15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
Mark 10:15 – NRSV
20 Then he looked up at his
disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Luke 6:20 – NRSV
20 And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God?21It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
Luke 13:20-21 – NRSV
30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
Mark 4:30-32 – NRSV
I find myself amazed routinely about how little the wider public understands about the values of Christianity. To an extent, we Christians have brought this on ourselves: the media’s full of stories about various Christian groups rejecting others and using their faith as an excuse. But I also think that what might contribute to this is our failure to explain to people in simple terms what’s meant by the term ‘Kingdom of God’, around which so much of Christ’s teaching revolves. (Click on the title to read more)
The quotations from the Bible that I’ve included above are a very small selection – so much of Christ’s teaching started with the phrase: ‘The Kingdom of God is like this…’, followed by a multitude of parables and other stories that aren’t always instantly clear to us, because of the cultural distance to the time when the stories were written. If when you read the quotations that appear above you’re unclear, try instead looking up the Wikipedia entry for the Kingdom of God, and you may end up even more confused!
What does it say about us as Christians if we struggle to put Christ’s most important teaching into one simple sentence? Let’s look at what the stories above might have meant to their first hearers, as a way of starting to pick up some of the characteristics of the Kingdom of God.
In Mark’s gospel in Chapter 10, verse 15, Jesus says this: ‘Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, will never enter it.’ But which characteristic of small children does Jesus mean when he says this? Is it innocence, for example, or humility, trustfulness, joyfulness, obedience, receptiveness, wonderment, mischievousness, tolerance or even resilience? They’re all characteristics of children, that have been used at various times to explain this passage. The truth however, that some modern scholars are suggesting, is far less obvious. In our world, we think of children as valued and loved and we think of these as timeless values. But in first century Palestine, the horrible truth is that unwanted babies, particularly those from gentile families, were routinely dumped on rubbish heaps and if they were rescued from a premature death at all, it was often so that they could be sold into slavery. And even in Jewish families, as much as we might dislike admitting it, the birth of a baby girl was greeted with sorrow, as it still is, shamefully, in some cultures in our modern world.
What Jesus seems to be saying is that if we want to receive the Kingdom of God, we must emulate first century children, who were nobodies, people with absolutely no power, status or social standing. If this is shocking in our world, it was doubly so in Jesus’s. So Jesus, as so often in his teaching, turns the world upside-down. In his world, the first are last, and the last are first.
In Luke 6:20 we read: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’ But actually the Greek word for poor is penes, whereas the word used in this passage is ptochos, for which our nearest equivalent is destitute. So what Jesus is saying is that the Kingdom is for destitute nobodies; the dregs of society, the beggars, the prostitutes, the unclean, those with no power or influence. The very people with whom Jesus mixed socially.
But what of the nature of the Kingdom of God? In Luke 13:20-21, Jesus compares the kingdom of God with yeast. But what does this comparison mean to us here in our time? Scholars have now researched that yeast was considered in first century Palestine to be an unclean, corrupt, substance. Jesus is suggesting that the Kingdom of God is subversive; a challenge to ‘normal’ Jewish society.
And on another occasion, told in Mark 4:30-34, Jesus compares the kingdom of God with ‘a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.’
What the Bible calls mustard was the plant shown in the picture, the ‘Brassica Nigra’ or Black Mustard plant, which contemporary writers describe as almost impossible to eradicate once you’ve got it in your garden or among your crops. It grows to nine feet high. Jesus goes on to add that: ‘it puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’ This sounds like a lovely pastoral image, until you remember that birds were the last thing that a first century subsistence farmer would want, as they were the enemy of all crops.
So what have we got so far? The kingdom of God belongs to the powerless and destitute. It is also subversive. It grows uncontrollably where you don’t want it. It’s difficult to eradicate or control once established, and it’s viewed as an unwanted pest. These are not the characteristics of the Kingdom of God that you often hear mentioned in sermons on these parables!
I’ll bring these threads together in my second post on the subject of the Kingdom of God in my next post and attempt to summarise the theology of the Kingdom of God in a single, easy to remember, sentence. For those who’d like to receive a prompt by email when the next post goes onto this site, please do ensure that you’ve subscribed, by clicking the black box marked ‘Follow this blog’, which appears either below this article or to the right, depending on whether you’re reading this on a PC or a tablet. Your email address will NOT be passed on to anyone!
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