Sun 28 Aug
‘Thy Kingdom Come’ is probably one of the most well-known phrases in Christianity, central as it is to the prayer we know as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.
The Lord’s Prayer is Christianity’s greatest prayer. It is also, when you think about it, Christianity’s strangest prayer. It is prayed by fundamentalist Christians but it never mentions their doctrines of biblical inerrancy, or a literal virgin birth, miracles, an atoning death and a bodily resurrection. It is prayed by Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Catholics, and Anglicans but it never mentions congregation, minister, sacraments or preaching. It is prayed by Christians who split from one another over this doctrine or that, but it never mentions any of those doctrines. It never mentions the after-life. It is prayed by Christians who emphasise what it never mentioned and also prayed by Christians who ignore what it does.
You could of course say there is nothing strange about all this because it is a Jewish prayer from a Jewish Jesus. But that only invites us to start the question of strangeness all over again. For it does not mention covenant, law, Temple or Torah, circumcision or purity, or so on.
Dom Crossan[i] calls it a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world. It is a revolutionary poem proclaiming the radical of justice that is at the core of Israel’s biblical tradition.
And this morning I will share some insights into that poem by focusing on those three words – ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.
Although the word ‘Kingdom’ is central to the phrase I want to begin with the ‘Thy’ or ‘Your’. It is of course a reference to God. And Crossan steers us back into Jewish tradition by means of the metaphor of ‘householder’. God is envisaged as the householder of the whole world, the oikoumene. Note: God is not just the householder of those who think themselves to be God’s special ones, not just religious the people, and not just people. Oikoumene is the whole inhabited earth.
The vision of God as householder derives from the common experience of a well-run home, household, or family farm. If you walked into one, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well-tended? Are the animals properly provisioned? Are the buildings adequately maintained? Are the children and dependents well fed, clothed and sheltered? Are the sick given special care? Are responsibilities and returns apportioned fairly? Do all have enough? Especially that: Do all have enough? Or to the contrary, do some have far too little while others have far too much?
The vision/metaphor of a well-run household provides the basis for understanding biblical justice. Nowadays people seem to think ‘justice’ is about the so-called ‘bad guy’ getting punished. That’s retributive justice and, as we know, often doesn’t change society for the better. When the Bible talks about a vision of justice though, it is distributive justice or making sure everyone has enough.
The Bible doesn’t suggest that everyone is paid the same. It doesn’t promote a political or economic ideology per se. It simply wants, within the metaphor of the household [the oikoumene], everyone to have enough. It promotes enough-ism. And how much is enough? It is the amount to both physically survive and participate in the household. And that of course will differ in each time and place.
The biblical authors did though see a relationship between extreme wealth and extreme poverty – and saw the presence of poverty as both an indication of greed and a lack of commitment to both the household and the householder [God]. But I digress.
Thy Kingdom Come. God’s vision of a just household come.
Aemelius Sura wrote around the middle of the 2nd century BCE and listed the five great ages of the world[ii] as five great empires – the Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans. The biblical author Daniel, writing around the same period, agreed with Sura save for the last. Instead of Rome he proposed the Kingdom of God. And this Kingdom stood against all the imperial kingdoms before, during, and after it.
Daniel animalified those earlier kingdoms, calling them ‘beasts’. In contrast he personified the Kingdom of God as ‘like a son of man’ [or ‘human/e one’]. This humanlike one is both the guardian and personification of God’s Kingdom. Daniel was indicating that the concept of God’s Kingdom is not so much about territory but about a process and style of rule. So the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ might be better translated as ‘the reigning of God’.
Daniel also tried to predict when this Kingdom would come – when the divine clean-up [the eschaton] of the world would begin. Ever increasing disappointment in Israel’s experiment with monarchy had led to an ever increasing idealization of King David. The popular hope was that a new anointed one [a messiah, a Christ] – the future branch from the ancient Davidic tree – would come forth to usher in God’s reigning.
The popular imagination envisaged the new David as a warrior leader like the old David who would militarily liberate Israel and make it great again. This idea of the Davidic messiah is picked up by the New Testament authors and applied to Jesus. However it’s pretty clear Jesus wasn’t having a bar of it. Loving your enemies and turning the other cheek are not great military strategies. Indeed Jesus was trying to bring about a paradigm shift in how people understood the Kingdom/reigning of God.
Think about the theological differences between John the Baptist and Jesus.
