Testament Reading: Psalm 139:1-6
Testament Reading: Luke 17:20-21
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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