When I was younger, I was enamored with choose-your-own-adventure books. Reading was exciting enough but being given the ability to create and recreate different versions of the same story was thrilling because it felt like I could construct a story that spoke to me. Jesus understood this need to hear stories that feel like they are addressed directly to us, especially when he wanted to teach his followers something that was particularly challenging. In this lesson, you and your children will read several short parables Jesus offers to help explain the kingdom of heaven and look for the ways they help you connect to this world he offers his beloved people.
Begin the time with your children by each choosing something or someone who is important to that person and then describing it to the family as if all of you had not seen or heard of it before. For example, you may describe a family pet to your children, telling about its personality and its looks in the way you would tell someone who had not met the pet before. When you have finished with these descriptions, reflect on what was easy and what was difficult about the activity.
Next, ask your children what they think “the kingdom of heaven” is. Share that this is a phrase that Jesus uses several times when he is speaking to his followers. If they struggle with this idea, reassure them that this is okay. Jesus’ disciples had difficulty understanding it. Also, note that different people have different ideas about what “the kingdom of heaven” is. Jesus knew this, so he told the people stories called parables to help them understand “the kingdom of heaven.”
Read aloud Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. After reading, ask your children which of the parables jumped out at them. (For younger children, you can get at the same idea by asking which of the stories they liked the most.) Remind them that the parable does not necessarily need to have fully explained what “the kingdom of heaven” means. What is important is that it resonated with them. Ask them to explain why they chose that particular parable. Explain that we are often drawn to stories that connect to something we already know or something we are interested in.
Take a deep dive into the parable (or parables) your children identified by exploring the image Jesus uses in it to explain “the kingdom of heaven.” You can choose your own approach to the concept or you can choose one or more of these activities:
- Mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32): If your child has not seen a mustard seed before, show her one. (Mustard seeds are available in the spice aisle of the grocery store.) Note how small the seed is. Then search for pictures of mustard plants online. Notice how large these plants can grow and their role as a sanctuary for birds. Or, go outside looking for seed pods from trees. Notice their size compared to the trees they grow into.
- Yeast (Matthew 13:33): Bake some yeasted bread together. As the dough rises, notice the changes that occur in it. Note that these changes result from the living organism yeast releasing gases as it eats the sugars in the other ingredients.
- Hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44): Create a treasure hunt for your children by hiding a number of simple treasures outdoors or around your house. These may be small gifts, coins or even items that you already own that your children love. Or, you can create a scavenger hunt, asking your children to locate various things that fit particular categories (such as: something red, something you love, etc.). Once they have gathered the items, discuss what it would be like to trade these items in for the ability to own the place they just found them.
- Pearl (Matthew 13:45-46): Locate a video online about how pearls are made. Watch it with your children and discuss the long and interesting process of creating a pearl. Then note that well-formed, beautiful pearls are rare. Talk about things that are precious to you that are very rare.
- Catching fish (Matthew 13:47-48): If you’re fortunate enough to live near a body of water and to have fishing gear, go fishing with your children. Alternately, you can gather whatever wild plants or seeds grow well in your area. After collecting several of them, sort the items noting which your children consider “good” and which they consider “bad.” Ask them to explain why they categorized each item this way.
- Old and new treasure (Matthew 13:52). Go on a scavenger hunt with your children in your home looking for the items that you cherish the most. Be sure to gather items that are new-ish as well as those that you have had for a long time. Once they have gathered the items, discuss why each is important to the person who chose it.
As an extension of this lesson, you and your children can write new parables aimed at explaining “the kingdom of heaven” to modern people. Brainstorm places and things in the world that are important to you and your family. Then choose a few that connect to the idea of “the kingdom of heaven” that Jesus teaches us about in the texts you read together. Create short stories about these items.
JOELLE BRUMMIT-YALE is the director of children’s and youth ministries at Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When not at the church, she can usually be found at home with her son and husband caring for their many animals and developing their family homestead.