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Politics of Scripture

The Scandalous and Subversive Kingdom

Given the precarious nature of the planet we call home, the need for a scandalous and subversive kingdom animated by the Spirit of God, which advocates justice, mercy, compassion, and healing to the creation, couldn’t be more urgent.

31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

33 He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Matthew 13:31-33 (NRSV)

Unprecedented temperatures in the US and Europe and extraordinary flooding in Asia and South America dominate recent headlines. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that the climate emergency induced by global warming is shaping these and other exceptional weather patterns. And yet, the United Kingdom government went back on its pledge to contribute 11.6 billion pounds to the climate nature fund, the US failed to increase its contribution despite being the highest emitter of greenhouse gas, and Shell has ramped up oil production instead of cutting it. Climate catastrophe is not something that is going to unfold in the future. It is happening right now, and excessive greenhouse gas might make life impossible on this beautiful planet in just a few decades. As one news commentator put it, “If the disasters we’re seeing this month aren’t enough to shake us out of that torpor, then the chances of our persevering for another hundred and twenty-five thousand years seem remote.” This is a stark call for the world to shake off its ‘business as usual’ slumber and act. The whole creation is indeed in bondage and groaning in pain (Romans 8:22). 

Faith communities across the globe have a huge stake in responding to this willful destruction of the planet earth and all its inhabitants. Particularly in Christianity, care for the creation assumes importance because we share in a common identity with the creation through God as the source of all creation. Responding to the climate emergency is a theological and ethical imperative. Further, from a post-colonial perspective there is an acute awareness that much of the current climate emergency could be traced back to the colonial epistemological frameworks that dominated socio, political, theological, and economic life for centuries, which needs to be decolonized for a change of direction. Decolonizing such theological perspectives on creation is a spiritual and political vocation.

Reading Jesus’ teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God in the context of the climate catastrophe offers a counter-cultural perspective. In this series of parables in Matthew, Jesus compares his theological alternatives to a mustard seed, a bit of leaven in dough, a hidden treasure, a pearl of great value and a net catching fish. Jesus uses the parables as a window to open up the imagination of his audience, so that they can look beyond their immediate colonized social and political life. Jesus effortlessly employs metaphors from agricultural, domestic, and fishing experiences. Even though at first glance these metaphors may seem mismatched, the message is simple: the kingdom of God initially may appear to be inconsequential, but its transformational impact always comes through. Matthew is suggesting that the world is a mixed bag of good and evil, but through a provocative lens Matthew engages and challenges us to consider what God’s kingdom is like.

In this post I would like to focus on the mustard seed and the leaven. It is also important that we not misunderstand the word basileia as an earthly kingdom. Rather, it points to the realm of God as opposed to the rule of human beings. Nonetheless, it is a politically subversive and counter-cultural model proposed by Jesus in the context of a colonized Judea.

In the Judean context, a mustard plant is actually more of a wild weed than it is a wheat. During Jesus’ time, the mustard plant was often seen as an uncontrollable, invasive, and undesirable wild shrub. The important point that Matthew makes here is that Jesus was not comparing the much-anticipated kingdom of God to a noble Cedar tree, but to a weed, a wild mustard shrub! What captures our imagination is that this lowly plant, which is despised or even disregarded, becomes the unexpected symbol of God’s dominion. This undesirable mustard “tree” scandalously becomes part of God’s alternative plan to the colonial political establishment.

Similarly, when Jesus is highlighting the leaven, it is a substance that is actually a rotting, molding lump of bread. Contrary to our current understanding, leaven in the Judean world was a sign of impurity, a negative symbol of corruption, and kneading it into the flour irreparably tainted the loaves. Jesus’ suggestion would have been a shock to his audience.

Given the cultural perspectives of Jesus’ day, the metaphors about mustard seed and leaven may have landed as sinister and subversive. But from a post-colonial reading, it indicates that the Kingdom of God is a subversive political and theological idea that will break into our world in hidden and unexpected ways. Jesus employs theological queering through these parables, a practice that subverts dominant narratives and offers alternative view points particularly from the margins. The mustard seed and leaven parables highlight the realm of God as present in an unpredicted and, by worldly standards, a scandalous path that challenges colonized predicament.

