The Kingdom of God: Hidden and In Our Midst
Luke 13:18-21; Luke 17:20-21
January 26, 2020
Jesus told stories. Jesus told lots of stories. And it turns out he was quite a good storyteller. His stories, as all good stories do, penetrate our imaginations and take us along for the ride, sometimes without knowing where we are going. Stories allow us to inhabit them, to walk around in them; they invite us in to imagine and dream alongside them. Stories require our participation; we cannot listen to a good story without sharing in its joy, or its sorrow, its confusion or excitement. Stories draw us in and engage our whole person.
Stories are able to do what facts and abstract ideas cannot. Facts can command our attention, absolutely, but they do not invite our participation. Abstract ideas can be exciting to talk about with a friend, but if they remain disconnected from story, disconnected from the daily narratives and rhythms of our life, then they require little to no engagement of our whole person.
Jesus and the world he grew up in was enamored with stories; stories were the life-blood of society, of history, of life’s ultimate purpose and meaning. The world we live in is enamored with facts, figures, abstract ideas, morals, and doctrine; these are all useful, yes, but they cannot give life, direction or meaning the same way a story can. Facts and ideas are disconnected from realities of daily life; morals and doctrine are severed from the stories we received them in.
And so we should not be surprised when at every turn, Jesus is telling some kind of story. We never find Jesus handing out fact sheets for his disciples to study and memorize; we never see Jesus writing down a list of precise rules and doctrine for the disciples to follow and pass on once he is gone. But we do find Jesus telling a lot of stories.
And these stories Jesus told have a style of their own. We call them parables. As Eugene Peterson describes them, “A parable is a way of saying something that requires the imaginative participation of the listener. They are brief stories that Jesus created more or less on the spot” as he walked and talked with people on the road. The word parable, in Greek, literally means “something thrown down alongside of.” Our first response is “What is this doing here, right in front of me?” We ask questions. We think. We imagine. We participate. (Eugene Peterson)
In our passage today, Jesus is speaking in his native tongue of parables. He is describing the kingdom of God with stories that are brief in length, but full and rich in meaning.
“Jesus said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’
“And again he said, ‘To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.’”
Jesus tells these parables after a run-in with some leaders at a local synagogue. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath when a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years walks in. She is bent over and cannot fully straighten herself. Jesus sees her and filled with compassion he touches her, healing her in their midst. The synagogue leaders are indignant, and understandably so. Jesus broke the rules. You’re not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and healing was considered work. Jesus was perceived as having broken God’s law. He did what was unacceptable on the holiest day of the week. And not only that, but he touched someone he wasn’t supposed to touch. This woman who was sick for eighteen years was considered unclean, untouchable. But Jesus touched her anyway.
And so it was in this context that Jesus shares these two brief parables about what the kingdom of God is like. At first glance these stories don’t seem to have anything to do with what has just happened in the synagogue. But that’s part of the genius of Jesus’ parables. “A parable keeps the message at a distance, in the shadows. It slows down comprehension, blocks automatic prejudicial reactions, dismantles stereotypes” (Peterson). A parable sneaks up on the listener and engages them before they even realize what they are engaged in. We listen, unsuspecting. And then, without warning, as John Dominic Crossan says, “the parable is an earthquake opening up the ground at your feet.”
Parables always start with something familiar to us: seeds, trees, yeast and bread. Parables take up the very elements that constitute our daily lives, they draw us in, and then using these very real, very tangible and known elements, they reveal something new to us. Parables draw us in, disarming us, getting us to think, “Oh, Jesus is just talking about trees and bread.” And then to our astonishment, once we’ve let our defenses down and allowed ourselves to be taken into Jesus’ “innocent” stories, we realize that Jesus is not actually talking about trees and bread. We realize there is something else going on underneath the surface, and before we know it, we’ve become participants in that story.
At first glance, these two parables seem like stories we can get behind. They seem innocent enough. Upon first listen we begin to make connections to other stories we frequently hear that don’t seem so different. Unsuspecting, we allow the stories to take us in and we let our guard down. Jesus is comparing the kingdom of God to something that starts out small and insignificant, but grows to become something great. A mustard seed, one of the most microscopic seeds in the ancient world, against all expectations impressively grows to become a massive tree that nests the birds. A pinch of yeast that is mixed in with three measures of flour grows to provide an astonishing sixty pounds of dough.
We think we understand what Jesus is getting at: the kingdom of God may appear to the eye to be of insignificant and minor proportions, but it is slowly growing beneath the surface of our world and will one day emerge in astonishing splendor and grandeur.
