‘Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven’
The Lord’s Prayer
29And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Luke 12:29-31 – NRSV
In my last post, I suggested that Christ’s teaching about the Kingdom of God suggests that it belongs to the powerless and the destitute, that it is subversive, difficult to eradicate or control once established, and is viewed as an unwanted pest. In this post I want to look at whether the Kingdom of God points to the ‘life hereafter’ and whether what it means can be summed up in a single, easy to remember, sentence. (Click on the title to read more)
The use of the term ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in St Matthew’s gospel tends to make us think that what this phrase points to, is what happens to us after death, or at Christ’s Second Coming and this tends to be stressed by some churches in the United States and elsewhere, to the exclusion of all other explanations. I believe this to be a mistake. Matthew’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ means precisely the same as Mark and Luke’s ‘Kingdom of God’; it’s just that Matthew goes out of his way to avoid writing the word ‘God’, which was a no-no for Jews, and uses the word ‘heaven’ instead. This heavy focus on the future, on life after death and on Jesus’ second coming, is very unhelpful. Why? Well, if you read what some churches have to say about Jesus’ Second Coming, it can start to sound dangerously like “pay-off time” for all those who’ve failed to be good churchgoers during their life. It becomes the moment when we Christians come out on top and all the others go to burn in eternal hell-fire. You’ll have to decide for yourselves, but this never sounds to me like the nature of the God that I worship. Jesus talks about his Second Coming in the New Testament, of course he does, but he had far more to say about the here and now. For some churches the Kingdom of God is a future event that’ll happen when we die, or at the end of time. This, they say, is the only time when the Kingdom of God will be accepted; when Jesus comes again, to impose it on a reluctant world (note the terminology, which completely ignores that God grants us free will). They stress the need for personal salvation and they talk a great deal about the life hereafter, but they downplay the issues of social justice and the state of our own world. If the end of our world, Judgment Day, is coming, why bother to try to rescue our miserable world, which is such a challenge? As recently as last September, a leading American evangelical, John MacArthur, stated that social justice was a gospel heresy. In response to this, I can only say that I find it hard to accept that I have been reading the same Bible! And I’m not sure how he and his many followers reconcile this with the words of Christ’s own prayer: ‘Thy kingdom come, on earth….as it is in heaven’ (emphasis is mine).
I simply cannot believe that God does doesn’t care about the state of our world. So what do I think the Kingdom of God means? The most helpful phrase that I’ve come across is this one:
The Kingdom of God sums up what the world would look like if God‘s values prevailed
It seems so basic and simple but what would things look like if God’s values prevailed? What are these divine values? The following values run through our Bible like a message through an old-fashioned stick of seaside rock: justice; mercy; freedom from want, oppression and poverty; forgiveness; equity; truth; inclusion, tolerance; love. Jesus was brought up to know his Hebrew Bible inside and out; he knew the stories of the Jubilee Years in Leviticus 25 and the laws that covered how to deal with those who had fallen into poverty. And when his own time came to read these scriptures in the synagogue, he chose a passage from Isaiah 58, which includes these words
‘if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.’
To this we can add Jesus’s own teaching, which as I mentioned in the first part of this blog post, stresses that the Kingdom of God is revolutionary, it belongs to the destitute, it’s not wanted by the world and it undermines the secular hierarchies of the world.
What’s the nature of God? Maybe it’s possible to sum all his values up in one single word – compassion? The Oxford Dictionary definition of compassion is ‘Pity, inclining one to help’. Compassion means ‘to feel with‘, ‘to put yourself into someone else’s place’. Compassion and being compassionate are critical to our understanding not just of the nature of God, or Jesus’ teaching, but also of how we’re expected to react to God looking with compassion on us. If we’re caring, or loving even, we can remain passive. Compassion, though, demands action; it demands an end to suffering; none are free until all are free. Compassion also demands ‘suffering with’. God came to earth to share our suffering because, I want to suggest, this is his very nature, his key characteristic.
Christians are, I believe, called upon to fight to bring God’s Kingdom here on earth now. The God whom we worship is compassionate and cares deeply about poverty, injustice and suffering. If he didn’t, I’m not sure that I’d want to follow him. This means challenging injustice and poverty and oppression wherever we come across them, whilst recognising, of course, our own limitations. If we don’t reflect the values of the kingdom of God, compassionate values, in our own lives and strive to work to bring God’s Kingdom into our world, then what’s the point of the Church? To save souls? To save them for what?
Ultimately, then, the values of Christianity are the values of the Kingdom of God. And the values of the Kingdom are the values of a God whose compassion knows no limitations. It’s against that measure that all pronouncements about what Christian values are, should be judged.