life and story, life as story

The Kingdom of God is like.  Jesus almost always spoke of the Kingdom in parables—those witty, insightful, intriguing, yet equally troubling, perplexing, and frustrating stories of his.  The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, like a farmer sowing seed, like a woman who lost a coin, like a man who lost a sheep, like a father who lost a son, like seeds landing on different types of soil.  Jesus rarely spoke of the Kingdom without such an image.  Brian McLaren pictures it well:

Let’s suppose a TV news reporter walked up to Jesus and said, ‘Jesus, we have thirty seconds before the commercial break.  Can you tell us in a sentence or two what your message is about?’  What would he say?  ‘Everyone needs to rethink their lives as individuals, and we need to rethink our direction as a culture and imagine an unimagined future for our world,’ he might say.  ‘Because the Kingdom of God is here.  You can count on this.’  The reporter might say, ‘Er, well, yes.  And how exactly would you define the Kingdom of God?  We have fifteen seconds.’  I can imagine Jesus saying, ‘Well, the Kingdom of God is like a man who had two sons…’  A few sentences into the story, the reporter interrupts and cuts to the commercial break.  Jesus just blew his chance to turn his message into a sound bite.[1]


Jesus always insisted on proclaiming the Kingdom through stories, through common and unassuming incidents from the day-to-day life of his audiences.  He did so because stories, like life, require interpretation and continued reflection.  They are ambiguous, tension-filled, frustrating, intriguing, compelling, and perplexing all at once.  In sum, they are like life.  So, Jesus continuously declares the Kingdom of God is like…


This is how we must learn about the Kingdom.  The Kingdom of God is present through stories; whereby the gospel of God’s grace is broadcast as the Story that defines all of our individual and collective stories.  It is a Story that is not received the same by all; nor (tragically) do all choose to allow this larger Narrative to define their narratives—but it is present through the proclamation nevertheless (cf. Mt 13.3-23).  The Kingdom of God is present in such a manner that it begins as a small, easily ignored seed that over time grows up to a large bush that birds can nest in (cf. Mt 13.31-32).  The Kingdom of God is present as yeast in flour which leavens the whole loaf (cf. Mt 13.33).  The Kingdom of God manifests itself in a manner of humility, of smallness, of lowliness—the greatest among you is the servant of all, the lowest is the greatest (cf. Mt 23.11; 11.11).


The truth about the Kingdom, Jesus declares, is found in subtle (often invisible or barely noticed) growth.  It is something easily missed or discarded as an empty, barren field.  It is something that can be frustrating to wait for, so much so that one may be tempted to reap the harvest before the proper time.  It requires effort to sow the seed, effort to be diligent and hopeful in waiting, and effort to reap the harvest when it is ripe as Jesus reveals in the seed parables of Mark 4. 


We are impatient people in America; and, in many ways, our culture forces it upon us.  We want everything instantly.  We like results that are as quick (and painless) as possible.  Yet Jesus often uses the agricultural cycle to depict the Kingdom, which is neither quick nor easy.  It requires the hard work of sowing and reaping, and then the even tougher task of waiting in the time between the times.  Jesus speaks about a coming harvest that offers hope for the future.  The farmer can endure because of the promise of coming fruit from the ground that seems barren for long periods—too long for our liking.  But the harvest is coming, and diligence in waiting and watching is necessary in order to be ready for the harvest when the fields are ripe.


Throughout the course of the semester I have realized that for all the benefits of nice, tidy, structured sermons— introduction, three points, three illustrations, conclusion—far too much is often lost in translation.  Life is not that structured.  Life is messy and full of questions.  And maybe loosing the ability of the hearers to take nicely organized notes with three main points and a thesis is not all that bad in the end.  Maybe it helps them experience the text in a fuller and more life-like manner.  Maybe, just maybe, they will come to see that the text is like life—it struggles, it questions, it wonders, it lives. 


If we are honest, many of us have grown up with and sought after sermons that offer ten steps to success or spiritual maturity or some other longed for prize because it is controllable and structured and straight-forward.  If we are more honest, many of us have preached sermons that offer ten steps to success or spiritual maturity or some other longed for prize because it was controllable, we knew that it would “sell,” that it would gain us praise, that it would be well-received.  As such, it is both intriguing and humbling to recognize that Jesus did not preach this way—and maybe he could not preach this way even if he had so desired.  Why?  Simply put, the Kingdom is not about propositions anymore than life is about propositions.  Jesus, why do you continue to speak in parables?, the disciples asked, the crowds asked, and we continue to ask even now.  And, in reply, Jesus declares: Because the Kingdom of God is like…


            The Kingdom of God is like a farmer sowing seed.  Like a woman searching for her lost coin.  Like a man offering a meal to a woman dying of hunger.  Like a woman offering a glass of water to a man dying of thirst.  Like a trembling child holding his mother’s hand as they walk through the corridors of the school building for the very first time.  Like a farmer tilling a field.  Like a wedding reception where any and all may come and join the celebration.  Like a man burying his wife of seventy plus years shedding hope-full tears that even on this darkest of days both can be and will be with Jesus in paradise.  Like two weary pilgrims grieved over the loss of the hoped-for Messiah.  Like a preacher sitting in her study until she truly hears Jesus proclaiming “the Kingdom of God is like,” no longer in some distant time and remote land, but to her—in her house, her city, and her time.


In sum, the Kingdom cannot be reduced to a ten step program for success anymore than life can be reduced to the sum of such pursuits.  The Kingdom, like its King, is too big, too vast, too incomprehensible and ubiquitous for that.  Jesus has to speak in parables for life is full of parables—because life, at its heart, is a parable about the Kingdom for those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts alive to the wonder and mystery of it all.  Life is about story, or, more accurately, life is story.  And Jesus continually reveals that at the heart of true preaching, at the center of meaningful proclamation, at the core of Christian witness is Story.  Story about God and humanity; about brokenness and redemption; about the Savior and those needing to be saved; about sowing and reaping; about dying and rising; about losing and finding; about sickness and healing; about men and women and children like you and I seeking to find our way through the darkness by following the glimpses of light we find dimly therein. 


Jesus speaks in parables and the Kingdom is revealed in stories.  Because life is full of parables and stories.  Because life is parable and life is story.  Life is women losing coins, seeds being sown, children wandering away to far country, forbidden fruit being eaten, fig leaves covering over shame, three-fold denials and affirmations, weeping over departures, celebrations over homecoming, and even kings sacrificing life and limb to save and rescue rebel subjects.  The Kingdom of God is like… 

Grace and truth.  Pain and suffering.  Hope and redemption.  Action and drama.  Comedy and tragedy.  Poetry and prose.  Story that defines and illuminates story.  Jesus speaks in parables because life is a story.  Why do movies and books and narrative (in whatever form it may come) move us to tears, while PowerPoint slides with lists of points and propositions bore us to tears?  Because life, at its core, is about story, about drama, about narrative.  Because life and existence is formed and informed by the God who loves stories; by the God who is the master story-teller—greater than Homer, than Dickens, than Virgil, than Dante, than Dostoevsky, than O’ Henry, than Hugo, than even Shakespeare himself.  And when we grasp this truth—however dimly—maybe, just maybe, we will one day have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts wide open to believe that “Once upon a time…” is not really all that different from “In the beginning…” 




[1]               Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 50.


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