16th Sunday: The Hidden Kingdom

We are in the midst of several weeks of readings from the Gospel of Matthew, and all of them center around one very important theme: the kingdom of heaven.

That phrase appears over thirty times in Matthew's gospel. John the Baptist talks about it, Jesus talks about it, and the Apostles who Jesus sends out to preach talk about it. It's obviously very important, not just for them, but for us as well.

What is the kingdom of heaven?

The Jewish people were waiting for a kingdom. They looked forward to a day when the kingdom of David would be restored - the people of Israel who had been divided by wars and exile would finally be reunited under a king that God would send to deliver them.

But the kingdom of heaven, this kingdom that Jesus preaches about, is much bigger than that. This kingdom is not just an ancient political entity, but something for us, something to which we can belong. When Jesus begins his ministry, he says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 4:17) By his coming into the world, Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom. Where Jesus is, there is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus has come - he preached, he died on the cross, he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven - but where is the kingdom today? Is it acting in our chaotic world?

In today's gospel, Jesus teaches use not only how to see the kingdom, but also how to be citizens of this kingdom of heaven. Once again uses parable.

First, the image of the weeds growing among the wheat.

After last weeks parable of the sower, we hear about a man whose enemy sowed weeds into his wheat field. It's only when all the plants begin to grow that the owner finds out about the weeds, but rather than having them pulled out - which could damage the wheat - he leaves them until the harvest time, when he can safely separate the good from the bad.

This image of the kingdom tells us that just because we follow the Lord Jesus doesn't mean that life will always be easy. There are weeds in the world - people voluntarily choose to live selfish lives. God doesn't come down and sort things out right away because he's giving everyone time. It's only at the end, at the harvest, that things are finally determined. From now until the end, there is always the chance for repentance. By letting the weeds grow with the wheat, the kingdom of heaven in the midst of the world, those who are rejecting the love of God may be lead to embrace him.

That's not to say that all of us in here are wheat and all the people out there are weeds. Sometimes we choose to be the weeds - we refuse to put God at the center of our lives and choose to live for our own desires. We are called to continual conversion, repenting whenever we turn away from our God.

Second, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed - a tiny little seed that grows into the largest of plants.

We can see that this is how the kingdom has grown in the world. It started in the frontier of the Roman Empire with just a few, unremarkable people; since then it has grown to the point where Christians can be found all over the world. The "Catholic" in Catholic Church means "universal" - and that's what the kingdom is. Our faith is open to anyone - it's not defined by race, nationality, or culture.

Yes, being Catholic requires something of us - it requires rejecting anything that is in opposition to the love of God; but it is not a private club or secret society. What we believe and who we are is open for all to see and understand. Anyone who wants to live for God can join this community.

Finally, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast used in baking bread. It only takes a small amount of yeast to make a whole batch of dough rise.

When we look at the world today, it can be easy to think that the kingdom of heaven has failed; but it is precisely in the middle of this mess of violence, selfishness, pride, and hatred that the kingdom works. Jesus uses the image of yeast to show us that the work of the kingdom is almost always hidden. It happens quietly, almost in secret. While our attention is drawn to the powers of the world, the kingdom of heaven works in small ways - small acts of love, of self-sacrifice, of service.

My favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote, "Such is of the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."

If you are worried about the way the world is going, if watching the news makes you anxious, don't look for power. Don't trust the forces of the world to fix things. Rather, decide for yourself, as a citizen of this kingdom of heaven, that you will love.

Love your friends and family, love strangers, love people who agree with you, and love people who think you couldn't be more wrong.

The kingdom of heaven is here because Jesus is with us. We must choose to live in that kingdom, letting the love of God transform us, and, through us, extend his kingdom to the whole world.