God's kingdom (fwd)
Aug 11, 1997 07:21 AM
by K. Paul Johnson
Thanks to Richard for the stimulus to provide details on the
latest thought on the kingdom of God as it appears in the
discourse of Jesus, and as it evolved after his death due to
social and political developments. Burton Mack, in The Lost
Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, argues that
contemporary scholars have unlocked the mystery of Q, the
original gospel from which the synoptics borrowed. He discerns
three different levels of text which present Jesus and his
teachings in different ways. In the original level 1, Jesus
is a wandering Cynic sage. Mack summarizes the Cynic
worldview, identical to that found in the earliest Jesus
"Their task was not to pose as teachers of truths people did
not know, but to challenge people to live in accordance with
what they did know. They constantly called attention to the
accidental nature of social status and the ephemeral rewards of
material success. They criticized social structures of
hierarchy, domination, and inequity by poking fun at the
superficial codes of honor and shame that supported them. They
took every opportunity to deflate the egos of the privileged.
And they delighted in exposing the ulterior motive of calculated
The term "kingdom of God" was used in many different ways as the
Jesus community evolved. It is mentioned in seven sayings at
level one of Q:
How fortunate the poor; theirs is God's kingdom.
No one who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is fit
for God's kingdom.
If you enter a town and they welcome you, eat what is set
before you, attend to the sick, and say that "God's kingdom has
come near to you."
But if you enter a town and they do not welcome you, say
"Nevertheless be sure of this, that God's rule has come to you."
When you pray, say, "Father, may your kingdom take place..."
Make sure of his rule over you, and these things will be yours
What is God's kingdom like? It is like a grain of mustard...It
is like yeast which a woman hid in three measures of flour.
Mack comments, "The first hting to notice is that none of these
references paints an apocalyptic view of the world...In each
case the rule stands for something that can be accomplished,
something that contrasts with the conventional, meriting a
change of attitude or behavior worthy of a new vision. God's
kingdom can be announced, desired, affirmed, claimed and
signaled in a given human exchange. Thus the link between the
notion of the rule of God and the pattern of Q's
countercultural practices is very, very strong."
It was only after the Jewish war and the destruction of the
temple that Jesus was reimagined (and the gospel revised) as an
apocalyptic prophet, and as founder of a movement whose members
were specially favored by God. Mack writes:
"Thus the spread of connotation must be kept in mind when
encountering the term God's kingdom in Q. The language of the
kingdom of God in Q captures precisely the ambiguities involved
in the range of connotation from ruling as behavior to ruling
as domain: from individual to group, behavior to ethos,
practice to conceptual order, human society to divine order.
The thought had not yet occurred at the Q1 level, as it did
later at the Q2 stage, that the location of God's kingdom was
to be found precisely in the social formation of a movement.
But it is clear that an overlap had already occurred between
(my emphasis) THE CONCEPT OF THE RULE OF GOD AS AN ALTERNATIVE
REALM OR WAY OF LIFE AVAILABLE EVERYWHERE TO DARING
INDIVIDUALS, on the one hand, and the ETHOS OF THE MOVEMENT AS
THE PARTICULAR MANIFESTATION OF GOD'S KINGDOM on the other...
THE GOD IN QUESTION IS NOT IDENTIFIED IN TERMS OF ANY ETHNIC
OR CULTURAL TRADITION.(p. 127)
This fascinating book cannot be summarized by such brief
quotes. But I hope it conveys a sense of how an informed
Christian can have a view of the kingdom 180 degrees apart from
that of Baha'is or fundamentalist Christians. In my view,
based on Mack and several other scholars of Christian origins,
Jesus was fundamentally critical of all conformity, all social
institutions that compel obedience, and in no way can he be
considered a precursor of the Baha'i Utopia. (Or of the
Islamic shari`a which likewise represents everything Jesus
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