The thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew contains a number of parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. Elsewhere, this kingdom is described as the Kingdom of God, a term that will be used in the continuing discussion. The Kingdom of God came to the front of some modern theological discussions due to a group of theologians who started a seminar that was supposed to bring progressive and conservative points of view together on the nature of Christ. This seminar has since been named the ‘Jesus Seminar’.
Among other things discussed by the Jesus Seminar was the application of a double attribution rule to the gospel record. The double attribution rule is the same rule used by newspaper reporters. If a reporter can find two different sources for the same story that provide the same information, the reporter can make a reasonable assumption that the information is true. The double attribution rule was proposed as a method to determine the ‘true’ words of Jesus. Things went downhill from there.
My background is in computer science, specifically in database design and implementation. From a database perspective, if the New Testament is the data source, the double attribution rule is simply a filter. Filters are used every day on databases to make sense out of vast amounts of data. When the application of the double attribution rule to the New Testament brought the Kingdom of God concept to the fore, I was very interested.
In my mind, the Kingdom of God is Jesus’ practical efforts to create a new social system. All the descriptions of the Kingdom of God are in parables. The use of parables keeps Christian disciples from putting the Kingdom of God in a box and marketing it. In my experience these parables apply to the modern life of Christians in wonderful, liberating ways.
The mustard seed parable in Matthew 13:31-32 is as follows:
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 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.”
At the beginning of my jail ministry, it seemed that my ministry partner was going to preach and I was going to pray for him and the inmates as he preached. I thought I could add something to our chapel service by bringing some simple songs that wouldn’t require a hymnal or even written words. One such song is this:
Bless the Lord my soul
And bless God’s holy Name
Bless the Lord my soul
Who leads me into life.
One day as my ministry partner and I were coming into the room in which the chapel service is held, one of the inmates, named John, just started singing this song to me. He stopped me in my tracks.
John is the mustard seed.
I felt the Holy Spirit was asking me to take up a song leader ministry. And I have done so. I print out the lyrics of an old Baptist hymn and take it with me to the jail. We’ve sung ‘On Christ the Solid Rock’, ‘Amazing Grace’,’Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Sweetest Name I Know’ and ‘Higher Ground’. This week we’re singing ‘Standing on the Promises’.
The community of inmates singing hymns is the mustard tree.
I have an aural memory.
I can hear my mother singing these songs from back when I was a child.
She has a unique voice, a very high soprano.
My mother and I don’t get along very well. She wants me to be a Baptist and I’m not.
She seems to have a number of other agendas that I also don’t feel good about.
But, yesterday I called her up and told her that I was taking her into the jail in my heart because I have all these old Baptist hymns with her singing them in my aural memory.
Taking my mother into the jail in my heart is the birds making a nest in the mustard tree.
Dr. Menninger, the one of the most famous psychiatrists of the previous century, is reported to have said that he wished he could bottle up the essence of choir practice so he could use it when he practiced therapy. Something wonderful has happened to our jail chapel service as a result of the singing.
John, the inmate that started the whole process, has a horrible voice. I, myself, have never lead the singing in any church that I’ve ever attended. My mother is a painful presence in my life. And yet, something wonderful has happened.
The Kingdom of God is not a theory. It’s not a piece of the Apocalypse – as in ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth’.
The Kingdom of God is among us.