As Americans, we begin to make connections and we realize this is one of our favorite types of stories. It’s a “zero to hero” kind of story. It’s a story about the underdog overcoming all expectations and finishing on top. It’s a story of success against all odds. It’s the kind of story our nation was founded upon, which sends the message that anyone can succeed, no matter what class or background you come from. We love these kinds of stories. They give us hope. Our nation worships these kinds of stories. The movie industry makes bank off of these kinds of stories. This is the type of story that makes sense to us. We think to ourselves, “alright Jesus, I can get behind a message like that: the kingdom of God is like the underdog that beats all the odds and emerges victorious in the end. I’m on board.”
This is the interpretation of these parables that I learned as a kid growing up in church. The moral of the story was “don’t underestimate the kingdom of God; it may be difficult to see now, but one day it will be impossible to ignore.” My guess is many of you grew up with similar understandings. This interpretation isn’t wrong per se, but it’s missing the most major part of the story. If we know Jesus, then we know this interpretation is too tame; it’s not scandalous enough yet. Because if we know one thing about Jesus, we know he likes to stir the pot. And these stories would certainly have been shocking and scandalous to his first century audience.
So what are we missing? Why aren’t we shocked? To begin to understand what might be so shocking about these stories, we need to know a little bit more about mustard seeds and yeast. The thing about mustard seeds and yeast, is that to a first century listener in Israel, both of these elements are unacceptable to compare God’s kingdom to. Mustard was considered an invasive species, which people were actually forbidden to plant. Not only does mustard overrun the garden, but it shelters birds that might ruin the harvest. Mustard was a weed that grew uncontrollably. It was non-desirable. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “the kingdom of God is like the growth of a mustard seed,” but he says “the kingdom of God is like the mustard seed itself”, a weed.
And yeast, well yeast was worse. Nowhere in the Bible is yeast considered anything but unholy. The woman (who is also often considered unclean) hides (notice, she doesn’t merely mix it, but hides it) the putrid blob of dank fungus into a significant amount of flour. If this is true, then the result is not something great, not holy bread prepared for the arrival of God, but the ruin of the entire quantity of flour.
So if we wanted to retranslate the parables into language similar to how Jesus intended it, it might read: “’What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like the seed of an invasive weed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew, overtaking the rest of the harvest and vegetation, providing shelter even for the birds to continue to ruin the harvest.’ And again he said, ‘To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like a putrid blob of dank fungus that a woman who is questionably clean took and hid in three measure of flour, until the whole batch of flour is ruined by the unholy leaven.’”
Now all of the sudden that doesn’t sound like the story we were expecting. The kingdom of God is compared to something that is unclean, unacceptable, corruptive and dangerous to what we consider good. I was trying to think of what Jesus would compare the kingdom of God to if he was here in Cheney, and then it came to me. If Jesus were speaking to us, he might say, “The kingdom of God is like a couple feral cats in Cheney. They were released by some Eastern students who didn’t want them anymore, and they grew to be hundreds in number all across the city.”
I’m certain Jesus could’ve thought of something much better to compare the kingdom of God to. Why not liken the kingdom of God to a beautiful flower? Or to a tiny stream of water that flows into and feeds a massive lake? Honestly, Jesus could’ve likened the kingdom of God to anything other than an invasive weed and a putrid blob of fungus and it would’ve been better. But he didn’t.
Jesus chose to take what is undesirable and considered unclean by society, and liken the kingdom of God to it. This is not a story of success, of going from zero to hero like we initially thought it was. In fact it’s the complete opposite of that. It’s a story that to our ears sounds as backwards and upside down as last week’s message when Jesus was blessing the poor and the hungry and warning the rich and the full.
Jesus’ message seems to be this: the kingdom of God will not come through the means or the people you might have expected it to. God’s kingdom is already in your midst, but it is present in surprising places and unexpected people. God delights in using those who are rejected by society and even the church; God delights in bringing his will to earth through the people who are thought unclean, unacceptable, corruptive and dangerous.
I was thinking this week and realized that the kingdom of God is like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; it was dangerous and unacceptable to the majority white culture, yet like a weed it has continued growing beneath the surface and its effects are rippling wider and wider as we continue to deal with the mustard seed King planted. That mustard seed is indeed ruining the garden, but we realize that the garden was never good to begin with.
