From the early days of my youth, I have always been told that the wonders of the City of Light consist in streets of gold, pearly gates, and a foundation of gems. I used to be impressed by these as a child is impressed with sand in a sandbox. Granted, we human beings do not exist without place. Home is not a nebulous cloud. Home is always a place that can solidly contain the people who consecrate its spaces with love, laughter, work, comfort, adjuring, and all the myriad of other ways that memory paints its indelible color upon walls, ceilings, floors, and objects. And so streets of gold, foundations of gems, and gates of pearls are part of the coming kingdom, yet only as a fitting place to provide context for the real jewels.
I have actually come to laugh at those golden streets. They are a stumbling block for the greedy and idolotrous, while a symbol of a beauty beyond gold for others. For those materialists who worship creatures rather than the Creator, those streets are merely a matter of bedazzling treasure. For those who love the Creator more than life, those streets are covered with the trampling feet of a peculiar people, and covered with the dung of animals (do we really imagine the City of Light will not contain all the creatures God has created and delights in?). In other words, even dung has a higher place than gold in the upside down Kingdom built for a peculiar people. Such wonderful irony permeates, even now, everything we see around us, and we are told that even the rocks and trees are part of a Divine conspiracy to bring to light the “glory of the children of God.”
Matthew, a former tax collector, is the herald who descried the upside down Kingdom to us. His assiduous detailing of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the substance behind the theme of “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” The pathway up is a pathway that must first go down through mourning, poverty of spirit, purity of heart that sees God alone as good, hungering for justice as a pathway to peace, and suffering under persecution. It is a treacherous, broken, jagged path, and one that cannot be traveled without a kind, fierce Shepherd.
In such a kingdom, Matthew, a traitor by the world’s standards, takes his place in the vanguard of a King who has conquered by giving up His own life. One of the bright jewels of the Kingdom, he is accompanied by those whose moral accomplishments, by this world’s standard of virtue, generally amount to a pile of rags and excrement:
Abraham and Sarah: who gave up a prosperous life in Ur, where their family essentially owned their own small village and great wealth, to live in tents and travel a meandering journey through desolate places and hostile cities. They both gave into fear and made compromises. Yet the ‘honored father’ who didn’t have a son became the father of all who walk by faith, and the ‘princess’ was made into a ‘noble woman,’ a woman of valor who could boldly face adversity and laugh at the days to come.
Tamar: A woman who posed as a prostitute to entice her former father-in-law to give her sons from his own loins, yet was pronounced more righteous than Judah, who himself, in laying down his life for Benjamin, pre-figured the One Who would “lay down His life for His friends.
Rahab: a former prostitute from Jericho who, defying the expectations set by a name which means “pride,” humbly received and protected two spies and thereby shielded the entire nation of Israel. She is not only in the heavenly hall of fame, but was specially selected to be in the human lineage of the Christ. How it happened that she married at all, much less married Salmon and gave birth to Boaz defies our best imaginings. Who but God could awaken hope and desire in a woman deadened grey and gloom where the euphemistic expression ‘making love’ must have been a bittery mockery to her soul. How can a heart be brought from the depths of despair, where that which is given for mutual delight between lovers has become nothing but an empty, mechanical activity? Who but God can bring the dead to life? Who but the God of the upside down kingdom would put a prostitute in a place of highest honor in His royal lineage?
Jepthah: the son of a prostitute, whom God surrounded with undaunted men whose hearts were strong and steadfastly dedicated to the freedom to obey and serve God rather than men. They gathered together not unlike the disenfranchised men and women who gathered to King David at Adullum. On his own, from his fear and pride, Jephthah made a rash vow to curry favor with God, and it cost his beloved daughter her life. That vow strangely echos the reaching of a hand to forbidden fruit in a misguided attempt to be worthy of God’s love and protection, and proves that God’s love for His people does not rest on their worthiness, but is a love that simply sets indelibly on them like a seal over their hearts.
Ruth: a foreigner and outcast, whose lineage springs from an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters, and whose people provoked God’s wrath by refusing hospitality to the vulnerable, wandering nation of Israel when they came from Egypt. Yet this low-ranked foreigner stands taller than all the women of Israel in her time: her courageous devotion to her mother-in-law and the God of Jacob is matched only by another foreigner’s devotion to Ruth’s great grandson and a Roman Centurion whose faith surprised her later and most important Offspring, the true Son of Man. She, Ittai the Gittite, and the Centurion stand as a testament that faith and belonging are not a paltry matter of racial purity. A Jew is not a Jew who is only one outwardly. Circumcision is a matter of the heart and not of the flesh.
David: who, when left to his own strength and wisdom, comitted adultery and murder, utterly scorning the One he loved beste, and becoming an abject failure in the eyes of those who treat the Scriptures as a predecessor to Aesop’s fables. Yet here is the best humanity has to offer, a man after God’s own heart, and a man whom many (including Ittai and Hushai) loved to the point of being willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, and rightly so.
Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist: An elite group of worldly outcasts who were simply men of like flesh and blood to the rest of us, who rejected the wisdom and power of this world to wander about like fugitives, receiving only their daily bread and becoming like grotesque circus attractions in the eyes of the literati of this world.
