There is an old story about the devil watching a man who is walking down the road and stumbling upon a piece of Truth. When asked if he is afraid that the man will pick it up, the devil responds, “oh, no, because he’ll undoubtedly make it into a doctrine.”
How do you explain something that is always bigger and better than what we can comprehend? How do you describe the Kingdom of God when the concept is both the truth we’re stumbling upon, yet still beyond our expectation? Isn’t it true that the moment we think we understand God, God becomes manageable and, therefore, less God-like? I believe that’s why Jesus taught in parables. The power of the story is that it is incredibly true, it deeply resonates with our human longing, yet it’s still completely ineffable. Each hearer hears and sees something more. Each time we hear, we hear something new. The story itself invites us to imagine with it, play with it, dwell in it … To deeply experience, but not to fully understand.
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” [Mark 4:10-13 NIV]
Jesus taught to the masses, to the everyday people. He brought his message to the common people, not the learned or “churched” people. He referenced scripture, like he did above by quoting Isaiah, but he didn’t explain scripture. He taught a truth that was just beyond the words themselves; he taught them to listen between the lines and to live into the creative realm of the story.
“The kingdom of God is like …” The parable is even more complex than metaphor, because the likeness is not to a concept or an image, but a whole story complete with characters, props, and plot. And when Jesus is accused of ungodliness because he’s associating with unclean, unholy, un-good people (sinners and tax collectors) … he responds with three more stories about the true nature of God. God is like the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, the woman searching for a lost coin, the father who welcomed his wayward son.
The problem with teaching Truth in this way is that it’s uncontrollable. There is always space in the stories for the Spirit to show up. There is an authority in Jesus’ words that goes beyond teaching the traditional explanations. This authority is scandalous to the powers that be. It topples the religious structures and attacks the politics of “church order.” He asks people to think, to engage, to enter into a new way of living, not just understanding. And this … this “kingdom of God is like …” talk … this is liberation for the people and an attack on the establishment which proves to be … well … quite dangerous.
P.S. This song by Chris Tomlin was singing in my head as I wrote this post … I need to share it with you.