As I shared last week, if you want to learn to see the kingdom of God then go to those places that are unclean, unacceptable, corruptive and even dangerous. Listen to the stories of those our society treats as unclean and unacceptable.
When I worked at the psychiatric hospital, there were many mustard seeds and pinches of yeast that I did not recognize at the time, because I am too used to measuring things by success and progress. I do the same thing with the kingdom of God, and so I miss it every time. But as I’ve reflected back on my time there, God has drawn my attention to the people and the acts of love that truly embodied the kingdom of God in the midst of a hellish place.
There was Jeff (these names do not reflect the actual names of patients), who had been locked up there for 5+ years for a crime he had committed while in a state of insanity. He spent his first few years in a maximum security unit. These last couple years though, he has decided that he will make the most of the rest of his term there to educate other patients on how to endure and make the most of their time at the psych hospital. He wants to help others avoid his fate.
And there was Monica, who suffers from schizophrenia and has significant brain damage due to drug use. As you are having a conversation with her she will forget what she is talking to you about midsentence. It is difficult for her to determine what in her memory is real and what is delusion. But when she sits down to play the piano, her hands fly across it, and she can play dozens of beautiful songs from memory. Her music is a gift to those who are lucky enough to be able to listen.
And then there’s Georgie, who lives with major depressive episodes and has attempted suicide multiple times. But almost every time he sees you, he’ll flash you a smile and come hold up his earth-shaped stress ball as he tells you that God has the whole world in his hands. And I could go on and on with other stories.
These are all people our society has labeled unclean, unacceptable and dangerous. We lock them away in places like this so we don’t have to deal with them or even think about them. But Jesus says, “Theirs is the kingdom of God.” They are the primary ingredients – the mustard seeds and yeast – that our society rejects, yet God is using to expand his kingdom.
This should give us pause every time we walk or drive by someone on the side of the road with a cardboard sign. Because while most of the time we ignore them and pretend they aren’t there, we may have missed a glimpse of God’s kingdom in our midst. These are the people who are treated like the woman who was bent over and could not fully straighten herself; they are looked down upon, as less than, and when someone like Jesus comes to touch them, it is scandalous and unexpected. But these are the people whom Jesus’ healing touch resides in; Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is theirs.
The kingdom of God is not coming in ways we can see. The kingdom of God is already in our midst, and it is growing through surprising people and in unexpected places. Only God can bring the growth, only God can grow his kingdom on earth, but God invites us to partner with him in lifting up those we formerly thought unclean and unacceptable and giving them a place at the table.
And some of you here today may feel that you are unclean and unacceptable, in God’s eyes or in society’s eyes. And I would say to you, the kingdom of God is yours.
And the reality that all of us try to skirt around is that every single one of us is unclean and unacceptable in some way or another. We are all broken in some way, it’s just that our brokenness can pass in society better than other forms of brokenness; or we are much better at hiding our brokenness. And we will not see God’s kingdom until we acknowledge our own brokenness, our own need for God’s grace and love; Jesus tells us that he did not come to save the healthy, but the sick. We will not see God’s kingdom until we allow that mustard seed to penetrate our hearts and corrupt everything we thought good and dependable…because then we will realize that only God is good and dependable – our old views, the old things we used to value and protect at all costs will be ruined and in their place we will find love like we’ve never known and grace like we’ve never imagined.
We will find that “those people” we thought unclean are no more or less broken and in need of God’s love than we are. We realize that even we need our heart and our mind to be corrupted and overtaken by God’s kingdom. We need God’s love to infect our lives more than we often realize or care to admit.
The kingdom of God is messy and unpredictable. As Americans we love stories of success, but if those are the only stories we look for or notice, then we will miss the kingdom of God, because God is working in the stories, the people, the places we ignore.
If we take Jesus’ metaphor all the way, then we realize that the garden and the flour he speaks of, the things we thought good in these stories, are going to be overrun and corrupted by God’s kingdom. Our society, our nation, our systems and old views of the world, the things we thought good and dependable, will ultimately be corrupted and overtaken by God’s kingdom. It is a reversal of human fortunes. That which we have declared to be unclean will be made clean, that which we thought clean will be revealed to be unclean.
And this is good news for all of us. Because we are all unclean in some way or another, but we have all been graciously welcomed into the kingdom, because our King loves us so. It is amazing grace. A grace we are called to carry into our lives as we interact with those we previously thought unclean and unacceptable. So go and listen to the stories our society overlooks and you might find yourself taken up into God’s story and God’s work here on earth. Amen.