The Secret Code to the Kingdom of God

We find the key to understanding the Kingdom of God in an unexpected place.

Jesus was a great teacher. That is one of his salient characteristics that the New Testament gospels portray for us. We are told his teaching astounded his audiences, in part by its wisdom and in part by the authority with which he taught. It still does for us today.

His teaching also puzzled people. He said peculiar things, things that were not common sense. And he taught many times by telling short stories. We call them parables. What did these parables mean? Sometimes they struck his audience–and us today–as riddles. They must be told in a secret code. What is the key that unlocks that code?

That’s the first impression we may get when we read Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching in chapter 4 of his gospel. Mark begins his account by telling one parable that Jesus spoke to the listening crowd.

It told about a farmer planting seed. The seed fell upon various kinds of soil. On three of the soils the seed did not thrive. Only on the fourth did the seed sprout, grow, and produce a rich harvest. Jesus ends with the admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

His disciples don’t understand the parable; they ask Jesus to explain it. He gives his parable an allegorical interpretation. The seed is the word of the gospel. And the four soils are different kinds of people who receive this gospel word. Only one group really absorbs the word and lets it transform their lives.

Must We Have a Secret Code to Understand Jesus’ Teaching?

This interpretation seems to hint that there is indeed a secret code to understanding Jesus’ parables. Our fears are confirmed, we think, when we hear what Jesus says just before he launches into his interpretation:

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ [Mark 4:11-12]

Jesus seems to be asserting that there is indeed a secret code to understanding his parables. And it is secret so people will not understand his teaching, but remain trapped in their sinful ways.

This statement has troubled almost everyone who reads Mark’s gospel. It seems the exact opposite to what we think is the motivation of Jesus in teaching. Jesus comes across as a mischievous teacher, not one concerned with clear communication.

It also seems as if Jesus constitutes his disciples into an elite group who alone understand the true meaning of his teaching. Ancient Gnosticism made hay out of this. When they taught that Jesus was a savior, they had in mind that Jesus taught a secret esoteric knowledge that only the spiritually enlightened understood. Everyone else was left with distracting and ultimately useless religious practices.

Decoding the Secret

There has been much scholarly ink spilled on Jesus’ phrase “the secret of the kingdom of God.” What is it? I would like to offer my personal answer.

I propose that “the secret of the kingdom of God” is not some elitist, esoteric knowledge, but is something much simpler. The secret is the person of Jesus himself.

Jesus–his life, his actions, his death, his resurrection–is in fact the secret that opens up our understanding of what the kingdom of God is. His teaching plays an important role in that, but not the most important role. It is his life and character that offer the secret key to our understanding.

As we read further into Mark’s gospel, we discover that for Jesus, the kingdom of God [and his mission in it] is not about fear or coercion or even awe-inspiring spectacle. It is not about domination. It is about doing the will of God and about compassionate service.

If Jesus gives us one secret key to understanding the kingdom of God, then I find it in chapter 10 of Mark. There his disciples James and John come to him asking that they can sit on his right hand and left when Jesus comes in his glory.

Jesus responds that they do not know what they are asking. Because when he comes in his glory, he will not be a king like those rulers among the Gentiles that they see all around them in the ancient world. His kingship is about service. And he ends with these weighty words: For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:45]

These words are the key to understanding Jesus’ understanding of his mission…and his understanding of the kingdom of God. They are the key to the code.

They are also the interpretative key to understanding Jesus’ life. For in the end what reveals the kingdom of God is not primarily Jesus’ teaching. It is the life he lives and the death he accepts. What the resurrection does is to provide divine confirmation that this pattern of living truly reveals what the kingdom of God is. Understanding this pattern becomes the true enlightenment.

The Hard Work of Achieving Enlightenment

But this enlightenment does not come quickly for most of us. It requires a serious engagement with the gospel. As we persist in seeking to understand the kingdom of God, then over time we will grow in our enlightened understanding.

This, I suggest, is the import of another strange thing Jesus says later in chapter 4 of Mark. He says: Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [Mark 4:24-25]

If we continue to struggle with the gospel, if we persist in our meditation upon its words, turning them over in our minds and seeking to open them up, then insight will come. But if we have no time for this serious work, then we are in danger. The insight we already have may slip away and be lost.

When Jacob confronts and wrestles with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32), his persistence in not letting go finally leads to his blessing. In a similar way, I contend, our commitment to the hard work of listening and wrestling with the gospel becomes the key that opens the door into spiritual insight.

