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8. The Kingdom of God

During many long years Jesus prepared for his mission in the comparative solitude of Nazareth. He absorbed all aspects of the reality that enveloped his people, the people of Galilee. He was one of them. He thought like them. He spoke their language. He felt in his own bones what they feared and what they were hoping for.

But Jesus also found in himself something different. He discovered that God, his Father, was pulling him in a certain direction. He began to see things the way his Father saw them. He began to understand the ancient promises the Father had made to generations of his ancestors. He felt a new power surging up in himself, a vision of what the Father wanted, an anticipation of things to come that could turn the whole world upside down. And the moment came when he knew that he himself had been chosen to be the person through whom the Father was going to speak and act.

This is when Jesus began to announce the kingdom of heaven. 'Kingdom of heaven' is an image of the new reality his Father was going to bring about. Dozens of classical studies have been written on what exactly Jesus meant with this image. (1) Scholars continue to debate a number of questions concerning the image, but on its general outline there is wide agreement. (2)

To begin with, in 'kingdom of heaven', heaven stands for God. This can be seen from the many instances in which the Gospels mention 'kingdom of God' as an obvious equivalent. (3) 'The kingdom of the Father' also occurs. (4) To avoid mentioning God by name, the Jews often used 'heaven' when they meant 'God'. They would say: 'I have sinned against heaven' (5) and 'We don't know whether this is from heaven or from human beings'. (6) Think also of our own expression: 'Heaven forbid!' kingdom of heaven therefore means: God's kingdom.

The word kingdom needs clarification too. When we speak about a kingdom, we usually think of a country that is ruled by a king. We can then say that someone travelled the length and breadth of the kingdom, or that there was a war between two kingdoms, and so on. This is not the first and most important meaning of malkûth, 'kingdom', for the Jews. Malkûth meant someone's 'being king', what we may render by kingship in English. God's kingship means that God is king. This was what the prophets kept telling Israel. God had punished his people for their sins, but in the future he would be their king once more.

'The Lord of Hosts will be king on Mount Zion, in Jerusalem.' Isaiah 24,23

'How lovely on the mountains are the feet of the herald
who proclaims good news.... who tells Zion: 'Your God is king!'' Isaiah 52,7

'Shout for joy, daughter of Zion . . . . ,
The Lord has repealed your sentence,
he has swept away your enemies.
The Lord is in your midst as king, O Israel.
You have no more evil to fear.' Zephaniah 3,14-15

When Jesus announced that the kingdom of heaven had come, he was in fact saying: 'God's kingship has come'. 'God is king once more.' 'God rules over us again.'

Jesus began to preach: 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!' Matthew 4,17.

'If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you!' Luke 11,20.

'Go and proclaim that the kingdom of heaven has come near.' Matthew 10,7

The kingdom of God is not coming with external signs. People will not say: 'See, it is here!' or 'See, it is there!' For the kingdom of God is within you.' Luke 17,20-21

Scholars are agreed that Jesus preached God's kingdom within the apocalyptic expectations of his time. Jesus' contemporaries expected that a revelation (apocalypsis) of God's kingship was imminent. In the Assumption of Moses, an apocalyptic writing of the time, we read:

'Then God's kingdom shall appear throughout his creation.
Then Satan shall be no more ....
For the Heavenly One shall arise from his royal throne. (7)

And the Essenes in Qumran looked forward to God's rule.

'You, O God, radiant in the splendour of your kingdom,
you are in our midst as a perpetual help . . . .'
'To Israel's God shall be the kingdom.
Among his people he will display his power. (9)

In fact, in the Kaddish prayer which Jesus' contemporaries recited every day, people asked God to establish the kingdom in their life time. (10)

The Lord is king!
Play the lyre for our God! Psalm 147,7.
Read the enthronement psalms: no 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 149, 150.

Jesus responded to these apocalyptic expectations of his people. But the interpretation he gave of what God's rule means exceeded their thoughts and hopes.

God's Rule

There are very few kings or queens left in the world and where they still exist they are, to a great extent, no more than figure-heads of national unity. For most of us it is easy to forget how central the position of a king was in ancient society.

