When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.
Who was Jesus? People in his day would have given many answers – a healer, a troublemaker, a liberator, a threat to law and order, a heretic, a prophet, a community organiser. His friends and foes would have agreed on this: he was a powerful teacher. When we scan the pages of the Gospels, we find Jesus teaching in many different ways.
First, he instructed through signs and wonders. By healing blindness, for example, Jesus dramatised God’s desire to heal our distorted vision of life. By healing paralysis, he showed how God’s reign empowers people who are weak or trapped. By calming a storm, he displayed God’s desire to bring peace. And by casting out unclean spirits, he conveyed God’s commitment to liberate people from occupying and oppressive forces – whether those forces were military, political, economic, social or personal.
Second, he gave what we might call public lectures. Crowds would gather for a mass teach-in on a hillside near the Sea of Galilee. Whole neighbourhoods might jam into a single house, and then spread around the open doors and windows, eager to catch even a few words. People came to hear him at weekly synagogue gatherings. Or they might catch word that he was down at the beach, sitting in a boat, his voice rising above the sounds of lapping waves and calling gulls to engage the minds and hearts of thousands standing on the sand.
Third, he taught at surprising, unplanned, impromptu moments – in transit from here to there, at a well along a road, at a dinner party when an uninvited guest showed up, in some public place when a group of his critics tried to ambush him with a ‘gotcha’ question. You always needed to pay attention, because with Jesus any moment could become a teaching moment.
Fourth, he saved much of his most important teaching for private retreats and field trips with his disciples. He worked hard to break away from the crowds so he could mentor those who would carry on his work. Certain places seemed the ideal setting for certain lessons.
Fifth, Jesus taught through what we might call public demonstrations. For example, he once led a protest march into Jerusalem, performing a kind of guerrilla-theatre dramatisation of a royal entry, while denouncing with tears the city’s ignorance of what makes for peace. Once he staged an act of civil disobedience in the temple, stopping business as usual and dramatically delivering some important words of instruction and warning. Once he demonstrated an alternative economy based on generosity rather than greed, inspired by a small boy’s fish-sandwich donation.
Sixth, Jesus loved to teach through finely crafted works of short fiction called parables. He often introduced these parables with these words: ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.’ He knew that most adults quickly sort messages into either/or categories – agree/disagree, like/dislike, familiar/strange. In so doing, they react and argue without actually hearing and thinking about what is being said. His parables drew his hearers into deeper thought by engaging their imagination and by inviting interpretation instead of reaction and argument. In this way, parables put people in the position of children who are more attracted to stories than to arguments. Faced with a parable, listeners were invited to give matters a second thought. They could then ask questions, stay curious and seek something deeper than agreement or disagreement – namely, meaning.
In all these overlapping ways, Jesus truly was a master-rabbi, capable of transforming people’s lives with a message of unfathomed depth and unexpected imagination. But what was the substance of his message? What was his point? Sooner or later, anyone who came to listen to Jesus would hear one phrase repeated again and again: the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven. Sadly, people today hear these words and frequently have no idea what they originally meant. Or even worse, they misunderstand the phrase with complete and unquestioning certainty.
For example, many think kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven means ‘where righteous people go when they die’, or ‘the perfect new world God will create after destroying this hopeless mess’. But for Jesus, the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to one day; it was a reality we pray to come down here now. It wasn’t a distant future reality. It was at hand, or within reach, today. To better understand this pregnant term, we have to realise that kingdoms were the dominant social, political and economic reality of Jesus’ day. Contemporary concepts like nation, state, government, society, economic system, culture, superpower, empire and civilisation all resonate in that one word: kingdom.
The kingdom, or empire, of Rome in which Jesus lived and died was a top-down power structure in which the few on top maintained order and control over the many at the bottom. They did so with a mix of rewards and punishments. The punishments included imprisonment, banishment, torture and execution. And the ultimate form of torture and execution, reserved for rebels who dared to challenge the authority of the regime, was crucifixion. It was through his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire that Jesus did his most radical teaching of all.
Yes, he taught great truths through signs and wonders, public lectures, impromptu teachings, special retreats and field trips, public demonstrations and parables. But when he mounted Rome’s most powerful weapon, he taught his most powerful lesson.
By being crucified, Jesus exposed the heartless violence and illegitimacy of the whole top-down, fear-based dictatorship that nearly everyone assumed was humanity’s best or only option. He demonstrated the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies. He taught that God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest. It expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation. It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering. In short, on the cross Jesus demonstrated God’s non-violent non-compliance with the world’s brutal powers-that-be. He showed God to be a different kind of king, and God’s kingdom to be a different kind of kingdom.
How would we translate Jesus’ radical and dynamic understanding of the kingdom of God into our context today?
Perhaps a term like global commonwealth of God comes close – not a world divided up and ruled by nations, corporations and privileged individuals, but a world with enough abundance for everyone to share. Maybe God’s regenerative economy would work – challenging our economies based on competition, greed and extraction. Maybe God’s beloved community or God’s holy ecosystem could help – suggesting a reverent connectedness in dynamic and creative harmony. Or perhaps God’s sustainable society or God’s movement for mutual liberation could communicate the dynamism of this radical new vision of life, freedom and community.
Today, as in Jesus’ day, not everybody seems interested in the good news that Jesus taught. Some are more interested in revenge or isolation or gaining a competitive advantage over others. Some are obsessed with sex or a drug or another addiction. Many are desperate for fame or wealth. Still others can think of nothing more than relief from the pain that plagues them at the moment. But underneath even the ugliest of these desires, we can often discern a spark of something pure, something good, something holy – a primal desire for aliveness, which may well be a portal into the kingdom of God.
Interestingly, when the Gospel of John was written some years after its three counterparts, the term kingdom of God was usually translated into other terms: life, life of the ages, life to the full – which is clearly resonant with this word aliveness. However we name it – kingdom of God, life to the full, global commonwealth of God, God’s sustainable society, or holy aliveness – it is the one thing most worth seeking in life, because in seeking it we will find everything else worth having.
To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to seek first the kingdom and justice of God . . . to become a student of the one great subject Jesus came to teach in many creative ways.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about one of the most important teachers in your life and what made him or her so significant.
3. How do you respond to the explanation of the term kingdom of God? How would you translate it into words or images that make sense today?
4. For children: What makes a good teacher so good? Who is one of your favourite teachers so far?
5. Activate: This week, notice where you seek and find aliveness. Relate that thirst for aliveness to the kingdom of God.
6. Meditate: Choose one of the synonyms for kingdom of God from this chapter and simply hold it in silence for a few moments. Conclude the silence with these words: ‘Let it come.’