Forming Faith Blog

The Subversive Kingdom (February 17, 2019)

Historic Bodiam Castle and moat in East Sussex, England

The kingdom of heaven is like… a seed? Yeast? Wheat being choked out by weeds? Huh? Jesus, you’re not making sense here. Just tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like! Be straightforward! But Jesus is not straightforward in his description of this at-hand kingdom. He doesn’t offer clear answers, but unclear parables.

What Is a Parable?

We know what a parable is, right? But, considering the variety of uses of the term in the Gospels themselves, it helps to have something to work with. I like the following quote (which I found on this website)

At its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.

(C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, p. 5)

It’s a metaphor. That’s why many parables start with “The kingdom of heaven (God) is like…” But, it’s not as simple as just equating parable with metaphor. Most parables are mini-stories, but they are strange ones. Something familiar becomes something strange, often subverting our expectations. If you are certain about what a parable means and have arrived at your interpretation easily, you are probably getting it wrong.

Subversive Stories

It’s quite fitting that Jesus is describing the kingdom through parables. Parables surprise us, are hard to grasp, and subvert our expectations. The kingdom does the same thing. According to my understanding, many Jews of the first century yearned for the coming of the kingdom of heaven where their Roman oppressors would be vanquished, and God would once again be their king.

The Subversive Kingdom

The kingdom that Jesus is describing in these parables is different than this. It is truly the reality in which God reigns supreme, but it is not something that can be defined in a certain time at a certain place.

  • God’s kingdom is mixed in with the kingdom of this world as the wheat and weeds were mixed together (the likely culprit for the weeds here is darnel, a dangerous wheat look-alike).
  • The kingdom is not here a noble cedar (see Ezekiel 17:22-23), but a common (though large) herb.
  • It is as pervasive (and invisible) as leaven (probably a bit of dough saved from the last batch, like a sourdough starter) kneaded into a boatload of bread, enough to feed over 100 people.

This does not look like a military liberation campaign to me.

A Subversive Agenda

God’s agenda (the “your will be done” part) is as subversive as the reality of the kingdom itself. Our carefully maintained systems of power and control will be overturned, and those who are considered nobodies in our world will be raised up. The reason I love the idea of the “upside-down kingdom” is that when I look around, I see a lot of pain, suffering, and oppression built into the very systems we rely on. We need God to flip things over.

Our Turn

While we are to yearn for God’s kingdom to come in its entirety, that’s not the only thing we are called to do. God calls us to spread the kingdom, too. We need to work subversively ourselves. Loving our enemies. Honoring the downtrodden. Placing service over control and others over ourselves.

One way to flip the script in our congregations is to plan for our young kids and youth to lead worship for once. Our free activity this week, “The Smallest Can Share Great Faith” gives cross+generational small groups a chance to listen to their young participants and plan a part of or a whole worship service. This activity is from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education product and can be adapted to many settings where the young are present. Our Cross+Gen Education curriculum, like our Cross+Gen Worship resource, can be purchased by single lesson as well as by season, so it’s easy to try it out!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Lent is quickly approaching, so it’s time to order Spring Living the Word faith formation resources (covering Lent through Pentecost Sunday)! As soon as your payment is processed, you can download the materials immediately and start using them!

Year 2 (2019-2020) products have launched! Check out the announcement blog post for a  special discount for readers of this blog.

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2018-2019 Planning Tool and Scope & Sequence. The 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence are available to download, too!

Photo: Historic Bodiam Castle and moat in East Sussex, England