The Kingdom of God Is a Nuisance
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
In seminary, I studied under Dr. James Blevins, a jovial, gentle, almost hobbit-like professor of the New Testament. Dr. Blevins taught us the European practices of knocking on our desks when we agreed with something and shuffling our feet when we disagreed. He claimed that in heaven everyone will speak Greek, and often professed his passion for baklava, “the most heavenly dessert.” He loved the gospel of Mark, and he was convinced that the book of Revelation was written as a drama, which we enacted as our final exam.
Dr. Blevins also taught us the proper way to interpret Jesus’s parables. Contrary to the practice of many preachers and students of the Bible, he said one should resist the temptation to interpret every element of a parable symbolically. Not every character in a parable stands for someone or something else. Not every king or landowner represents God, for instance. Not every sheep is a lost sinner and not every bad outcome symbolizes eternal damnation. As Freud once observed, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Instead of turning every parable into an allegory, which is the technical definition for this rampant symbolizing, Dr. Blevins taught us that a true parable has one central point, and it’s often surprising or counterintuitive. As I think I mentioned in an earlier sermon, he called this point the “fishhook” of the parable—the part that would catch the unsuspecting listener and make him say, “Whaaat?” In fact, when we ran across a fishhook in our study of the parables, he would always have the class say together, “Whaaat?” Jesus’s brand of teaching was well-suited for his audience of pre-literate peasants: he used agrarian imagery and themes that would be familiar to his listeners and would therefore be easier for them to remember, but he would add a twist—a fishhook—to provoke them into a new way of thinking and acting.
Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed provides a classic example of this teaching method. He says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (vv. 31–32). This parable contains a couple of fishhooks, claims that would make his listeners say, “Whaaat?”
For one thing, Jesus is either using poetic license or he flunked botany, because the mustard seed is demonstrably not the smallest of all seeds. It just isn’t. But hidden inside this parable lies a much sharper and more confounding fishhook: the mustard plant is a troublesome species of plant life. Although it has its benefits, it is hard to control. Pliny the Elder describes mustard this way: “Once it has been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once” (Pliny, 529). Mustard is an invasive plant that if not tended can quickly overwhelm an entire garden.
On this point John Dominic Crossan writes, “That, [says] Jesus, [is] what the Kingdom [is] like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [but] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses—if you could control it” (Crossan, Historical Jesus, 279). On encountering this fishhook, Jesus’s audience undoubtedly says, “Whaaat?”
In our context, it would be like comparing the reign of God to the northern snakehead, a species of fish native to Africa and Asia that has begun to appear in waterways in the US, most notably in the Potomac River in Virginia and Maryland. Snakeheads have no natural predators in these new areas, and they reproduce so rapidly that they threaten to eradicate a number of native species and upset the balance of entire ecosystems. It would be like comparing the accomplishment of God’s purposes in the world to the advance of the invasive kudzu vine across the landscape of the American South.
These are surprising images, to say the least, but surprise is precisely what Jesus has in mind. The growth of God’s reign is a surprise whenever it happens. It can increase rapidly from small, unpromising beginnings. And it serves as a source of vexation to the powers that control the world system. In short, the kingdom of God is a nuisance.
You may be surprised to hear me suggest that powers other than God control the world. It is a given of Christian theology that God is sovereign over the world God created. But that’s not the “world” in question here. The New Testament writers have a special use for the Greek word kosmos, or “world.” They use it to describe the fallen world in rebellion against the purposes of God. Self-centeredness, anxiety, suspicion, greed, and violence characterize the kosmos, which theologian Walter Wink translates as “the Domination System.”
At its heart, the contrast between the world opposed to God and God’s vision for the world is a contrast in power relationships. In the Domination System, the strong dominate the weak and might makes right. Men hold power over women, the rich over the poor, the armed over the unarmed, and so on. Competition and conflict are the modus operandi of this zero-sum game. In a system defined by what some call “power-over,” there has to be someone on top and someone else on bottom. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, “Down here it’s just winners and losers / and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line” (Springsteen, "Atlantic City").
By contrast, God’s power can best be described as “power-with.” Instead of competition, cooperation prevails. Instead of top-down power relationships, people share power. Instead of an economy of fear that drives everyone to use violence either to seize power or maintain it, God’s world operates on an economy of love and community. Instead of “it’s just winners and losers,” the governing sentiment is “we’re all in this together.”
