... Gentile minds that ignore the Jesus context
But what is the Kingdom of God?
We recite it regularly in the words of the Lord's Prayer: "Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven" - but what do we think God's Kingdom really is?
Some Christians speak of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven as much the same thing - the place that the faithful go after our earthly race is run and our earthly life is done. Other Christians say that the Kingdom of God is here and is also yet to be.
Other Christians claim that the Kingdom of God is the Church itself, while others claim that the Kingdom of God is within each of us.
Other Christians speak of the Kingdom of God being here and now - a place in which we live and for which we have responsibility to maintain and develop.
But these are all gentile interpretations and here is the 'health warning': if we simply align ourselves too closely to any of these gentile interpretations that have been developed within the Christian Church since the end of the 1st century CE and ignore the context in which the Jewish writers quoted the Jewish Jesus, then we will never know what the Kingdom of God means.
So what is the Kingdom or the realm of God?
To help us identify the Kingdom of God we start with a lesson from history! To do this we need to imagine ourselves back into the Israel of the 1st century of the Common Era. We need to imagine ourselves as Jews rather than later interpreting gentiles.
The world in which those 1st century followers of Jesus lived was one in which there was a long-looked for full independence of Israel from the brutality and exploitation of the Roman Empire. There was a longing for the full restoration of what had been Yahweh's promises to Abraham as recorded in the Book of Genesis, including:
"I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." [ch. 12:3]
"The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, 'Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring for ever." [ch. 13:14 & 15]
"I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.' " [ch. 17:7 & 8]
The Kingdom of God was about the God of the Hebrews' promise of a perpetual inheritance to those who thought that they were God's only chosen people. And yet, since those heady days of the first fulfilment of Yahweh's promise, the people had been in and out of slavery, military occupation and exile, century after century. Indeed, around 600 years before Jesus the people of Yahweh had been defeated in battle and they had been exiled in Babylon for some 60 years. The Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed in 587 BCE. There was then restoration under Cyrus and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple some 500 years before Jesus.
However, relative independence was short lived because within a century the Persians invaded and took control. Then the Greeks removed the Persians and they ruled until they, too, were overthrown in 301 BCE by Ptolemy, the leader at that time of the Egyptian dynasty of Macedonian kings. This occupation lasted just over a century before the Seleucids conquered the land that had been promised to Abraham and his descendants.
The revolt by one of the great Jewish military leaders, Judas Maccabeus in 161 BCE, brought a century or so of independence. There were increasing skirmishes with the expanding Roman Empire until, finally, Pompey entered Jerusalem in 63 BCE.
To help us understand what the Kingdom of God meant to Jesus the Jew and the writers of the Christian Testament, we need to be aware of this history of military defeat and oppression, and especially the then longed for restoration of independence from the Roman Empire that existed before, during and after the life time of Jesus.
But, as always, there is more! Yahweh's people were waiting for the Messiah - the one who would rid them of Roman occupation and thereby fulfil Yahweh's promise to Abraham so that their homeland would really be theirs from that point on and for perpetuity.
And onto this stage emerged Jesus of Nazareth. Here was an itinerant wisdom teacher and healer recognized by many as having a spiritual authority that none of the 'official' spiritual leaders amongst the Sadducees and Pharisees possessed. But at this moment we need to rid ourselves of any 'gentle Jesus meek and mild' because there is a further social, political and economic context that we cannot ignore if we are to understand what the Kingdom of God meant to Jesus and his fellow Jews at that time.
When, 1200 years before Jesus the so-called Promised Land was shared out, rules were laid down concerning the buying and selling of one's birthright portion of the land. When the early Hebrew community arrived in the Promised Land it was both fraternal and egalitarian. If a farmer got into financial difficulty he could sell his land to another and often would then continue to work the land but on behalf of the new owner. However, the law of Jubilee, detailed amongst other places in Leviticus 25:8-55, included the following:
"You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month-on the day of atonement-you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces. In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbour or buy from your neighbour, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbour, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop-years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God." [vv8-17]
And yet, in the time of Jesus rural poverty was widespread, partly the result of generation after generation having sold their land to absentee landlords who then often ignored the rules of Jubilee. As a result there was rural migration to the towns and cities where families who could not get into the expanding building trades lived in abject poverty with no welfare state and no one to assist them or to bail them out.
But there was growing wealth and work for those fortunate enough to find it. Herod Antipas was building the new city of Tiberias on the shore of Lake Galilee. This was a new city to honour the Roman Emperor Tiberias and demonstrated just how much the leadership of the Jews was collaborating with the Roman oppressors against the interests of all Jews who had been promised the land as their Yahweh birthright.
Knowing this background should put a whole new interpretation for us upon, for example, the stories attributed to Jesus concerning such as the workers in the vineyard lining up each morning and waiting all day in the hope that someone would employ them for that day. If you remember, the Matthew 20 parable is about the vineyard owner paying all the hired labourers the same regardless of the number of hours worked.
This parable is not so much about God choosing who and what people are paid and the number of hours for which they are paid, but it is the Jesus reminder and invitation to the listeners to think again about Yahweh's egalitarian promise that all Jews were equal. It is also a Jesus attack upon those Jews who were exploiting and abusing the rules of Jubilee at the expense of fellow Jews.
This Matthew 20 parable is an example of where our gentile minds have missed the real issues within the Jewish stories. It has led us to over-spiritualise what are fundamental historical and political issues concerning the nature and reality of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not about a pie in the sky when you die theology.
The Kingdom of God is about countering the economic, political and religious exploitation and injustices that exist in the here and now. It is no wishy washy liberal or left-wing agenda but it is a full-blooded assault upon all that makes one person inferior to another; that exploits many for the benefit of a few; that requires the selling of the labour of the majority so that the minority 'fat cats' can live off their backs.
For the sake of the Kingdom of God we need to set our understanding within its original context rather than within the interpretations of later gentile minds. This interpretation of what the Kingdom of God means in our contemporary society is not only relevant but it is a challenge to all who are followers of the Way of Jesus to live and to promote the way of justice and equality for all people.
The Kingdom of God is to be lived in such a way here and now that injustice is overcome, because only when there is justice for all will there be peace for all. And with 74 days to go before the General Election it will be the political party that will realistically come closest to creating a new egalitarian, just and peaceful world [a world both within and beyond our borders] - that will be the party that will move me closer to my decision come 7th May!
The Baptism of Jesus
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'
The Temptation of Jesus
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.' (NRSVA).
Copyright ©: 2015, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.