In all likelihood Jesus was a disciple of John’s. The gospel writers tried to disguise this, but the baptism of Jesus [the follower] by John [the mentor] is irrefutable[iii]. John helped shape what Jesus believed, and what Jesus didn’t believe.
John was an apocalyptic eschatologist. In other words he preached an imminent Divine clean-up. John believed that only sin held up God’s transformative intervention. So he created a great sacramental and penitential renewal of the Exodus. His followers were first brought out into the desert east of the Jordan and were then brought back into the Jewish homeland through that river. As they passed through it, repentance purified their souls as water washed their bodies. They were thus received into the ‘promised land’ as a regenerated people. Then, said John, God would come. Furthermore this imminent God would be very much a violent avenging presence – with His winnowing fork[iv] and His axe.[v]
But John was wrong, terribly, tragically wrong. He announced the immediate advent of an avenging God and what came was the immediate advent of an avenging local ruler. Herod Antipas arrested and executed him. And God did nothing – no intervention and no prevention.
Jesus watched, learned, and changed. He radically reinterpreted. He changed his understanding not only about the coming of the Kingdom of God, but about the God of that kingdom. Jesus began proclaiming a paradigm shift within his contemporary Jewish eschatology.
Firstly, the Kingdom wasn’t imminent, it was already present. Jesus said, and repeated consistently in the gospels: “The Kingdom of God is among you”[vi]; “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near…”[vii]
Today it’s hard to realize how absurd this proclamation of the Kingdom’s presence must have sounded to Jesus’ audience. ‘Where is God’s new world to be seen?’ they would have asked. ‘Where have the mighty been brought low, and lowly lifted up?’ ‘How has anything changed in a world of peasant poverty, local injustice, and imperial oppression?’
In answer Jesus proclaimed the second part of his paradigm shift: the Kingdom comes about via collaboration. ‘You have been waiting for God’ he said, ‘while God has been waiting for you.’ ‘You want God’s intervention, while God wants your collaboration.’
This is why Jesus did not settle down in Nazareth or Capernaum and have his companions bring people to him. Instead he sent them out to do what he was doing – healing the sick, eating with the healed, and demonstrating the Kingdom’s presence in reciprocity and mutuality. ‘It is not’, he said, ‘about intervention by God, but about participation with God’.
The third part of this paradigmatic shift was non-violence. Jesus gave the nonviolence of God as the reason for his own refusal to resort to violence. The Kingdom’s presence demanded nonviolent collaboration between the divine and human. “Love your enemies.”[viii] But why? “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”[ix] Like God, like Jesus, we are called to nonviolent resistance to the violent normalcy of civilisation.[x]
Jesus’ followers understood that the coming of God’s Kingdom, the dawn of eschatological transformation, the Great Divine Cleanup of the World – by whatever name – is nonviolent, and so also are our God-empowered participation in it and the God-driven collaboration with it. They understood that God’s kingdom did not, could not, and will not begin, continue, or conclude without human collaboration.
To pray, therefore, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ is to not to cry out for a super-saviour to arrive from the sky, or wherever, and fix up everything. It is not to pray for retributive violent justice. Rather to pray ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ is to commit ourselves to collaborate with others in building a world/a household/an oikoumene of where everyone has enough, where nonviolent distributive justice is the norm, and where all can participate in its joys and responsibilities. It is a prayer that requires commitment – a difficult commitment.
[i] I have used extensively in this sermon John Dominic Crossan’s The Greatest Prayer Harper, 2010.
[ii] The five great ages of the world had been listed by Hesiod in the 7th century BCE as Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron ages.
[iii]There is embarrassment around the baptism – Mark accepts it (1:9-10), Matthew protests it (3:13-16), Luke hurries it (3:21), and John omits it (1:29-34).
[iv] Matthew 3:12.
[v] Luke 3:9.
[vi] Luke 17:20-21, Luke 11:20, Matthew 12:28.
[vii] Mark 1:14b-15, Matthew 4:17.
[viii] Matthew 5:44.
[ix] Matthew 5:45.
[x] The strongest witness to this nonviolent eschatology of Jesus is actually Pilate. On the one hand, Jesus was crucified for resistance to Roman law and order. On the other hand, Pilate made no attempt to round up the disciples of Jesus. Pilate understood – correctly – that the kingdom movement was one of nonviolent resistance.