I’m posting this because I’m preaching on Sunday, and the lectionary readings are some short parables by Jesus on the Kingdom. What Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God has been debated endlessly. The way I was first taught it, it sounded boring and irrelevant. Now I find it challenging and important.
Histories of the debate usually begin with the leading nineteenth century theologians, lumped together by Karl Barth as ‘liberals’, who thought Jesus was basically an ethical teacher and the Kingdom of God was a future state to be achieved by living morally good lives. At the end of the nineteenth century Weiss argued that, on the contrary, Jesus taught that the End was nigh. The Kingdom of God would be a sudden change as God intervened in history to put things right. Schweitzer popularised the theory and it dominated New Testament scholarship for most of the twentieth century. The divine intervention didn’t happen so Jesus was wrong.
More recently scholars have found out a lot more about what Jews believed in the time of Jesus. Many Jews did expect an imminent end, but others accepted more traditional forms of Judaism as expressed by their scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament. If Jesus’ teaching stood in this tradition, what he meant by ‘the Kingdom of God’ should echo Old Testament descriptions of God as king.
God as king in the Hebrew scriptures
For this purpose we can distinguish four stages in Judaean history.
1) Before the Exile of 587 BCE: the monarchy in Jerusalem and its temple worship were similar to the surrounding monarchies and cults. The establishment view was that the national god created the world, protected the nation from its enemies and appointed the king to govern. The rule of the king was the rule of God. It was a common belief all over the world. This is what the Stuart king Charles I believed.
2) During the Exile: Judaeans reflected on their defeat and produced the Deuteronomic literature. God had permitted the monarchy reluctantly, with stern warnings of the implications. The period before the monarchy had been better; the people had been poorer but society had been more equal so everybody’s needs had been met. Gideon exemplified it:
Then the Israelites said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian’. Gideon said to them, ‘I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you’.
The laws in Deuteronomy, composed during the Exile when there was no opportunity to enforce them, envisaged a comparatively egalitarian society. All debts were to be cancelled every seven years. Slaves were to be freed after six years. Lending money at interest was forbidden. The state tribute, the tithe, was converted into support for the poor, an annual feast at worship. The king’s power was subordinated to the laws.
3) In the post-Exilic settlement: Judaea was a tiny state within the Persian empire, granted a high level of self-government. The Persians approved the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, as the official collection of their laws. It included Deuteronomy, but also Leviticus which stipulates that every fifty years the land should be redistributed between the families.
Also important was the introduction of monotheism, the claim that there is only one god. First promoted by Second Isaiah towards the end of the Exile, monotheism characterises all of the Hebrew scriptures; earlier texts were edited to make them consistent with it. Ultimately, God was the ruler of the whole world but God permitted the kings of the nations to rule. Judaea no longer had a human king but it could claim God as its king. In one text the people are to be ‘a kingdom of priests’. Such kingship claims could be associated not only with Israel as God’s kingdom but also with the ethical nature of God’s rule. In these texts there is both a present and a future element: God already rules the whole world by permitting the rulers of the day, but Jews also look forward to a more direct rule where God’s laws are obeyed.
4) The Apocalyptic tradition: In the Hebrew scriptures as we have them – the Christian Old Testament – there is very little apart from its latest production, the book of Daniel (probably 168 BCE). However apocalyptic was a popular form of literature from then until the early second century CE and at the time some of it would have been considered scripture.
What characterises it is the kind of millenarian expectation that becomes popular when large numbers of comparatively well educated people find their living conditions rapidly deteriorating. The logic is: surely God will not allow this to continue. Something must be done. God must intervene. These must be the end times.
This was the situation In Jesus’ day. The regulations of Deuteronomy and Leviticus to protect the poor were no longer in force. Judaea and Galilee were governed by the Romans, who had no intention to abolish loans, free slaves or redistribute land. While the rich got richer peasant farmers were being driven off their land into situations of absolute desperation.
Jesus and the Kingdom of God
There is no doubt that many Jews at the time of Jesus believed the end was imminent. However the Jews were best known for their monotheism, and the two do not fit. Having no rivals, God has supreme power. God created the world exactly as planned; Genesis 1 drives the point home. By contrast a dramatic change to God’s provision would imply that God had got something wrong. The idea of a succession of ages fits a polytheistic system where a change in power relations between the gods leads to a new supervisor of earthly conditions. This would have been well understood in Jesus’ day.
Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, leading New Testament schlars, argue that what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God was mainly a way of life in the present. Crossan says it
looks to the present rather than the future and imagines how one could live here and now within an already or always available divine dominion. One enters that Kingdom by wisdom or goodness, by virtue, justice, or freedom. It is a style of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future. This is therefore an ethical Kingdom.
For Jesus, the term ‘Kingdom of God’ was an appeal to those older scriptures. God had designed the world so that there was enough food for everyone and a moral obligation to make sure nobody went without. The Romans had perverted God’s intentions, leaving many destitute. On a political level Jesus and his colleagues were in no position to challenge Rome’s power; the Kingdom of God would be an ideal situation perhaps attainable in the distant future. On a practical, local level, however, the vision of God’s justice, God’s generosity, could empower people to live the life of God’s kingdom in their own day, to the extent that they could, by sharing what they had with those who had nothing.