The quintessential expression of the Domination System’s power-over mentality in the first century is, of course, the Roman Empire. Rome uses violence and conquest to gain control, and violence and intimidation to maintain it. The celebrated Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, is made possible and backed up by the ever-present threat of brutal, violent repression by the Roman legions.
Jesus, by contrast, comes preaching and implementing a new way of doing things that rejects domination and exercises power-with. He says, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven” (Matt 23:9), thereby signaling the demise of patriarchy in his new society. He defies social conventions by sharing table fellowship with persons at every level of social status and by accepting women as disciples.
In the most stunning contrast with the Domination System, Jesus rejects the use of force or violence to prevent his own arrest, and forbids his disciples to choose that path either. He goes to his death at the hands of the official representatives of the Domination System “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” and absorbs in his own person all the violence and hate they can dish out without responding in kind. In doing so, he unmasks the powers that run the Domination System, revealing them for who they are at their core, and decisively breaks their “strong” power-over with the “weakness” of his power-with. Colossians 2:15 puts it this way: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
Twenty centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi will do the same thing on his Salt March, which exposes the brutality that lies beneath the genteel veneer of the British colonial system and paves the way for Indian independence. The same thing happens three decades later, when young protesters bravely and without violent retaliation face firehoses and police dogs in the streets of Birmingham. These courageous actions strip bare before the eyes of the entire nation the true violent nature of segregation and its enforcers, such as Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor. Reflecting on the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr. offers a vivid and memorable metaphor. He says the tactics of nonviolent resistance the marchers employed “transform[ed] Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham.”
The Greek word kosmos speaks of a world opposed to God and God’s purposes. Jesus tacitly acknowledges the reality of this system when he proclaims, “The kingdom of God has drawn near” (Mark 1:15, emphasis added), and teaches his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” both of which would seem to indicate that the reins of the kosmos rest in other hands than God’s. Then there’s the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. The devil leads him up a high mountain, displays to him all the kingdoms and wealth of the earth, and tells him, “I will give you all of this if you bow down and worship me.” What happens next is telling. Jesus does not call the devil a liar, or dispute his claim in any way. He simply quotes Deuteronomy 6:13, saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Clearly Jesus accepts the devil’s claim to possess enough authority over the kingdoms of the world to be able to give them to whomever he chooses. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a temptation if he couldn’t back it up.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom coming, he conveys the image of an insurgent force seeking to wrest control of territory from the dominant group. He speaks in terms of stealth. A woman “hides” yeast in a batch of dough, and it does its leavening work quietly. A man finds treasure buried in a field, then re-buries it until he can obtain the resources to buy the field. In a parable found in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about a seed growing in secret while the farmer sleeps. He says, “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:28–29).
The full harvest has not yet come, however. Jesus paints a picture of the kingdom’s manifestations as small rebel outposts in enemy territory. The bulk of the world still rests in the hands of the powers, but in patches, God’s reign has gained a foothold. With every act of resistance to the Domination System—every time someone acts selflessly or sacrificially for the benefit of others; every time someone counters violence with peaceful resistance and tough-minded love; every time someone commits the courageous act of speaking an unpopular truth or defending a principle in the face of pressure, intimidation, or ostracism—another foot of ground gets taken from the enemy.
It doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme, but then, God specializes in small things. And like the mustard plant or the snakehead, each of these small things poses a threat to the status quo in which the powers hold sway. That is why the powers work so hard to saturate the world with their way of doing things and why they seek to brainwash entire cultures with their myth of redemptive violence. Their fear of these tiny advances of the kingdom explains why the Domination System nurtures self-involvement and indifference. They do all these things because they know, as Jesus did, that the puny mustard seed produces a terrible nuisance of a plant that can overwhelm a garden virtually overnight. They know that kudzu, once it gets its tendrils latched onto a tree, a fence, or a barn, won’t stop growing and spreading until it has completely swallowed up the obstacle.
That’s the power that lies in small things. That’s the power of the kingdom of God, and the promise of what will happen to the Domination System when the world-devouring wave of God’s reign comes crashing in its fullness.
The seeds are growing. The vines are spreading. The harvest is coming. Go, therefore, and be a nuisance for the kingdom of God.
Crossan, John Dominic. 1991. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Pliny. Natural History 29.54.170 in Pliny: Natural History, vol. 5, trans. H. Rackham. 1961. Loeb Classical Library 371. Boston: Harvard Univ. Press.
Springsteen, Bruce. 1982. “Atlantic City.” Nebraska. Columbia Records.