In tribal societies like Israel, the community resembled a large family and the king was an overall father; possessing, as father, absolute power and ultimate responsibility. Under a good king the whole family of society flourished; under a bad king everyone suffered hardship. (10) The king was at once lawgiver, supreme judge and army chief. In Israel, in spite of influ- ences from neighbouring nations, the tribal image of a king who is close at hand and paternalistic remained predominant. (11)

This is also how Jesus understood God as being king. For him God was above all 'the Father'. In harmony with the traditional ideas about kingship and fatherhood, this implied both God's absolute authority and his loving concern. Jesus fills these attributes with a new depth of insight.

The Father exercises complete control. He makes the ultimate decisions in Jesus' life. The Father calls Jesus to his mission. (12) The Father reveals Jesus' messiahship to Peter. (13) The Father decides who will sit at Jesus' right hand or left hand. (14) Only the Father knows when the last judgment will take place; he has not told the Son.' (15) Jesus will act as judge on the Last Day, but he will only do so on behalf of the Father. (15) The verdict will depend on Jesus accusing or defending a person before his Father. (16) It is the Father who will give the final pardon.(17) Everything in this world depends on the Father's will. (18) Jesus himself always tries to do the will of his Father. (19)

But God also possesses the tender love of a good father. Jesus called God Abbâ, the everyday Aramaic word for 'Daddy'. (20) In this Jesus was absolutely unique. None of his con- temporaries dared to employ such a familiar term. It was a distinctive feature of Jesus' own praying and preaching. (21)

The anemone coronaria, with its red and blue flowers, is one of the common 'flowers of the grass' that cover Galilean meadows after the rains in spring.
Jesus was impressed by the care 'his heavenly Father' bestowed on these simple creatures.
Had his Father not given them a dress more splendid than the ornate robes of King Solomon?
If God treats the grass like this, how much more will he look after us
.... (Matthew 6,28-30).

Jesus filled the image of God as father and king with people's everyday experiences of parental love and care. God is a forgiving father who looks forward to his wandering son coming back home. (23) God tolerates his children even if they are selfish and ungrateful. (24) Like a good father, God will not give us a snake if we ask for an egg. (25) We need not worry about food and dress or other small matters; as a good father God knows we need these.' (26) God loves us and cares about us as a loving father would.

God, our loving Father, is king. He is in total command. He is taking responsibility. He cares. He wants our good. He invites us to repent and come back to him. All these ideas are implied in the image of the kingdom of heaven. I propose to combine all these ideas in the expression: God's rule. God's rule has begun. This world is now becoming once more God's world. God is our Father who rules us with his loving concern.

There are many implications in Jesus' notion of God's rule. Some of them will be discussed more fully in other books of our WALKING ON WATER series. In Jesus God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Spirit. (27) Jesus has set us free from our sins and from all religious powers that keep us estranged from God. (28) Through God's rule we who believe,

become one family in the Church. (29) The kingdom of God works on us through the sacraments and the liturgy. (30) Since in this book we concentrate on Jesus' people, I will restrict myself here mainly to the consequences of God's rule for human relationships. If God is our father, then we are all brothers and sisters. (31)


For God's rule to become a reality in our world we have to accept God's priorities. We saw in the previous chapter how money had begun to dominate people's lives. That was wrong. Jesus put it simply as an incompatibility: 'You cannot serve God and money'. (32) God's first priority is the good of people.

That this is really God's priority follows from the prophecy of Isaiah which Jesus read to his family in Nazareth:

'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
He has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.
He commissions me to proclaim freedom for captives and sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free
and announce the Lord's year of grace.'
Luke 4,17 1 (33).

God's rule is Good News because it sets people free. The image in the prophecy derives from an ancient custom in Israel, namely that every seven years, at the beginning of the sabbath year, all debts were cancelled and slaves were set free.

'At the end of every seven years you must grant a release. And these are the terms of the release:
Everyone who has lent money to a fellow-Israelite must cancel the debt.'
'If a fellow-Israelite, man or woman, is sold to you as a slave, you are to release him after six years. When the sabbath year comes, you must let him go free. (34)

The holy year, the Lord's sabbath year, was really good news to the poor. God's year of grace which led up to a complete renewal of the Covenant, (35) also relieved the physical hardships of many people. The year of grace Isaiah speaks of includes both the spiritual and material uplift God will provide to his people. In Jesus' time the cancelling of debts was no longer practised literally; but Jesus saw the important social and spiritual implications of the old custom. If God renews his relationship to us, then we too should renew our relationships to each other.

