Thursday, June 14, 2018

Not An Earthly Kingdom

I think it's a mistake to over-think parables. Yes, in addition to the surface message, they often contain nuances that cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the original context and culture, but Jesus did not intend his parables to be confusing messages that must be picked apart like an episode of Westworld. They are simple speak for simple people. I really enjoyed Steve Pankey's post on this topic yesterday, and I hope you'll read it by clicking here. If Jesus saw the volumes that have been written about his parables, he might be flattered, but he'd also probably be perplexed. "It's not supposed to be hard," I can hear him saying in disbelief.

Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 4:26-34) contains two little parables about the kingdom of God that are easy to over-interpret. First is the parable of the sower who scatters seed on the ground and, despite not understanding how, observes the seed sprouting and growing until it is time for the harvest. Second is the parable of the mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds yet grows into a shrub big enough to give birds shade in its branches. What did Jesus have in mind? What portrait of God's reign was Jesus seeking to display?

Don't overthink it. Both parables are about growth that defies understanding and expectation. Both are about something small becoming large. But both are familiar. His hearers may not have known that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds, but they would have understood that sometimes tiny seeds become big plants. They might not have ever thought about the process by which a seed sprouts and becomes a plant, but that's the point. Even if you never planted a bean in a cup in kindergarten, you are aware of these things called seeds and you are aware that those seeds become plants.

So what did Jesus mean? Simply that the kingdom of God starts small and grows big? That it pops up in ways that defy our understanding? Maybe. But we can dig a little deeper than that without overthinking things. This morning, I read an article about Vice President Pence's speech to the Southern Baptist Convention. The article suggests that members of the convention are experiencing a culture shift away from a narrow conservative political identity to a broader, more moderate identity. Pence's remarks, which were not surprisingly political, were not universally well received. That's not my point, but the article included a quotation from the newly elected president's speech to the convention about the relationship between politics and faith:
We believe that Jesus is the lord of the whole earth. He is the king of kings and he is the lord of lords. We believe that he, not any version of Caesar, is the Messiah. He is the Christ, the son of the living God, that salvation is found in him, not in the Republican platform or the Democratic platform, and that salvation did not come riding in on the wings of Air Force One. It came cradled in a manger
That was in my mind this morning as I read these parables about the reign of God, and I began to wonder how different Jesus' description of God's reign was from his contemporaries' experience of Caesar's reign. God's reign isn't announced at all. It pops up overnight in ways that no one really saw coming. When even the emperor's designated governor comes to town, there is a military parade. God's kingdom is best known as a mustard seed, but the Empire manifests itself in gold and silver, in marble and granite, in chariots and soldiers. The power of God doesn't surprise the sower, but it sneaks in at night when no one is looking. When Rome shows up, everyone knows it. What a remarkable difference!

I wonder what Jesus had in mind when he described the kingdom of God as some seeds scattered on the ground. I wonder whether his hearers were taken aback not at the theological complexity of the message but at its simplicity--a simplicity in message that mirrors the simplicity of the kingdom itself. If you want to see the reign of God, don't look at the big fancy church or in the words of the powerful preacher but in the homeless shelter or the generous neighbor or the committed volunteer. If you want to see the reign of God, you might have an easier time finding it in a children's book than in a preacher's sermon. Don't judge your preacher too harshly if she or he makes Sunday's sermon a simple little story. Instead, let that judgment be reserved for the preacher who says too much.

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