Jesus through these parables suggests that the kingdom of God will break into this world and set in motion a different community unlike the powerful and ostentatious political kingdoms run from palaces and towers that capture public imagination. Contrary to it, Jesus’ idea of the kingdom of God looks small, as insignificant as a grain of mustard or a measure of leaven. It may even look foolish to the naked eye. But this foolish little kingdom of transformative ideas can change the world. Needless to say, it has, and continues to resist forces that seek to undermine and colonize. Matthew situates Jesus in the prophetic tradition, bringing justice, mercy, compassion, and healing to the creation.

The climate catastrophe is fuelled by necrocapitalist economics and sustained by our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. Christian theology in many aspects is complicit in upholding such colonizing ideologies. The impact of this complicity on the planet is multi-dimensional. Forest fires, floods, and scarcity of resources all contribute directly or indirectly to human conflict and result in the displacement of people. The vicious cycle of this life-threatening paradigm continues to shape our world and the planet.

Is there room for a mustard seed and a pinch of leaven to transform and change the course of our lives and our planet? Can the subversive and scandalous ideas of Jesus and the kingdom of God provide a window of imagination to save the planet we call home?      

Recently, a new volume titled Decolonising Ecotheology provided the mustard seed perspective grounded, shaped, and informed by indigenous and subaltern experiences and their spiritualities. This volume seeks to destabilize the theological legitimization of colonization and their contemporary manifestations of settler colonialism, neo-liberal capitalism, and white supremacy from authentic subaltern and indigenous perspectives.

Methodologically, boundary crossings and transgressions are central to decolonizing. From this perspective it becomes clear that the key culprit in speeding up the climate catastrophe, which disproportionately affects the lives of the indigenous and most vulnerable communities is the colonial leitmotif of disembowelling of natural resources. The remedy lies in re-sacralizing and reordering the Earth through the connected Indigenous worldview of heaven and earth as opposed to the colonized worldview that promotes conquest, plunder, and the extermination of land and communities. In the indigenous worldview, the planet is a living being and not an inanimate object to be exploited.

If we carefully consider that theChristian notion of human identity and the dignity of all beings is fundamentally shaped by the shared nature of their created-ness with the creator, his shared nature is essentially an embodied one. We cannot conceive their worth or value in a vacuum but only in the recognition of the divine in other living beings situated within the environment. So fundamental is the imago dei as an element of creation that it ought to be the supreme value that shapes our identity and therefore our belonging to one another, because we all share in that ineffable love as the source of our being. Such theological framing gives a spiritual approach to climate justice, which seeks to reimagine an alternative to economic life, coming from our moral commitment to God and to one another, to recover the fundamental principles of radical love, compassionate care, and hospitality to offer an alternative in this world.

A connected earth spirituality provides space for solidarity, which is life affirming and underpinned by the interdependence of all creation as God intended. Such solidarity also results in the realization that what affects others affects us, because our lives are intertwined. From a postcolonial perspective, solidarity could be understood as radical shared interest that leads to shared action. Therefore, solidarity is resisting any force that destroys the God intended interdependence and balance. In other words we are bound to one another and with the creation in God. If we undermine the intertwined and interdependent nature of our being, we become less than human, less than God intended. Herein lies the transformative idea that is like the mustard seed and leaven.

The kingdom of God that Jesus preached is like the mustard seed. It might be small, invisible, and even overlooked and despised, but once you see it, it invades your whole world, subverts your entire life, and has the potential to transform our world. 

So firstly, in the context of homogenization and monoculturing of humanity by dominant forces, we need to keep our eyes open to see the kingdom of God breaking into our lives in the most unexpected places and through undesirable people and be ready to embrace it.

Secondly, in the context of climate crisis fuelled by global warming, we are challenged to become like the mustard seed and leaven, subversive and scandalous, in order to pursue the liberation of creation from bondage and destruction.  

The thrust of Jesus’ teachings on the scandalous and subversive nature of the kingdom of God is to challenge his audience to think differently, to change their attitude to life, so that they may experience God’s love in their broken lives. Given the precarious nature of the planet we call home, the need for a scandalous and subversive kingdom animated by the Spirit of God, which advocates justice, mercy, compassion, and healing to the creation, couldn’t be more urgent. 

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