When we reach that enlightenment, we discover that the kingdom of God is truly not about being served, about garnering domination and honor, but about extending our lives out into compassionate service to others. That is the secret that the pattern of Jesus’ life and death reveals to us.

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The Divine Breath of God

God is close and present to us in every breath we take.

I don’t read the Genesis creation accounts as history or as scientific descriptions. I regard them as myths. But when I use the word myth, the word does not mean for me something that is untrue. A myth does not provide a scientifically factual account. Instead it provides an insight into the truth by means of a story. That’s why myths are such potent vehicles of revelation.

Genesis 2:4b-3:24 provides the second of Genesis’ two creation accounts. In contrast to the majestic poetry of Genesis 1, Genesis 2-3 provides a more homely tale, but a tale laced with some powerful insights into the nature of humanity. Let me highlight one.

Near the beginning of the account, we encounter this description of the creation of human beings: …then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. [Genesis 2:7]

This statement does not envision God snapping his fingers and creating human beings out of thin air. This is not a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). God forms human beings out of the existing dust of the earth. The language suggests the work of a potter shaping a clay image. The image remains inert until God breathes the breath of life into it. Then the material image becomes a living being.

This sentence reveals a fundamental component of the Hebrew mindset that runs through all of the Old Testament and even into the New Testament. Human beings are fundamentally material bodies animated by the breath of life. This breath of life comes from God as a gift. Our lives are always a gift, whether in this life or in the life of the resurrection to come.

This mindset does not deny that human beings are a part of the natural, material world. They have material bodies just like the rest of the living creatures on the earth. And therefore they are subject to the many natural forces that drive the material world of nature.

What keeps them alive is their incessant breathing. They breathe air in and they breathe air out. When human beings exhale their last breath and do not take a new one, they die. This is real fact.

Human Beings as Integrated Persons

Two things move me about this account. First, it suggests an understanding of human beings not as bifurcated persons, but as integrated beings in which body and spirit combine to make a whole person. We have a bodily dimension to our lives, but we also have a spiritual dimension. The two cannot be easily separated. They are intertwined. This means our bodies contribute to our identity as individuals just as much as do our psyches. Truly we are psychosomatic beings.

This contrasts sharply with the understanding of human nature that we inherit from Greco-Roman philosophy. For the Greek philosophers it was a pervasive belief that human beings consist of a divine, immortal soul imprisoned in a material, mortal body. The two are in constant tension, for the soul is the source of a human’s higher nature and the body the source of his or her lower nature.

This conflictive dualism runs as well through human culture and social relations. It has shaped our common attitudes about gender relations, the value of various occupations, and our bodily activities.

For myself, I find the Hebrew concept of human beings a healthier one. Yes, it can see body and spirit in conflict at times, but it does not see the solution as an eternal divorce between body and spirit, but rather their integration in a transforming union. The culmination of this vision is to be found in the Christian understanding of incarnation. The incarnation of Christ foresees the ultimate destiny of all human beings. As the ancient Orthodox fathers put it, “God became a human being so that human beings might become divine.”

God Present in Our Breath

There is a second reason why the Genesis account moves me. It identifies the life-giving force in human beings as the “breath of life” breathed into them by God. The Hebrew word for breath here is nishmat. We find it sometimes in parallel with the Hebrew word for spirit or wind, which is ruach. Both refer to something invisible that is life-giving, powerful, and ultimately beyond human control.

That power comes from God and as the thought of the Bible evolves it is named as the Spirit of God. The Spirit does many things in the thought world of the Bible, but one important function is to breathe the gift of life as we incessantly breathe in and out.

We find another expression of this insight in Psalm 104, where the psalmist expresses awe at the wisdom of God’s creative work as found in all living creatures. The psalmist says:

These all look to you

            to give them their food in due season;

when you give to them, they gather it up;

            when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;

            when you take away their breath, they die

            and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit, they are created;

            and you renew the face of the ground. [Psalm 104:27-30]

All this suggests to me that the presence of God is always with us, though invisible, every time we take a breath. It is through the air we breathe in and breathe out that the Lord breathes the spark of life into our material bodies, and we live. We may feel God is absent from our lives. We may long constantly for a vivid sense of God’s presence with us, when all along God is as close to us as God can be every time we take a breath.

This suggests, says the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, why many prayer practices, especially in the contemplative prayer traditions, place so much emphasis on how we breathe. He writes, “When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly–breathe…And isn’t it wonderful that breath, wind, spirit, and air are precisely nothing–and yet everything.”*

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* Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2015. Page 26.