The Kingdom of Heaven

Sunday 30th July 2017
John The Baptist, Clayton
BCP Matins
1 Kings 3.5-12
Matthew 13.31-32; 13.44-52

We all know the story of King Solomon and the dispute between two women over a baby, how he threatened to cut the child in half, prompting the real mother to volunteer to give her child to the other woman. A very fine piece of psychology, no doubt; and, then again, Solomon built up his Kingdom, the largest it ever became. But, as we all know, no political career ends as well as it begins. In the case of Solomon, he turned away from God when he became very rich and took foreign wives and his stewardship of his Kingdom was such that, at his death, it broke into pieces, partly as the result of the arrogance of his chosen successor Jeroboam but, then, he should have trained his son better. The story of Solomon's dream also idealises his father, David but, there again, David was far from perfect.

And we could say this kind of thing about everybody, even Winston Churchill; the more you examine a public life the more flaws you find in it. That is because to be a public figure involves taking the hard decisions that private people refuse to take. Politicians, quite literally, do our dirty work and we rid ourselves of our guilt for not doing the work ourselves by blaming them for everything that goes wrong. They are our scapegoats.

At a deeper level, however, the story of Solomon's dream calls into question the nature of wisdom. And here, what Solomon says is precisely correct in a political context: "Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?" The problem for Solomon, as for the rest of us, in public and private life, is that we are not usually confronted with a clear choice between good and evil but more often a choice between doubtful good outcomes, and, even more            often, a choice between two evils. A good illustration of this are the legal proceedings with respect to Charlie Gard where doctors, lawyers and ethical philosophers have struggled with the case. At a more mundane level, we often hear the maxim that if you put two economists in a room together you will get three opinions. I still remember a song we sang at school about a farmer which said "What's right for the corn is wrong for the peas."

With all this in mind, we turn to our Gospel reading to find parables about the Kingdom of Heaven: a mustard seed that grows into a massive tree; leaven that enlivens dough; a treasure so great it is worth giving everything for; a pearl greater than all other pearls; an unimaginably rich catch of fish. But this last little parable has a sting in its tail: unlike the parables of the mustard seed, the leaven, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, this net is not a phenomenon of pure goodness or wisdom; the net contains both good and bad fish and the bad fish are rejected and destroyed.

Now this, together with a more extended version in Matthew 25 (vv31-46) where the sheep are separated from the goats at the "Last Judgment", presents us with a set of serious problems: do we believe that sinners will be punished by eternal damnation? How serious do the sins have to be to merit such damnation? And, most critical of all, where does this urge to sin come from and why should we be punished for a phenomenon that apparently has nothing to do with us?

On the first point, I do not think that most people ever do anything wicked enough to justify either eternal damnation or the gruesome death of Jesus on the Cross. Secondly, when it comes to really serious acts, such as the Manchester bomb, it is really difficult for us to separate the influence of nature and nurture and to separate crime from illness. No human wisdom thus far has been able to get anywhere near the bottom of these two sets of problems. On the third and fourth points, one of the serious failures of Christianity is its superficial account of the phenomenon of evil: there really is no point personalising it in Satan or talking about the fires of hell unless there is a coherent account of how Satan and the fires came about.

Looked at from a slightly different angle, was God simply setting us a challenge, making it possible for us to exercise free will, when we were created out of love to love freely but were created with genes that predispose us to compete with each other for mates and resources?

I have to conclude, reluctantly but definitely, that Matthew and Jesus are at serious odds in this matter. Jesus died, according to his own understanding, to spare his followers from "The Time of Trial" so that they might be part of the eternal kingdom. In other words, the death of Jesus, according to him, was to ensure that we, his followers, would be spared; it was a death of solidarity with us as imperfect human beings, solidarity, if you like, with the imperfection created in us for which we would not be punished. For, if we were created to be imperfect so that we could operate out of free will, why should we be punished for this imperfection?

Which brings me full circle, back to the imperfection of human wisdom. There is far too much loose talk inside our Church and out of it, about what God will and will not do at the "Last Judgment" when the truth is that we do not know. There is also far too much loose talk about what constitutes good and evil which tends to focus on private behaviour when, if we think about it, most of the evil in the world results from corporate misdeeds or from sins of omission.

Such an attitude as mine is severely criticised by many theologians as weak and irresponsible, as a refusal to face up to the reality of human wickedness; but my answer is that facing up to human wickedness, acknowledging its existence, is very different from claiming to know why and how it operates in us. I am sorry if some people find this offensive but I will stick to the parables of the leaven, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price but, above all, to the parable of the mustard seed; we will never know why or how but we will all be birds nesting in its branches.