New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous regarding the message of Jesus. They maintain that his message was the Kingdom of God. He believed that the story of Israel was coming to a climax in his ministry, person, and destiny. All of his teachings were about God’s Kingdom. He forgave sins, healed illnesses, and cast out demons as signs that God’s Kingdom was present with him as God began the fulfilment of ancient promises of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Luke 11:20 reads, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you.”
The concept of God as King has ancient roots. All through the prophets and the Psalms, God is proclaimed and celebrated as “King.” But the problem the Jews of Jesus’ day faced (which we still face today) is this: If God is King of the universe, why is there so much evil, suffering, violence, and chaos in the world? People have agonized over that question for thousands of years. The best of theologians still struggle with that question. They have suggested some helpful answers, but no one has discovered THE ANSWER. The Jews in the first century C E chafed under the corrupt and brutal rule of Rome and her lackeys. And there were several would-be messiahs who claimed to be sent from God to bring about a universal age of justice and peace as they led the Jews to a military victory over Rome. They all failed. God’s Kingdom did not come through them or their efforts. Many thought Jesus, too, was a failure, but his followers saw his resurrection as God’s validation of him and his message. Somehow the Kingdom of God came in the Christ event and what that meant was very different from what was expected. (I suggest that this difference is a starting point in approaching the question of why there is still so much evil, suffering, violence, and chaos in our world. But that is for a future article.)
In this article I want us to consider what the Kingdom of God meant to Jesus and the early disciples. The people of Jesus’ day were well acquainted with kings and kingdoms. Kingship was the only form of government known in the Mediterranean world. The Roman emperor boasted of the title “king of kings and lord of lords.” The emperor worked through client kings to maintain order and to collect taxes to finance Rome’s conquests. Everyone knew what kings were—and what they were like. To communicate his message, Jesus had to work with what the people of his time were familiar with. He could not talk about democracy, republicanism, socialism, or communism. These were alien concepts in his day. So, he took the expectation of God as King (which had ancient roots in the Judaism of his day) and radically reversed what anyone in that part of the world expected from a king. The King of Jesus’ Kingdom came to serve—to love and forgive enemies—to rule through compassion—to champion the poorest of the poor and the most marginalized within Rome’s empire. This King came to seek and save “the lost,” not to condemn, threaten, or punish them. This King’s rule was “good news of great joy.” Caesar in his relentless propaganda claimed to bring “good news” (the Greek word for “good news” is euaggelion from which we get our word “evangelism”). But the writers of the New Testament proclaimed the God of Jesus to be the one who brought good news to the world. God was the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not Caesar. John Dominic Crossan helpfully suggests that Jesus was suggesting for his hearers to imagine what the world would be like if God (as understood and revealed by Jesus) were King instead of all the Caesars and Herods of that day.
I am quite confident that if Jesus came in our day instead of two thousand years ago, he would not choose the term “Kingdom of God”. Kings in our day are for the most part lacking in power and serve as mere figureheads. We need some other term to communicate the essence of what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the term “beloved community.” Clarence Jordan called the Kingdom of God “the God Movement.” Brian McLaren, in his book, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide, offers several suggestions, each of which focuses on one aspect of God’s rule as King in light of the crises we face today. To address the global security crisis, he suggests the divine peace insurgency. To confront the global equity crisis, he maintains Jesus would speak of God’s unterror movement. To deal with the global prosperity crisis Jesus would announce the new global love economy. And to encapsulate his entire framing story, Jesus might use the image of God’s sacred ecosystem. Several have suggested a matrix of love and compassion.
There has been a recent suggestion that I want to explore in the remainder of this article. Tripp Fuller, Ph. D. is a difficult theologian to characterize. I call him “a radically orthodox, neo-process theologian.” He’s more than that, but that’s the best “label” I can give him at this time. In a provocative book entitled The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic . . . Or Awesome?, he suggests that we “drop the g” from the word Kingdom. He maintains that what Jesus came to proclaim, embody, and inaugurate could best be understood in our day as “the kin-dom of God.”
This suggestion has much to offer to our current appreciation of what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. First of all, Jesus had an intimate experience of and relationship with this God he called Abba (Father/Papa/Daddy). He told his followers that they could approach God in the same way children relate to a parent who can be trusted and who loves them deeply. If we are children of God, then we are royal heirs. We are part of a family—a kin-dom with massive implications.
There are several teachings of Jesus which support this way of understanding the Kingdom of God. On one occasion, Jesus’ mother and brothers came to bring him home because of rumors circulating that Jesus was insane. When he was told that his mother and brothers were outside asking for him, he responded, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and mother.” He defines the fellowship of those following him into the Kingdom of God as his family (Mark 3: 20-35).
After Jesus’ radical teaching comparing the possibility of the rich entering the Kingdom of God with that of a camel going through the eye of a needle, Peter said, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecution—and in the age to come eternal life.” Jesus defines those who enter the Kingdom of God as his family and promises that this new family will be more loving and inclusive than what his followers ever experienced in their “natural” families. (Mark 10: 28-31). There is a kinship reality to Jesus’ understanding of God’s Kingdom.
In Matthew 25 (the only detailed description Jesus gives of what we call “the Last Judgment”) he calls those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and imprisoned “my brothers and sisters.” The family of God, according to Jesus, goes beyond blood ties. It includes those whom the world has treated as the least important but whom Jesus sees as his siblings and as the children and heirs of God.
And then there is Jesus’ parable about what we call the prodigal son. The very first verse of that parable tells the whole story. “There was a certain man who had two sons.” The story goes on to tell us that neither son in the father’s eyes could ever cease being his beloved child. He welcomes the prodigal home with such extravagance and joy that his neighbors are no doubt scandalized. And the parable ends with the father begging the older son to join the party and take his rightful place at the father’s side. Perhaps today Jesus would start his parable this way: “There was a certain Man who had 7.4 billion sons and daughters,” all of whom are God’s beloved children.
One final observation: Jesus maintained that compassion is the primary characteristic of God. We are to be compassionate because Abba is above all compassionate. What is interesting is that the Hebrew background to the word compassion goes back to the “womb” of a mother. God is like a mother who feels such empathy, compassion, and solidarity for her children. When they suffer, she suffers. Some Hebrew scholars suggest this root meaning of compassion could also refer to all those who have shared the same womb. In other words, all the brothers and sisters gestated and birthed by the same mother. By choosing compassion as the primary characteristic of God, perhaps Jesus understood metaphorically that we all have come from the same womb—the womb of God. That’s why God’s love is unconditional and indiscriminate. Jesus’ command that we love and pray for our enemies makes more sense when we realize that in his eyes, they too are the beloved of God—that’s why “your Father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-46). And just as the prodigal’s father had two sons, so the Divine Mother has billions of daughters and sons. Once we begin to realize how great and deep God’s love is, we can appreciate how radical the Kingdom of God was in Jesus’ eyes.
When we “drop the G” from Kingdom, we perhaps come a lot closer to comprehending and appreciating the radical and inclusive nature of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. I agree with Tripp Fuller. The more I study Jesus, the more awesome I find him to be.