One obvious application lies in forgiveness. If God forgives us (as he does in his new kingship), we too must forgive each other. This was so important to Jesus that he incorporated it into his model prayer, the Our Father.

'Forgive us our debts,
as we also forgive those who are in debt to us ...
Yes, if you forgive others their faults,
your heavenly Father will forgive you yours.
But if you do not forgive others,
your Father will not forgive your failings either.'
Matthew 6,12-15

Jesus worked this out even more fully in the parable of the unforgiving manager. The king had cancelled the man's debts of 10,000 talents, but the manager insisted on his own tenant paying 100 denarii. In his anger the king condemns the manager to be sent to prison till his whole debt was paid. Jesus concludes with these words:

'My heavenly Father will deal with you in exactly the same way, if you do not each forgive your brother from your heart.' Matthew 18,35.

Jesus is saying clearly: your relationship to God cannot be in order, unless you have resolved your relationship to other people. Our making peace with people is more important than anything else, even more important than offering sacrifice.

'If you are bringing your offering to the altar and there you remember that your brother (or sister) has some thing against you,
leave your offering there before the altar, and first go to make peace with your brother (or sister).
Only then come back and present your offering.'
Matthew 5,23 - 24 .

In other words: God can wait. The question of being reconciled to your brother or sister cannot wait. God will not make peace with you, unless you have made peace with the people around you.

Neighbourly love

Charity towards others is not a law which God imposes from above. Charity and love are the stuff God's rule, God's kingdom, is made of. Where love between people is lacking God cannot be present as king. That is why Jesus praises the scribe who has understood that the love of God and love of the neighbour are together the greatest commandment. 'You are not far from the kingdom of God', Jesus told him. (36)

In fact, the two forms of love belong so closely together that when we appear before God at the last judgment, we may expect to be examined on how we related to God. We might think God will talk about what we did for him in prayer or worship. Instead, he will put these questions to us:

'Did you give me food when I was hungry?
Did you welcome me into your home when I was a stranger?
Did you share your clothes with me when I had none?
Did you look after me when I was sick?
Did you visit me when I was in prison?'

And when we are then confused and do not know what to answer, he will say: 'Whatever you have done to the least of my people, you have done to me. (37)

Could there be a stronger way of Jesus telling us that for God people are the priority? In God's world people always come first.

Images of the kingdom of God

When Jesus tried to explain what was happening with the coming of God's kingdom, he often resorted to telling the stories which we call parables.

He would begin the parable with a characteristic turn of phrase: the kingdom of heaven can be compared to this or that. '

The kingdom of heaven is
like a man who had grown good seed in his field . . . (38)
like a mustard seed which a man planted . . . "(39)
like yeast which a woman mixed in flour ....(40)
like a treasure hidden in a field which someone found (41)
like a merchant who was looking for beautiful pearls . . .(42)
like a net thrown out upon the sea . . . (43)
like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants .... (44)
like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire workers . . .(45)
like a king who arranged the feast for his son's wedding ....(46)
like ten girls who were going to meet the bridegroom .... (47)

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to various stories, not to things. That is why in modern translations the opening of the parables is rendered differently. 'The kingdom of heaven is like this. A man had sown good seed in his field, etc.' Jesus sees some comparison between the whole situation described in the parable and what happens in the world when God is king.

We have stated before that Jesus used parables deliberately to make us think.(48) A parable is 'a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought'. (49) ' By making us think about God's rule through parables, Jesus indicated that it was something to be discovered, something that has to 'grow' on us.

The last thing Jesus wanted was for us to have a static idea of God's Kingdom. For there is a vast difference between fixed, closed ideas and open-ended images. The same word can stand for both.

Take the term workshop. In the context of a furniture business, it has a very precise meaning. The 'workshop' stands here for the physical place where joiners and carpenters shape the wood. 'Phone later. John is in the workshop' leaves no shade of doubt. The meaning is closed. But when I say: 'Let's call together some experts for a workshop on this problem', I am using the word as a metaphor. I know roughly what it means, but it remains open-ended. It could turn out to be no more than an informal consultation; it could equally well result in a professional seminar.

