Forming Faith Blog

The Subversive Kingdom (Matthew 13)

If you think that Jesus’ parables are easy to understand, then you might be getting them wrong. They illustrate our difficulty in wrapping our heads around God’s upside-down kingdom.

Historic Bodiam Castle and moat in East Sussex, England, United Kingdom

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 all 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 at a certain time in 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 people who have been ignored, taken advantage of, or hurt. Placing service over control and others over ourselves.

In Christ,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Note: This blog post is edited from the original written for February 17, 2019.

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

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