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Nov.20/16 - Understanding the Kingdom of God

posted Feb 21, 2017, 12:09 PM by Wesley Photo Directory   [ updated Feb 21, 2017, 12:12 PM ]
“Understanding the Kingdom of God”
Dr. Roger Petry, Reflection at Wesley United Church
Regina, Saskatchewan
Sunday, November 20th, 2016

Readings: Genesis 1: 26-31; Mark 9: 33-37

Jesus often spoke about the “Kingdom of God”. But what is the “Kingdom of God” and why is it an important idea? While we seldom think of kingdoms these days, the question is actually about the nature of rule or governing. It is about our understanding of how God makes change in our own lives and advances God’s larger plans for society and creation, what was traditionally called God’s providence. Our scientific understanding of the world and our mapping out of cause and effect relationships and the laws of our universe at ever smaller and smaller levels likely makes many doubt that any divine action or agency could actually be meaningfully expressed (much less God’s larger plans, promises, and purposes fulfilled). However, I think a route to seeing this possibility involves reflecting on the nature of rule or kingship as understood in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

The first reading for today from Genesis has to do with God giving humans “dominion” or “rule” over plants and animals. If by dominion we mean simply “exercising rule over nature in our own self-interest as a species”, then we have certainly fulfilled that goal. In October of this year the World Wildlife Fund announced that there had been a 58% decline in the number of fish, mammals, birds and reptiles worldwide since 1970.1 Put another way, wildlife around the globe is disappearing at a rate of 2%/year. By 2020, if these numbers are right, we will have lost 2/3 of our wildlife since 1970.1 For some species it is even worse. 1/3 of Africa’s elephants were lost in only 7 years. People have described this as the 6th mass extinction in the planet’s history but unlike natural forces (such as a meteor striking our planet), the unprecedented loss of species is tied to our industrial, cultivation, and living practices. Because these practices were often viewed as “taming” the wilderness or “developing” unproductive land, this scriptural passage has been viewed by some scholars as the root of our ecological crisis.

This may be true. But if it is true, we need to look at this passage more closely. Perhaps we have misread the text. One issue might be whether this notion of “dominion” supports other comments in the Bible about how we should treat nature. It does not. If we read this passage closely we realize that at this point God is only giving plants to humans for food—we are to be vegetarians. Only at a later point does God allow the eating of meat. Some in Jesus' time continued this older law. Jesus' brother James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, was a vegetarian;2 John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey3 (which is almost vegetarian in my books!). Furthermore, according to this passage in Genesis, God has given this plant material for food for all animals (not just humans): beasts, birds, and everything that creeps on the ground (presumably insects). Whatever human dominion might mean, it is restricted by this passage. The key Bible story expressing God's care for all creation, a centre piece story about biodiversity, is the story of Noah and the flood and God's intentional rescue of all species after the flood; God makes a covenant with all living things promising to never destroy the world in such a way again.

We also need to think about the kind of rule suggested in this passage from Genesis. I have been told that the Hebrew word for “dominion” in this passage is not to be understood as the kind of rule exercised by a king but rather that of a shepherd over his sheep. That this would be the kind of rule most familiar to a near east pastoral society is not a surprise. Who were the rulers the Israelites were familiar with: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Amos, and David: all shepherds. Jesus' birth is announced to shepherds. Jesus himself is called the “good shepherd”. Our modern word “pastor” is latin for shepherd. So what do we know about how shepherds rule?

First how didn't shepherds rule. A shepherd did not rule based on prestige and reputation. In fact, at the time of the 2nd temple in Jesus' day, they were outcasts in part because, being out in the fields for lengthy periods, they could not keep the ritual purification practices (including temple participation) that made one a good Jewish person. A shepherd did not rule on the basis of wealth. Their need to constantly move flocks to better pastures meant they could not carry much and the income generated by this livelihood for most was marginal. A shepherd did not rule on the basis of family support and connections.

