The idea of the “Kingdom of God” is at one and the same time the most important and the most confusing concept in the New Testament. It has been since the year dot, and you will remember that John the Baptist ended up asking the question of Jesus “Are you the one, or do we look for another”, so different was Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God.
From the moment of his baptism in the Jordan to that of his death on the cross, the Kingdom of God was central to all that Jesus said and did. When he was baptized his words were “The Kingdom of God has arrived”. When he was crucified it was the question of him being a King that was at issue. There is no question that the Kingdom of God was the dominant theme of Jesus. Marcus Borg says the words are “the best shorthand summary of the gospel…the central message of Jesus of Nazareth.”
But there is a built in problem. It lies in the word “Kingdom”, and no matter how much Jesus tried to distinguish the Kingdom of God, the phrase was tainted with the idea of Kingship. They asked Jesus what his Kingdom would be like and he was quite clear. “It is like a man had two sons……., it is like a man planted some seed…. It is like a little child… The Kingdom of God is within you … and despite countless other examples they never got it. We still don’t get it! Even Dominic Crossan says “The Kingdom of God is how God would run the world if God sat on Caesar’s throne”. “Run the world?” “Sitting on a throne?”. That’s not how I see the Jesus of Nazareth I read of in the scriptures. The idea of the Kingdom of God was never meant to be a comparison with the secular images of power. It was designed to be a critique of empires and social structures – a critique in the name of God. He used the phrase Kingdom of God over and against the Kingdoms of his day. Jesus was promoting a different way of organizing our lives, an alternative way of structuring our lives, a way of life very different to that which the people knew under the Kingship of Herod and Caesar. This was to be the Kingdom of God.
Why then did Jesus speak in terms of the Kingdom of God? Firstly because the expectation of the Jewish people was in terms of a King – a King like David – and secondly because kingdoms were the political reality of his day. When you spoke of the structure of society you had to speak of it in the terms and language of the day. Jesus spoke in terms of the social structure of his day. He contrasted the Kingdoms of Herod and Caesar with the Kingdom of God. Today he almost certainly would not have spoken in terms of the Kingdom of God. Kingdoms today are an anachronism. Kingdoms are a thing of the past, as is the idea of God ruling over us as a heavenly monarch. Kingdoms of the world divide and conquer, resulting in freedom and wealth for the powerful at the expense of the non powerful. The Kingdom of God as envisaged by Jesus is freedom and equity for all “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of God”. The Kingdom of God as envisaged by Jesus knows nothing of what we call “upward mobility” The journey is in the opposite direction. As Gordon Cosby used to say “Whenever you are in a position of privilege, status or power you go down, not up, and you keep going down and down until you are identified with the poor of the earth.” Ours is the gospel of a new world order, a kingdom that exists alongside and in tension with contemporary society. This is what the Kingdom of God is about. It is a concept which Jim Wallis says “demands a fundamental break with the cultural mainstream and the dominant institutions of political and economic power.”
We are called to walk to a different drum beat! We are called to be a creative force for change, and not exist in paralyzing conformity to the status quo. The Kingdom of God, as envisaged by Jesus of Nazareth, was in his day, and is today, very different to the cultural mainstream. The Kingdom of God is about a new way of being, a new reality, a new way of living, something very, very different to the kingdoms he knew in his day and which we know today.