Before I was ordained and became a parish minister in Iowa, I was a senior editor for Houghton-Mifflin in Boston (click here if you want to see one of my more scintillating publications). Which gives me the right to say this: Mark needed a good editor. In one description of the Kingdom of God, he gives the reader the image of a sickle. A sharp curved instrument that goes in for the kill. Then immediately he says that the Kingdom of God is like a large bush with branches for birds to rest in the shade. Slaughter one minute, a comfortable rest the next. Any decent editor would have made him go back and do a thorough re-write.
Here is Walter Wink’s description of the Kingdom of God (he does a little better than Mark):
Where is God’s reign? Whenever domination is overcome, people freed, the soul fed, God’s reality is known. When is God’s reign? Whenever people turn from the idols of power and wealth and fame to the governance of God in a society of equals. What is God’s reign? It is the transformation of the Domination System into a non-violent, humane, ecologically sustainable, livable environment fashioned to enable people to grow and grow well.
Such a description doesn’t inspire images of birds resting in the shade. In fact, it makes me think of something edgy and potentially subversive resulting in the turmoil that precedes societal change. It is as if Wink read the first part of Mark 4 (the sickle) and didn’t read the second part (happy birds). I wonder who Walter Wink’s editor was? OK. Very arrogant of me to suggest that the sainted Walter Wink needed an editor. I’m just saying.
Perhaps Jesus (through Mark) is trying to tell us that the reign of a God, both powerful and loving, might also prove to be simultaneously both dangerous and safe. And further, the Kingdom life is one of seeming vulnerability yet, unassailable in the face of doing what is right. The sickle and the resting bird. Living as kingdom people means to live with both the peril of the subversive and the promise of redemption.
It’s not a puzzle then why Jesus couldn’t seem to make up his mind about how to describe the Kingdom. Even a senior editor wouldn’t have been much help.