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.

Parables and the “Zen” of Jesus

If you think that Jesus told his parables to make his teaching clear, simple, and relevant, then I recommend you read this blog posting “Parables and the ‘Zen’ of Jesus.” It is written by Michael Jinkins, President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. After reading it, I will never think about Jesus’ parables in the same way again.

Equality in the Kingdom of God?

Scripture text:  Matthew 20:1-16

As bedtime reading, I’ve been reading recently a collection of letters written by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In a memorandum he wrote to Harry McPherson in May 1965, he wrote something that I have been chewing my mental cud on ever since:

American democracy is founded on the twin ideals of liberty and equality. Our education and general mindset does not much distinguish between these two ideals, but the fact is that they are distinct…Liberty has been the American middle-class ideal par excellence. It has enjoyed the utmost social prestige. Not so equality. Men who would carelessly give their lives for Liberty, are appalled by equality…Lincoln freed the slaves, but did not give them equality. Therefore we are still struggling with the issue. [Steven R. Wiesman, editor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, New York: Public Affairs, 2010, pages 103-104]

I confess that I like most Americans have tended to merge the ideals of liberty and equality in my own fuzzy mind. Moynihan has helped me see how different they are, and how they provoke very different political and social aims.

As I read Moynihan, I began to ask: How do these two ideals come into the New Testament picture of the Kingdom of God? Do they come into that picture at all? Or are we importing two secular ideals into a spiritual world?

In the Letter to the Galatians, we get Paul’s ringing proclamation of the great Christian ideal of spiritual liberty. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” cries out Paul. (Galatians 5:1) And middle-class American Christians will heartily endorse Paul here. It fits well with our own attachment to the virtue of freedom.

But there’s not always been easy Christian acceptance of the other Pauline proclamation that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Here Paul asserts a spiritual equality in Christ. And the struggle over women’s ordination shows how hard it has been for some Christians to buy into this radical spiritual equality.

But what about economic or social equality? Is that a part of the New Testament picture of the Kingdom? Here’s where I’m haunted by the parable of the laborers in the vineyard that Jesus tells in Matthew 20. A farmer goes out into the village marketplace and hires laborers to help bring in his harvest. Laborers are hired all through the day. Some work eleven hours; others just one. But all are paid the same wage.

What a picture of radical equality! All receive the same reward. And most of us grumble. We like the laborers who worked the longest feel this is unfair.

We can understand the point of the parable as teaching about the generosity of God in sharing his saving grace with all people, both those who come to God early in their lives and those who come to God as their lives come to a close. Salvation is shared equally with all.

Yet…does that exhaust the point of Jesus’ parable? Could Jesus also be saying something pointedly about God’s kingdom being a way of life that assumes a radical social and economic equality among the children of God? It is after all told in Matthew as one of Jesus’ responses to the rich young ruler who goes away sorrowful when Jesus invites him to sell all he has and follow Jesus.

If such equality is a distinctive feature of Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God, then we must say Christians in general (and not just middle-class American Christians) have had a very hard time accepting this ideal. Social and economic equality has been a rare feature of most Christian communities. It has been an important ideal in the monastic tradition. But even in monasticism, the record of implementation is decidedly mixed.

But if this ideal of equality is an inherent feature of the Kingdom in Jesus’ mind, then we begin to realize what a truly dramatic conversion of heart is demanded for entrance into the Kingdom and its mindset. It means those of us who do not undergo this radical conversion of heart in this life are likely to find entrance into the Kingdom in the next life a wrenching experience.

It also raises questions about what political, economic, and social policies Christians should throw their support behind. That should give us pause as we listen to the various options thrown out to us in the upcoming political campaigns.

I invite your own thoughts on this.