Or think of marriage. The word is precisely defined by law. Civil magistrates can determine without much hesitation who is married and who not. If two people are married, they receive well circumscribed rights and duties. Because of the legal dimensions as little as possible is left to imagination. Everything is laid down to the letter. This is marriage as a fixed concept. But when a trade agreement between the United States and Russia is described as 'a marriage of East and West' it has become an image. We know what is meant, but new horizons are implied: the love that binds the two partners, future offspring, permanent commitments, and so on. The term is open-ended.

The word kingdom of heaven is clearly open-ended for Jesus. (50) Its hard-core meaning is clear: God is setting his people free. The consequence is that we should also set each other free. But Jesus did not determine the details for all time to come. He wanted us to be inspired by the image so that we could continue to give creative, new interpretations to God's action and our own response.

This openness to the future and to unexpected growth is a feature of God's kingship itself. Who would have thought that a tiny black grain so small that one can hardly see it, can grow into a tree big enough for birds to nest in its branches? (51) Jesus dreams in this image not only of his band of followers growing into a world-wide community of believers, but also of all the unforeseen ramifications God's revolution could bring about in the world. Similarly, the small pinch of yeast that leavens the enormous mass of dough, (52) expresses the extent his new values could penetrate society. They are beautiful images which he left us to work with in our own way. Through them he invites us to continue his initiative with the same breadth of vision.

Changing our world

When Jesus looked around him in Galilee, he saw plenty of things that would need to change if people were to respond to God and live in his kind of world. He overwhelms us with examples.

* Like the Good Samaritan we must help any person we meet on our way and who is in real need. (53)

* Learning from the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we should not look down on others. (54)
*We should not be like the elder brother of the Prodigal Son who did not welcome him home. (55)
* We should take great care to save those in trouble, treating them as if they were a lost sheep which we seek till we find it. (56)
* We should be merciful, and be peacemakers. (57)
* We should not dominate others as political leaders often do, but render service in humility. (58)
* When we invite people to dinner, we should not ask our relatives and friends, but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind; those who cannot repay us. (59)

These are just examples of what new relationships under God's kingship could look like in Galilee.

In modern society Jesus' vision of a new world will affect relationships on many levels. Without claiming to be exhaustive in my listing, I would like to hint at some of the implications.

There is, to begin with, the international order. Organisations like the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the UNESCO for culture and UNICEF for children, deserve our full support. Third World countries should be given a fair chance. We should not tolerate discrimination against any person because of their origin or colour of skin.

Other people have a right to clean and healthy living. We have a responsibility to use the world's resources sparingly, sharing what we have with others as fairly as possible. We may not pollute or destroy the living space of others because of our own short-sighted gains.

In society all persons should have equal rights. There should be an equitable division of property. The rights of all sectors of society should be protected. Provision should be made to support those in special need, like the unemployed, the homeless, orphans, immigrant workers and one-parent families. The kingdom of God has many implications for our political choices. (60)

In our dealings with the people we meet, we should maintain truly human relationships, resisting the walls technology is erecting within our world. We should give people the time they need and allow them to have their feelings and express them. At all times people should have the first priority in our scale of values.

None of such implications are spelled out by Jesus in modern terms. Yet they flow naturally from his vision. We could summarise all of them as flowing from a radical demand of mutuality. Mutuality was the basis of tribal justice, of family care and village economy. (61) Already the Old Testament contained the advice: 'Do to no one what you do not want done to you'. (62) In the new dispensation of the kingdom of heaven this guideline has been turned into a positive principle and has been extended to all human relationships.

'Treat other people exactly as you would like them to treat you.
That is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets.' (63)

But was mutuality the only demand made by God's kingship? Certainly not. Mutuality was only the first stage, the minimum, the start of the revolution that can transform human relationships. There was more to Jesus' vision; as we shall see in the next chapter.


1. When Jesus teaches us to pray,

'Father, hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come . . .
Luke 11,2,

what exactly is it that he wants us to pray for?

And, will the prayer mean the same for every person?

2. What do you make of this saying of Jesus?

'Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence.
And the violent are taking it by storm.'
Matthew 11,12 3.

Please, read this excerpt from Vatican II and comment on its meaning.

'Although we must carefully distinguish secular progress from the growth of Christ's kingdom, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God in as much as it contributes to the better ordering of human society. First we must obey the Lord and his Spirit by nurturing on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, as well as all the good fruits of human enter- prise. Then, afterwards, we will find them again, now free of the stain of sin, enlightened and transfigured. This will be when Christ will hand over to the Father a universal and eternal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.
On this earth that kingdom is already present as a mystery. When the Lord returns, it will be brought to full perfection.'
The Church in the Modern World no 39.


