The Kingdom of God is like… (Mk 4:26)
One day, walking between two blocks in college, I happened to run into the Principal. I introduced myself as a research student and a priest. The Principal’s next question was, So what are you working on? My project is on spirituality and addictive behaviour, I said. The Principal, a Jesuit theologian, was obviously in a hurry, as Principals usually are! He offered me a quick quip. It came in the form of a question: Don’t you think almost all our spiritual and moral struggles could be reduced to addiction and idolatry? And off he went. But his rhetorical question lingered on in my mind for days. Addiction and idolatry! I do not intent to bore you with all the expertise gathered from my four years of studying addiction. On the contrary, in this reflection, I would like to focus on idolatry. I suppose, by ‘idolatry’, my Principal did not merely refer to worship of images of God. Idolatry is mistaking a symbol for what it signifies. It is the confusion of map and territory.
The gospel text of today begins with these words, “Jesus said, ‘This is what thekingdomofGodis like’” (Mk 4:26) Like! And the gospel text concludes with these words, “Using many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, so far as they were capable of understanding it. He would not speak to them except in parables…” (Mk 4:34). Parables!
One of the situations of concern in the contemporary society, I think, is the loss of the sense of symbol – a discomfort with the language of symbolism, particularly in matters of religion. Two Sundays ago, I had the privilege of standing on the banks of the Thames (inLondon) witnessing the pageant to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the reign of Her Majesty the Queen. The role of the Queen in this country these days is largely symbolic. She signifies the history, the tradition, the grandeur, the pride, and the achievements of the people ofBritain. And gladly, the celebrations of the Jubilee, I thought, had brought out the recognition of that language of symbolism. Yet, in the religious realm in this country, and around the world, the language of symbolism is a bone of contention today.
There are very well-intentioned Christians – who are perhaps too well- intentioned – that they never hear the linking word ‘like’ in the preaching of Jesus. They make no distinctions between analogy and facts. I have not yet come across anyone who makes a fuss around the mustard seed, just because Jesus said thekingdomofGodis like a mustard seed. But without much thought we might ‘absolutise’ some other images that Jesus offers us in order to invite us to contemplate on the mystery of God and His kingdom: such as the fire of hell and the water of baptism!
In the beginning of this month, one Pastor Mack Wolford died from a rattlesnake bite during an outdoor church service just because he failed to accept the language of symbolism in Mark 16:18 (which says, “They will pick up snakes in their hands and be unharmed should they drink deadly poison”). Pastor Mack Wolford, who was only 44, in death followed his father who also died of snakebite in the context of practising his ‘faith’!
On the other hand, we also have the group of very rational people to whom the symbolic language of religion seems only irrational. These are the new breed of aggressive atheists. For instance, Dawkin’s God Delusion is a telling example of the abject misreading of the symbolic character of religious language. In a sense, these atheists are often desperately reacting to the exaggerations of religious people, of the kind who allow themselves to be killed by snakebites in the name of faith!
Both the irrational religious and the rational atheists are idolatrous: they have reduced images to reality. They have mixed up map and territory. One group absolutises symbols and deprives the symbols of their depth, and the other group absolutises the symbols and throws them away.
The gospel text of today invites us to be intellectually open to accept that we really cannot know everything about thekingdomofGod, and the only meaningful way of speaking about the Kingdom is by means of symbols, parables, metaphors. Of course, Jesus “explained everything to his disciples when they were alone” (Mk 4:34), but if we continue to read this same Gospel of Mark we see how dull the disciples were in understanding Jesus (e.g. Mk 6:52).
Why parables, symbols, metaphors? Symbols are the meaningful expressions of mysteries. They allow paradoxical expressions. They are never complete. Yet they are rich. They invite us to add to them. They evoke emotions. They bring people together in a common search. They help us situate ourselves culturally. They provide identity to our belief and belonging. And this is the function of an authentic religion: to provide belief and belonging in our search for God. And this seems to be the most meaningful way of approaching the Divine.
Tony de Mello (the Indian Jesuit mystic) has this powerful aphorism: When a teacher points out at the moon, a wise child looks at the moon, a naïve child looks at the finger! Religious symbols, including the parables of Jesus, point out at the Divine – God and His reign!
In the gospel of today, Jesus narrates to us two seed-parables. The first illustrates the process involved in the growth of the grace of God in us and in the world around us. The second parable contrasts the paradox of the reign of God – it is invisible yet it could be very tangible and powerful. In both is an element of surprise. We do not know how the seed grows. Are we ready to be surprised by God?