The occupation was very lonely—isolating oneself from one's family for lengthy periods of time. Even the basics of maintaining an established household would be problematic. When David, the youngest son of Jesse, is to be annointed king by the prophet Samuel, Samuel repeatedly asks whether Jesse has any more sons and finally David is summoned from the fields where he is tending the sheep.4

So if shepherds don't rule on the basis of reputation, wealth, or family relationships, how does a shepherd rule? A shepherd rules by being attentive and actively watching to keep the flock united and protected from danger. The rounded edge or hook of a shepherd's crook is used to pull sheep from danger while the other end is used to goad the herd along with minimal effort. The shepherd's rule is a gentle rule. The bishop's crosier models the shepherd's crook but has a symbolic function: it marks the Bishop as shepherd of the flock in her jurisdiction; it has a hook to symbolically pull us back from straying from a morally good path and a tip at the end to goad the spiritually lazy; both reflect the bishop's traditional teaching authority and ability to rule in Church matters. The shepherd also takes special care of what is weak and vulnerable. We have likely all seen the image of Jesus as the “good shepherd” with a young lamb over his shoulders or welcoming a little child into his arms as in today's second reading.

We also need to reflect briefly on the purpose of rule. Prior to the prophet Samuel appointing Saul as the first king of Israel, the people of Israel had looked to their neighbours who had powerful kings and wanted one too. The prophet Samuel, however, repeatedly warned them that they did not, in fact, want a king, for a king would subjugate, if not enslave them; he also reminded them that God was their only King.5 Yet they insist; Samuel calls this insistence a “wicked thing” that they are doing “in the sight of the Lord”6 yet eventually concedes due to their stubborness. He does not annoint a King (in Hebrew “melekh”), however, a term Samuel rejected, but rather a “Ruler” (in Hebrew “nagid”).7 The second suggests a governor appointed by God; when God selects David as king, it is because David is a person “after his own heart”; that the pursuit of something greater than ourselves is the goal of ruling (versus the self-agrandizement of kingship), reflects other professions or arts. For example, while some become doctors for the money, the true doctor joins the medical profession for a cause beyond herself, namely the improvement of health; at the heart of each profession (whether a scholar, or an artist, or a lawyer) is something beyond the self, in these cases knowledge, beauty, or justice. And this is also true of ruling.

But what is the goal of ruling if its true goal, like other professions goes beyond the self? The second reading for today where the disciples are arguing among them over who is greatest, points to what the goal of rule might be. In the Roman Empire, the purpose of rule was the accumulation of power over others; yet not even as an end to one's own self-interest: it was accumulation of power for power's sake. Carl Jung called this the Roman's “devil worship of power”. For Jesus, however, ruling is a vocation that one is called to in the service of God, one's fellow human beings, and as a steward of God's creation. When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he refuses to command the rocks to become bread—despite his hunger, nor to command the heavenly angels to rescue him from the top of the temple, nor to take power over all the kingdoms of the world despite the devil's seductive offer.8 For Jesus, the greatest ruler was the greatest servant—a complete inversion of the Roman notion of power and rule. In his final days, Jesus' “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem is not on the warhorse of a general but on a mule, he himself washes the feet of his disciples, and ultimately he gives up his life on the cross for his followers and all people.

Now a ruler who enjoys rule for the sake of ruling in relation to ethical goals and in the service of others has tremendous freedom. She does not need (nor want) the trappings of power; in many ways, enjoyment of rule itself on God's behalf is tested in circumstances where none of these trappings of power are present. When Jesus said not to make a show of one's prayer in public,9 this was a way of testing one’s own intentions. But this is equally true of power exercised beyond that held by those with high status or positions of high office. In fact, once we understand the kind of rule Jesus was talking about, we can move to seeing truer or different spaces of power where action takes place with humility. This can be in our role as ordinary citizens, as parents, as friends, in public forums, on community committees, or on a day to day basis with our colleagues at work.

I believe God also rules in a similar way without making a show of it. God makes small investments in many areas of our lives that grow into something great. Recall Jesus parable of the mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”10 I was recently in Brazil in the small town of Morretes on the Atlantic coast of Parana state; it is at the foot of the remnants of the great Atlantic Rain forest—now reduced to 7% of its original area. I was fortunate to meet an organic experimental farmer exploring the idea of syntropy; how multiple plants can be seeded at the same time, with each chosen to provide capacity for the other plants to grow: one plant might provide nitrogen for the soil, another wards off insects, another provides shade for smaller plants, one has a sturdy stalk to allow other plants to climb, and so on. He showed how productive it was after only two months, then 1 year, then 5 years. At 5 years there were now towering treas that could be used for wood, cocoa plants, spices, and fruit trees, with each plant growing amidst the others in a harmonious way. But to do this kind of agriculture, you need knowledge of the local species of plants: not just individually, but how they work together and have co-evolved, and how their small seeds can be planted one alongside another to maximize their growth with minimal effort.

