The Size of the Kingdom

Those pushing for “small government” these days are doing a good job of keeping their utter joy under wraps.

Most of the time—no, all of the time!—the rest of us see these folks lamenting the growth of government and making pledges not to raise taxes or the debt ceiling as a way of decreasing the size of the State. (Recall the comment of Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”)

If anything, their wails of alarm seem only to have gotten louder in recent times, with the Tea Party leading the Republican faithful around by the nose and, since the 2010 congressional elections, dictating the agenda of the House of Representatives.

But don’t let these outward expressions fool you.

In their hearts they must be filled with happiness.

Oh sure, like everyone else they bemoan the rise in the U.S. rate of unemployment from 9.1 to 9.2 percent in June. But the increase in unemployment secretly stirred their spirits because it gives them still another opportunity to claim that the economic programs of the Obama administration aren’t working and adding ammunition to their contention that only tax cuts for everyone (including the super rich) and everything (including corporations transferring their jobs to other countries) would bring that unemployment rate down.

An even greater reason for exhilaration was a particular, little noticed, piece of information in the Labor Department’s June report: 39,000 jobs were eliminated in local, state, and federal governments.

It was, for these government-shrinkers, a dream coming true! An actual shrinkage in the size of government!

Keep this up and start running water in the bathtub!

What they aren’t mentioning is that many of those losing their jobs are teachers who won’t be in the classroom come September, and caseworkers who won’t be available to assist children and families in crisis, and drug counselors who won’t help addicts find a way back to productive life.

What a cause for rejoicing!

If someone is an overt or closet racist the joy will be even greater.

Our great recession has hit almost everyone hard. The net worth of white households dropped from $134,280 in 2004 to $97,860 in 2009; but, according to Federal Reserve data, for African American households the drop was from $13,450 to $2,170 for the same period. Yes, since the official end of the recession in 2009, the overall unemployment rate has gone down from a high of 9.4 percent to 9.2 percent; but for African Americans it has risen from 14.7 to 16. 2 percent. Just over 68 percent of white males are working compared to 56.9 percent of African American males. And here’s the kicker: because college-educated African Americans are over-represented in government jobs, they will join the ranks of the unemployed in greater numbers as those government jobs continue to be eliminated.

Whether racist or not, whether pleased or troubled, the simple truth is that reducing the size of government has many unintended (or is it intended?) consequences.

Jesus, we know, had thoughts and ideas about the size of government. To be sure, the government to which he was referring was of a divine kind—the Kingdom of God. But it would be difficult to argue that, for Jesus, the shape and size of the heavenly government had nothing to do, if only as a model, for earthly government. After all, he did teach his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to “come on earth as it is in heaven.”

His teachings on the size of government was most explicitly addressed in a parable about a mustard seed that, as the story goes, a farmer intentionally sowed in the field. And although the seed planted was very small, it grew in size to be a fairly large shrub—even a tree. The point for Jesus, however, was not just that something small gets very big, but also that when it matures it serves an essential function: it becomes a sufficiently large enough shrub or tree “so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13: 32)

Evidently the farmer had this purpose in mind all along, just like the Cultivating-God that Jesus was proclaiming had a purpose in mind from the beginning: to have a world of such size and shape and character that all the families of the earth could make their homes in it.

This surely was a parable about the size of God’s government, which grows from something small to something large. Yet the central point is not the spectacular growth of the divine government or, for that matter, the size of the government as an end in itself. Instead, it is the function of the divine government—to provide for the needs of all of the creatures—that determines the size that is required.

(Scholarship on this parable, by the way, suggests that the point about the size of the shrub or tree is to point to its inclusiveness—incorporating all of the Gentile worlds along with the Jewish people—and not to any narrow exclusiveness.)

One would think there’s a lesson from this ancient parable that’s translatable to our contemporary debates about earthly kingdoms: not size, large or small, for its own sake, but size adequate—no, not just adequate, but essential—for the flourishing of creaturely life together.

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