What does Jesus say most often?
For a complete sentence the winner is, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” This speaks quite highly of us, that the thing Jesus says most often is essentially, “Listen!” This is Christ the frustrated school teacher, knowing we’re going to miss something important and doing his best anyway.
There’s an old saying about show me your bank account and your calendar and I’ll show you what you value. But as most people aren’t in the business of showing me either, I have to rely on what they say. Not the catchphrases or talking points, but what they talk about most often. What we really hear when we listen.
Right now my dessert chef wife values cakes, our soon-to-arrive baby, and whatever her project of the week is. Last week it was leading the music for Vacation Bible School, this week it’s the nursery, next week she’ll be conquering something else. I know this is what she values because I trust her mouth and my ears. She’ll tell you I value church, sports, and the baby in some order depending on what day it is.
What Jesus says most often is, “Listen!” What will we hear if we do?
There’s a specific phrase that appears more than 30 times in both Matthew and Luke, and more than a dozen times in Mark: the kingdom of heaven in Matthew, or the kingdom of God in Mark and Luke. If we listen, this is what we’ll hear Jesus talk about more than anything else.
It’s also the very first thing he says in Mark, which we believe to be the oldest of our canonical gospels:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1:14-15 (NRSV)
I think this sentence is a telling lens for faith. Sometimes repent gets emphasized more than anything else. Sometimes it’s believe. The gospel starts here and, to be sure, we need the whole thing for it to indeed be good news. But to me it’s significant that Jesus will go on to spend a lot more time talking about the kingdom than he will repenting or believing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (The Gospel of John self-identifies as a book about belief and eternal life, which some biblical scholars believe to be synonymous with kingdom language.)
I believe what matters more to Jesus should matter more to us. It’s worth paying attention to the things he talks about most often.
We have a more difficult time with “kingdom” language because we live in a democracy, but even the most modern translations don’t choose a different word to describe it. And for a guy who will spend a lot of time talking about it, Jesus never really defines it with great specificity. Instead, he tells stories: “The kingdom of God is like…”
In the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells seven of these stories or parables of what the kingdom is like, starting with the one that has become the most famous: a farmer scattered seed. Some fell in the road, some in the gravel, some in the weeds, and some on good soil. The seed in the road is carried away by birds. In the gravel it springs up quickly but has no root, and is scorched by the sun. In the weeds it gets choked out. Only in the good soil does it bear fruit.
I’ve heard a pair of memorable observations on this story. One from Tim Tennent, the president of Asbury Theological Seminary, who essentially asked in a chapel service, “Isn’t this farmer kind of an idiot?”
If you found me outside scattering seed in the road, you’d have some questions. Nothing is going to grow there. Nothing is going to last in the gravel. Nothing is going to survive the weeds.
A wise farmer would sow only in good soil. This is at the heart of the observation made by Larry Osborne in his book Sticky Church:
“No farmer would ever be satisfied with initial growth killed off before harvest. If the soil in any portion of his field produced that result, he’d never plant there again.”
But this farmer, this God? He sows everywhere.
And this is what the kingdom of God is like.
Our job is to help make the ground a little more fertile.