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.