Mary of Magdala: Once a prostitute whose life was so abject and shattered that she had surrendered herself to seven demons. She was chosen as a disciple of God Himself, and chosen, most importantly, as the salient symbol of the redeemed Eve, reunited in fellowship God in the garden after separation not merely by fiery sword and death, but by shame of utterly scorning God’s words and cheaply trading her own glory for a lie. The glory of the woman, the crowning achievement of creation and the target of the Enemy’s hateful envy, was symbollically restored in her, and so was redeemed that royal title which matches no less than that of the Holy Spirit: “Helper.” As a restoration of her illustrious title, the helper was given the first post-ressurection task directly issued from the mouth of God Himself. This is a marvel of great wonder, for the second Adam does not stand by to watch Eve experiment with death; He surrenders Himself to death in order that she may live life unending, and so restores the glory of the woman and the man together. Instead of hiding from Him in the garden in fear and shame, His own, male and female, come to him boldly and desperately like so many lost and bewildered children running to father and mother.
There are many more: former slaves who compassionately cared for and fed their former masters, men and women who gave up positions of power and prestige to die next to others in fiery arenas or wander in desolate places and render a cup of cold water ‘to the least of these,’ men and women who faced the tip of the spear, sword, or bullet to get the message of hope to those sheep who were of another fold.
These are but some of the real jewels of the coming kingdom, and when they descend to place their feet on the necks of the world’s elite, the promise is that even the smallest girl among them will scatter the thoughts and armies of the proud, just as the Virgin Daughter (littlest girl) of Jerusalem once put to flight the Rabshekah of Assyria.
My hope and delight is to see them in the fullness of their glory, and to hear their stories, narrated within the framework of that one great story.
And when the work of subjecting the proud and violent of this world to a yoke of judgement is complete, there will still be work to do. The proud things of this world must be cleared away like trees to make way for houses, fields, and highways. I see, at the head of a column of willing workers, Booker T. Washington, with that axe laid over his shoulder just as it was at Tuskegee. The man whose love of learning and love of work were really facets of his love for those around him–that man strove, above all things, to lift the spirits of men and women through love of learning and dignity of labor. What a privilege it would be to swing an axe next to him, and to listen to his stories, stories from a simple, whole, and pure heart. We’ll light bonfires using the relics of an idolotrous world, roast food, and compare notes to form the narrative of narratives: a tale depicting the unyielding, steadfast love–stronger than death–that lead us through green pastures and dark valleys to unite us under the banner of love, planted by the One living and true God.
The only true treasures of Heaven are God and His people. As the priest in the tabernacle and temple carried 12 jewels to represent the people of Israel, so the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (King of Righteousness/Justice), who reigns in Jerusalem (Teaching of Peace) carries His own people like jewels that are “bound like a seal” over His heart. As with Him, so with His people, and as the Pslamist declares:
“Apart from you I have no good thing
As for the saints in the land,
they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.”
To those who delight in anything less (be it ever as ‘high’ as religion and rhetoric), and who treat the fading rubbish of this world (which includes even the world’s best virtues) as if it were a thing of real value, I can only repeat the words of Dante:
“It is well that endless be his grief
who, for love of things that do not last,
casts off a love that never dies.”
To substitute rubbish for real treasure is to willingly and willfully inhabit the restless, tortured, excruciating agony of hell itself. It is the ultimate betrayal of God and self. No suffering from disease, war, poverty, or famine can match the agony of a tortured conscience, and no matter how effectively men and women can silence their consciences in this life through distraction and divertisement, those self-same consciences will be awakened with full, relentless force in the age to come, never to be silenced again. True death is an endless disintegration of mind, spirit, and strength, torn at by a ravenous and relentless conscience; a conscience that will never again be relegated to a mere backdrop against which men and women willfully hue out the dark, broken cisterns of their misdirected lives. Such a fate is like an eternal thirst for the water that the tortured soul perversely and proudly refuses to drink.
So here we stand at the crossroads, with the broken cisterns of worldly passion and virtue on one side, and Living Water on the other. The former is bought with the proud currencies of this world: money, accompishment, power, worldly wisdom; the latter bought, not with money, but the currency of submission, surrender, and delight in an incomparable Treasure.
On one side, that shrewd and merciless woman cries out that stolen water is sweet; on the other, that wise, alluring, and gracious woman has mixed her wine and bids us to come and buy food and drink without money. How similar the story, and yet those stories are as far apart as hell and heaven: the former seeks to destroy a precious life, while the latter offers the Light of Life, the Bread of Life, and rest for weary souls. Such is our story, we bearers of shadow and light: ever to be confronted with this dilemma and never able to avoid choosing one or the other.
As the shadows descend on this present age, the love of most grows cold, the lampstands have gone out, and men and women huddle in the dark like so many smoldering wicks, the dilemma confronts every man and woman more urgently than ever. This age of clay and iron is shattering under the weight of its own pride and folly, and our bold structures of mind and power cannot long bear the weight of death, dissension, and disintegration that–like too much sand in concrete–dooms the whole structure to collapse. Even the best of leaders (Hezekiah, Wilberforce, Lincoln, MLK) cannot save a people from themselves, and the time is short. To whom do you belong? To a race or class? To Epicurean pleasures and passions? To a virtuous society founded on the haughty stoicism of Epectetus, Aurelius, Kant, and Victoria? To a proud lineage or a good and virtuous family? To yourself as a self-made man or woman with the power to will and the will to power? To a dossier of accomplishments? To the unfolding of a blind and inexhorably hostile evolutionary progress measured by death and invidious cruelty? Or do you belong to One who flung the stars into space, giving each its name; set an everlasting boundary for the waters; and wrote His law of love on the hearts of men and women not to withold good, but to lavish it on them? To whom do you belong?