What’s unseen but potentially everywhere? It’s so small that it’s hidden, but can spread rapidly and with great impact, consuming and altering communities, people, and nations that appear indestructible. You might be thinking of a virus, specifically the COVID-19 virus that has wreaked havoc on lives, economies, and the social fabric across the globe. But that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Instead, I propose that this is the way of the Kingdom of God.
Pay attention! Our imagination can train us to develop eyes that see and ears that hear Jesus helping us understand the nature of the Kingdom of God. What is this kingdom like? As we look through a few of Jesus’ tiny parables clumped together here in Mark 4, I suggest that the Kingdom of God is ubiquitous, ordinary, and hidden.
Jesus has a way of breaking down empires, dismantling the kingdoms of this world, and dislodging our sense of control over our own lives. In these two parables in Mark, the Kingdom of God is literally down to earth, earthy, humble, common. When talking about God, we often prefer to speak of God as Lord or King, especially when talking about a kingdom— a kingdom needs a king, obviously. But throughout the Gospels, in Jesus’ parables we meet a sharecropper working a field, a trash tree, a baker (and a female one at that), a merchant (and so on). These are common stories of ordinary working-class people doing everyday things. Hardly exciting, and certainly not exalted. Jesus’ parables aren’t fantastic tales like Aesop’s fables of talking animals, or like Greek or Roman myths of gods in disguise stalking unsuspecting humans. God’s kingdom isn’t someplace in the “esoteric sweet by and by” when the roll is called up yonder; rather, it’s up close, it’s near, it’s as close as the wheat seed, growing underground secretly, subtly.
Or… the mustard seed. Jesus has a sense of humor—his listeners would probably have chuckled when hearing this little parable. Where Jesus lived, the mustard seed, brassica nigra, was not a crop they would’ve planted. In fact, it was actually a common, robust weed. (In many parts of the world, it’s considered an invasive species!). The reign of God certainly isn’t much of a cash crop. But it’s not easily eradicated either. It’s like a yard full of dandelions or thistles—so common they’re certainly not appreciated. Hardly magnificent.
The mustard seed is the kudzu or mulberry tree of its day. It’s not sown or nurtured like my tomato or zucchini plants. It shows up often where it’s not welcome. And then it spreads and spreads and spreads… like kudzu covering entire hillsides, like prickly thistles in a bed of lavender— it’s invasive, it’s unpredictable. Doesn’t sound very appealing. And yet, Jesus says that this weed tree becomes a place where birds of the air come and make nests— it provides a place of shelter and nurture.
What others have determined to be junk, God identifies as redeemable, and transformative. It is so ordinary we may not even notice it— that’s why Jesus calls us to pay attention, to train our eyes and ears on this kingdom. It’s ubiquitous— everywhere. The Kingdom of God is not merely coming. It has come; it’s already among us, as Jesus says in Luke 17.21.
There are a couple things about the kingdom we have a tendency to misunderstand— the misperception that the kingdom of God is something that will occur only in the future, and that its presence is contingent upon us. To the first, we might say that yes, the kingdom will come, but the kingdom of God has already come… in the person and spirit of Jesus. And to the second, the misunderstanding that the presence of God’s kingdom is dependent upon us, we might attend to the words of Willie James Jennings. In his incredible commentary on the book of Acts, Jennings explains that, just as Paul & Barnabas resisted being identified as gods by the people of Lystra in Acts 14, so the work of disciples is the work of clarification, that is, separating the messengers of God from the presence of God; we too often confuse our presence with the presence of God in a place. Rather, God is here; God is at work, with or without us.
In the words of Episcopal priest/chef Robert Farrar Capon, “for every second of time the world has been the world, it has also been the kingdom [of God]. The world’s progress through history isn’t a transition from nonkingdom to kingdom; rather, it is a progress from kingdom-in-a-mystery to kingdom-made-manifest,” that is, the Kingdom of God revealed. If the presence of God is in this place— and I believe it is— then this is God’s kingdom. This is the hiddenness of the Kingdom.
It might be worth exploring at this point, what is the kingdom of God? If the presence of God is everywhere, where do we see it? We’re all practiced at telling stories that reveal the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. Where do you see the ordinary, hidden, presence of God— the reality of the kingdom of God, in your particular place? If the kingdom really is ubiquitous, what we really need are eyes to see it, and apocalyptic discipline to reveal it, even in its hidden ordinariness.
Our stories that reveal the Kingdom might sound small, insignificant, or maybe even unrelated to what you think of when you think of the Kingdom of God. But it’s our telling of these stories which reflect the hidden ubiquity of God’s Kingdom. They can remind us that God is at work in the world here and now, bringing about a new creation (2 Cor. 5.17).