r m p






Incomparable Kingdom


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 139:1-6

New Testament Reading: Luke 17:20-21

Text: Mark 4:30-32

About 3 years ago, as I reckon it, I had occasion in a sermon to mention the notion of the Kingdom of God. Becky Redington asked me just what I meant by the phrase. I will now try to answer her question, though I warn you, my answer will be more in the nature of an explanation of why one cannot answer her question.

I would like to begin with a brief parable in Mark chapter 4. Actually I want to begin only with the beginning of it, and to justify doing that, I must back up before the beginning! 

I need, or at least want, to tell you something about form-criticism of the gospels. Before they were ever written down, it seems the various individual sayings and stories of the gospel tradition were passed down as separate units, by word of mouth, much as we repeat jokes to one another. Each unit had its own point to make, its own point to prove, and nothing was remembered and passed on if it had no utility, some ethical or ritual rule to propound, some lesson to teach. And each piece of the tradition tended to become more streamlined in transmission, as all details not strictly necessary to make the point were elided away in the process of repetition. Like stones smoothed in a riverbed.

But then sometimes the bits of tradition became ­too­ smooth. There was no longer enough to them to make them make much sense, at least not to later readers. An example would be the saying "Do not cast your pearls before swine, nor what is holy to dogs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn on you and tear you to pieces." Now what do you suppose that meant? No way to know.

So sometimes people added introductions to the sayings of Jesus to interpret them, sometimes by supplying a question to which it could be an answer. You can well imagine that the same statement might seem to mean something quite different depending on what it was thought to be an answer to.

So one cardinal rule of form-criticism is that introductions to sayings or parables are always secondary, that is, always editorial additions. You have to bracket them if you want to take a fresh look at the saying in its own right.

The saying in Mark 4 is prefaced by an introductory question, "With what can one compare the kingdom of God? What parable shall one use for it?" I have to suspect, for the reasons I have just given, that this introduction is a secondary addition, that it did not originally preface the parable of the mustard seed.

Only this time, the question to which the subsequent parable is an answer is posed by Jesus himself. It creates an interesting narrative effect, since the result is a brief glimpse of Jesus musing over what he will say, something we never otherwise see him doing. But this is a novelistic touch, not a historical one, since no one in the early church would have had any purpose in remembering a moment of Jesus pausing to search for the right metaphor.

No, the modern-sounding scene is a fortuitous result of someone juxtaposing the parable of the mustard seed with an originally separate saying of Jesus, which consisted simply of verse 30: "With what can one compare the kingdom of God? What parable shall one use for it?" It was a rhetorical question. But it takes a bit of subtlety to appreciate the point of a rhetorical question. Some do not realize that the point of posing it is precisely to say it cannot be answered. When someone says "What could be better than this?", he does not expect you to start listing the options. He means that there are none.

But you know someone will invariably start listing them, someone who doesn't get it! And someone who didn't get the point that Jesus was posing a rhetorical question about the kingdom of God decided he'd better find an answer. So he answered the question by adding onto it the parable of the mustard seed.

But suppose we recognize the question as a rhetorical one. Then it is a statement, not a question, and it requires no further answer. And the answer, the point, is this: the kingdom of God simply cannot be meaningfully compared, profitably compared, with anything. It is in no wise like unto anything that Jesus can think of!

It is inexpressible, incomprehensible, and precisely for the reason that God is indescribable and incomparable. If it is so for God, how can it be less so for God's reign? What is true of the sun is equally true of its radiance.

I think of a scene in the Chandogya Upanishad, where a young man has returned home after a period of study with a guru, only to be quizzed by his father. "What did you learn in school today?", as we all ask our children. He rapidly discovers that he has wasted his money paying the guru's fees, for his son has really not learned the first fundamental thing about religion.

He asks him to identify where one may find the Atman, the ultimate World Spirit. The son hazards a few educated guesses, but the father brushes each away like a pesky gnat. Where is it? What is it? The answer the father finally gives to his own question is an answer and no answer: Neti, neti!  "Not this, not that!" The Absolute is nothing, no thing, one can point to.

It cannot be, God cannot be, God's kingdom cannot be one entity among others, not even the biggest and the best of them. Not the queen bee in a hive, not even the hive!

Even so, there is just no apt comparison for the kingdom of God. That, I judge to be the implication of the rhetorical question of Jesus. He that hath ears, let him hear.

But has Jesus said anything useful when he has said that God's is an incomparable kingdom? You might think Jesus means only to plunge us into confusion. Does he not also tell us to seek the kingdom of God? How can we seek an unknown and unknowable quantity? Would we know it if we saw it? Can you be forewarned so that you will recognize it when you see it?

The answer, I think, is the process of elimination. If the much-sought kingdom is something that is not like anything else, then there can be no mistaking it. It will be unique, because it will be no thing.

In your spiritual quest, when you come upon anything so impressive, so attractive, that you think you have at long last found God or his Kingdom, I venture to tell you, based on the teasing question of Jesus, that you have not.

What I am talking about is the religious humility of the via negativa, the way of negation. Whatever God is, you can always be sure that it is not this, not that. It is not David Koresh, not any charismatic person, any altruistic cause. It is no noble opinion, no candidate for truth.

What I am advocating is by no means some religious agnosticism, some nihilistic absence of beliefs. Rather, the point is that in your life's pilgrimage, in your intellectual and spiritual growth, you must learn (as you will sooner or later anyway!) that no opinion or creed, no matter how clearly it seems to be true, no matter how important it may seem, no matter how necessary to right thinking or good citizenship--is to be received with only provisional conviction. Only tentative assent, because what's the alternative?

If a viewpoint cannot be questioned, it has become an idol. It does no harm to the truth to be questioned! God loses no sleep over puny mortals doubting him. Let­them if they want to! The truth does not fray when it is scrutinized. If it cracks and crumbles, it is not the truth!

Why is it, do you suppose, that some people get so belligerent when you question what they believe? It is one more case of the phenomena called "hitting a nerve." You ask what appears to be a trivial or innocent question and someone flies into a rage over it, begins getting defensive.

Someone who is uncritical in his faith may become upset when it is questioned because you have hit a nerve: deep down they know no belief is above question, and they feel secretly guilty for espousing it so tenaciously. They don't want you reminding them of their sin against intellectual honesty, their theological idolatry.

It is the same with ethical questions. Personally, I imagine that abortion is usually an immoral act. But I know the issue is highly debatable. So debatable, that I think it is idolizing your opinions to make abortion illegal. To want to do that, you are a great deal more confident of your opinion than you have any right to be.

And what if you start shooting people down for performing abortions? To think you have the right to do that, you must think you have the very mind of God. Paul may say that you do in 1 Corinthians, but you don't. Neither did David Koresh, though he thought he did.

If you speak what you think is the word of God, then you in effect think you are God speaking the word. You have usurped the divine infallibility. You have become an idol, and unfortunately not a dumb idol. Like the image of the Beast in Revelation, you speak blasphemies.

No, the Kingdom of God cannot be compared with anything. It is not like anything. And neither can the Word of God be identified with any human word, outside the Bible or inside it, for it is like no human word. You cannot speak it. You should never obey any word of man or woman (not even of Jesus) as if it were the word of God, because it cannot be.

You know, maybe I'm wrong about Jesus' question being purely rhetorical. Maybe there was an answer. The question was "With what can one compare the kingdom of God? And what parable shall one use to describe it?" The answer was the silence that followed.




Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design