1. To mention just a few major publications (in English editions): J.WEISS, Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (1900); A.SCHWEITZER, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (1925); E.F.SCOTT, The Kingdom and the Messiah (1911) and The Kingdom of God and the New Testament (1932); W.MANSON, Christ's View of the Kingdom of God (1918); C.H.DODD, The Parables of the Kingdom (1935) and The Kingdom of God and History (1938). A 446-page classic that is still available and that has been updated is: G.R.BEASLEY- MURRAY, Jesus and the Kingdom of God, Grand Rapids 1986.

2. R.SCHNACKENBURG, God's Rule and Kingdom, New York 1963; G.E.LADD, Jesus and the Kingdom, New York 1964; B.CHILTON (Ed.), The Kingdom of God, Philadelphia 1984; N.PERRIN, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus, London 1963, and Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, Philadelphia 1976.

3. Four times in Matthew; fifteen times in Mark; twenty-seven times in Luke.

4. Matthew 6,10; 6,33; 13,43; 26,29.

5. Luke 15,18.

6. Matthew 21,25-26.

7. Assumption of Moses, no 10. R.CHARLES (ed.), London 1897.

8. The War Scroll, IQM 12,7 and 6,6.

9. See page 89 above.

10. Read, for example, 1 Samuel 8,10-18.

11. C.J.GADD, Ideas of Divine Rule in the Ancient East, London 1948; M.NOTH, 'Gott, König und Volk im Alten Testament', Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 47 (1950) pp. 188 - 223.

12. Matthew 3,16-17; 17,5.

13. Matthew 16,17. 14. Matthew 20,23. 15. Mark 13,32. 16. Matthew 25,34.
17. Matthew 10,32-33. 18. Matthew 18,35. 19. Matthew 10,29; 18,14. 20. Matthew 26,39-42.

21. Mark 14,36; compare Galatians 4,6; Romans 8,15.

22. J JEREMIAS, The Central Message of the New Testament, London 1965, pp. 9 - 30; Abba. Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, Gottingen 1966, pp. 15 - 67. 167

23. Luke 15,11-32. 24. Luke 6,35-36. 25. Luke 11,11-13. 26. Luke 12,30.

27. God is Close, WALKING ON WATER, no 6.

28. Religion of the Heart, WALKING ON WATER, no 4.

29. Gospel and Community, WALKING ON WATER, no 1.

30. The Signs of the Kingdom, WALKING ON WATER, no 5.

31. Matthew 12,50.

32. Matthew 6,24.

33. Isaiah 61,1-2. See also above, pp. 68 - 69.

34. 1. Deuteronomy 15,1 -18; here verses 2 and 12.

35. Deuteronomy 31,9-13.

36. Mark 12,28-34. 37. Matthew 25,31-46. 38. Matthew 13,24. 39. Matthew 13,31.
40. Matthew 13,33. 41. Matthew 13,44. 42. Matthew 13,45. 43. Matthew 13,47.
44. Matthew 18,23. 45. 1. Matthew 20,1. 46. Matthew 22,2. 47. Matthew 25,1.

48. See above, pp. 131 -132.

49. C.H.DODD, Parables of the Kingdom, London 1935, p. 7.

50. Scholars speak of the Kingdom of God as steno-symbol (= a closed idea) or as a tensive symbol (= an open-ended image). For an explanation of these terms, see P.WHEELWRIGHT, Metaphor and Reality, Bloomington 1962, p. 92; N.PERRIN, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, Philadelphia 1976, pp. 29 - 32; 197 - 199.

51. Matthew 13,31-32. 52. Matthew 13,33. 53. Luke 10,29 - 37. 54. Luke 18,9 -14. 55. Luke 15,25 - 32.
56. Matthew 18,10 -14. 57. Matthew 5,7.9. 58. Matthew 18,1-4; 20,24 - 28. 59. Luke 14,12 - 14.

60. CH.ELLIOTT, Praying the Kingdom. Towards a Political Spirituality, London 1985.

61. See our discussion of it above.

62. Tobit 4,15.

63. Matthew 7,12. The expression 'the Law and the Prophets' refers to the whole Old Testament; to the totality of God's revelation at the time.

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