Not long before she died, Joan Rivers was featured in a documentary called A Piece of Work. In one of the best scenes, the legendary comedian thumbs through a silver file cabinet, the kind libraries once used for card catalogs. Instead of book titles organized according to the Dewey Decimal system, these drawers contained thousands of jokes organized under labels such as “Pets,” “Politically Incorrect,” “New York,” and “No Self Worth.” This scene is compelling because it reveals that Rivers was among the last of a dying breed: the comedian who actually told jokes. Most comedians these days tend toward observational humor; they tell long stories that build to a satisfying climax. Joan Rivers, however, preferred the zinger. She was part of a collective of one-liner specialists that included Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and, of course, Henny Youngman. According to his obituary, Youngman was “the most rapid-fire of rapid-fire comics. He could tell six, seven, sometimes even eight or more jokes a minute…Rarely if ever did a joke last more than 24 seconds.” Part of what makes one-liners irresistible is the fact that they are ruthless: you either get them or you don’t. There is no time to explain the joke or provide context or apologize when people are offended or even give people time to recover when they are laughing too hard. The effect of this pace is that the jokes themselves become less important than broader vision they represent: in comedy, nothing is off limits. While this broader vision may seem cynical, it is actually borne from a deep sense that everything in life, good or bad, is worth experiencing. At a dinner where Henny Youngman received an award in 1987, Whoopi Goldberg summarized the rapid-fire comic’s posture toward the world when she said that Youngman’s ability to make people laugh “gives us greater understanding of who we are, what we want, and how we stand with the world.”
In this morning’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, we see Jesus engaging in his own version of rapid-fire comedy, in the form of some the New Testament’s most fast-paced teaching. In the space of just a few verses, Jesus tells five parables, none of which are longer than a sentence or two. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, to yeast, to treasure in a field, to a merchant in search of pearls, and to a net thrown into the sea. Though the pace is not quite six parables a minute, it certainly feels close. Like the zingers of Joan Rivers and Henny Youngman, these parables throw us off balance. Jesus doesn’t wait to see if we understand what he means when he says “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field” before he moves on to the next parable. This is probably by design. We often make the crucial mistake of reading the parables of Jesus as allegories: we try to figure out who the various characters in the story are supposed to be. We saw Matthew himself do this in last week’s gospel lesson, when he explained “the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom,” you get the idea. The problem with this approach is that it misses the point of what the parables of Jesus are supposed to accomplish. By offering a series of clipped, seemingly unrelated parables in this passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus completely short-circuits our ability to allegorize them. It’s nonsensical and probably impossible to determine what the yeast represents or who the merchant in search of fine pearls is supposed to be. The pace of these parables helps us remember that they are not allegorical stories that describe the world as it is; they are lenses through which we can see the world in an entirely new way. Like the jokes of rapid-fire comedians, Jesus tells these parables in service of a broader vision.
If we slow down for just a moment, it is clear that the overall purpose of these parables is to challenge the way we understand the kingdom of heaven. For Jesus’ original audience, “kingdom of heaven” was a shorthand way of referring to the time when God would establish justice and, perhaps more importantly, wreak bitter vengeance on the enemies of God’s people. It was a term that allowed an oppressed people to fantasize that their oppressors would someday get their comeuppance. Of course, those political dimensions have faded over the centuries. For us, “kingdom of heaven” has simply become a synonym for “the afterlife,” which means it’s not a matter of much concern to us on a day to day basis. The series of parables we heard this morning challenges both of these views. For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is neither a political revenge fantasy nor a place we go when we die. Indeed, for all of their muddled imagery, these parables present a consistent theme: the kingdom of heaven is already among us. Now, given this message, it can be tempting to fall into the same trap as Pangloss in Candide: blithely claiming that is really is “the best of all possible worlds” despite all evidence to the contrary. This, however, is not what Jesus saying. For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is a truth hidden at the very heart of creation, buried deep within the muck and mire of human misery. Ultimately, the kingdom of heaven is a posture towards the world, a fundamental recognition that, even in the face of degradation and death, the grace of God abides: and that through God’s grace things which were cast down are being raised up and things which had grown old are being made new.
There is perhaps no one who articulates this posture more eloquently than St. Paul, when he writes: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In this remarkable passage, Paul captures the essence of what Jesus was referring to when he described the kingdom of heaven: it is a perspective on the world informed an unshakeable trust in God’s grace. It’s worth noting that this trust is not automatic. Paul himself explains that had been convinced of the power of God’s love. This is significant for those of us who seek the kingdom of heaven in a skeptical age. I have known people who told me they had to be utterly confident in the promises of God before they could even attempt to be faithful. Paul, however, implies that his confidence in God’s grace was the result of discernment. Even for Paul, the kingdom of heaven was not revealed all at once. The kingdom of heaven is revealed gradually, in the moments that we choose hope over fear, forgiveness over retribution, and joy over despair. Ultimately, it is these glimpses of the kingdom of heaven that help us understand who we truly are and how we are meant to stand with world.