It was at that moment that I had an idea. This was Jesus' parable of the mustard seed but on steroids. Assuming God's knowledge vastly dwarfs our own, God could plant “seeds” in individuals or start small organizations and arrange them in certain ways that provided incredible synergies as they grew. We have no knowledge of this power in political science (as far as I am aware) as this knowledge is so specific to place and organizations we never think of as powerful. What of the child who as a boy scout or girl guide later becomes a champion for the environment? Or the young person whose parents take them grocery shopping at the coop at an early age who later becomes a champion of fair trade products or a community development worker? And what of the synergies when many girl guides, boy scouts, or young cooperators come down these paths. If God not only knew these synergies but actively nudged and goaded us in small ways we could achieve great goals. God would then liberate in many unexpected ways where one event creates space for another; ways we could only marvel at in retrospect.

Because we are so used to top-down forms of power and heavy handed rulers, we can’t even imagine that there could be a kind of rule as service, that respecting ways of life allows nature to become radically resilient and abundant. How abundant might a prairie ecosystem be if we knew the secrets of these new forms of planting methods? And if a prairie ecosystem could be that resilient and productive, what about a prairie people? If God’s knowledge of the synergies of plants extends to the synergies of planting people alongside one another, we might be in for many positive surprises.

But even here, would God impose this kind rule whose benefits mature gradually over time without God first being invited? Likely not—for God would want to respect our dignity and only partner in our plans if we wanted to. Saskatchewan, however, is a strange place. Where elsewhere political leaders run from crisis to crisis and plan for maybe two or three years in advance, and then, only for their own populations or their elites, we have had bold ethical and spiritual leaders in our not so distant past who have differed and said very strange things. The Métis leader Louis Riel claimed to be a prophet of the new world and that Saskatchewan was to be “a new Rome”; the Baptist Minister turned premier, Tommy Douglas, repeatedly called for a “new Jerusalem” to be built in this green and pleasant land. If they were here today I would say be careful what you wish for: are there any two historical cities that have had more anguish than Jerusalem or more heartache than Rome? But what would God make of it? In the absence of other offers, he might very well take us up on it. But, if so, how would we recognize God’s rule?

Just as Jesus sent his disciples in two's in a non-threatening manner yet as a witness to God's divine rule, God’s rule comes into our lives in small ways yet with growing persistence. As a sheep can hear and recognize a particular shepherd’s voice even when mixed with another flock, we too can learn to recognize God's voice amidst the many other louder and pressing voices calling us.

So God’s rule, if it begins at the level of a seed through small interventions will be difficult to see; yet a good farmer can pick up a seed and recognize what kind it is without waiting for the harvest; similarly we each know our own lives well and we are each instruments of power and rule; so if God is acting in your life or calling you to act, the signs would be tailored to you and be recognizable by you—and maybe have no meaning for anyone else. And this might be a good thing, for as Jesus said, “do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing”;11 a good strategist keeps his power veiled from others just as a good card player keeps her cards concealed from other players. It may be we only see God's plan much later on without any specific signs in our lives. And that is OK too. But we should not despair that there is no plan—for our world makes it entirely possible.

Let us pray. God, you are the ruler of all and your rule is gentle, patient, and kind. Help us to be attentive to your rule, take part in that rule, and delight in your rule. Amen.


   2   See Eusebius, History of the Church. Book 2:23 (citing Hegesippus, Memoirs, book 5).
   3   Matthew 3:4.

   4   1 Samuel 16:11.
   5   1 Samuel 12:12.
   6   1 Samuel 12:17.
   7   The Jewish Study Bible, Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) First Samuel 9, note 15-16, p. 577.

   8   Matthew 4.
   9   See Matthew 6:5-8 and Mark 12:40 (!).

  10  Matthew 13:31-32.
  11  Matthew 6:3.
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Feb 21, 2017, 12:10 PM