowl for the kids’ breakfast. The kingdom was present in our church this last Saturday when hundreds came through our doors for the Rummage sale to find both essentials and treasures, which were given out of our bounty. The kingdom of heaven is also there, in a daughter caring for her aging parent, a mother taking the kids to soccer practice, a fellow encouraging a friend.
The kingdom of heaven is here…right where we are…beneath the hearth of our lives. We need only to change our angle of vision, and then with eyes to see and ears to hear, we will discover the wonder and majesty and joy hidden within this and everyday.
In the name of the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.