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'Your kingdom come, your will be done ...'

Living in the kingdom of God

Jonathan Cornford

To which system will we entrust the welfare of our children? ‘... for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ (Matt 19:14) (Photo: Patrick, Amy & Mhairi having some good clean fun.)

When I was a child growing up in a Western Australian mining town, we used to try to intimidate an opposing sporting team by declaring, ‘We’re going to knock you all the way to kingdom come!’. Only looking back as an adult did I realise that we were, in an odd way, drawing on a teaching of Jesus. I never thought about the meaning of this phrase at the time, which I picked up from my thoroughly irreligious school mates, however, it clearly referred to something a long way from here and now. I now wonder whether this innocent and ignorant misuse actually reflects the broader Christian community’s attitude to the idea of the kingdom of God: that it is something remote and only vaguely relevant to our present life and action.

 The idea of the kingdom of God is subject to a number of sometimes contradictory confusions. In some parts of the church the difficult and challenging nature of what Jesus taught is circumvented by entirely spiritualising it – teachings about enemies, debt, money and forgiveness all become interpreted as matters of inward attitude rather than outward conduct. Other parts of the church have domesticated the idea of the kingdom of God by almost entirely secularising it: it becomes something we build, largely through incremental political development, with God’s role relegated to that of a figurehead. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out, such an interpretation of the kingdom of God is little more than the Enlightenment idea of progress with a religious veneer. Still others have relegated the kingdom of God to practical irrelevance by interpreting it as something that only comes about at the end of the age, entirely accomplished by God, and therefore having little to say about how we live here and now.

 So if we are to reclaim an enlivening understanding of the kingdom of God we need to clarify some basic questions: (i) what does it require of us; (ii) what is our part in it; and (iii) when (and where) is it? And here we have a further interest in asking specifically what the kingdom of God has to do with our economic conduct.

 The kingdom of God is not just a teaching of Jesus; it is really the teaching of Jesus. For Matthew and Luke, the most succinct way that they found to summarise what Jesus was doing, was to say that he was ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God’ (Mt 4:23, Lk 4:43). Likewise, when Jesus sends out disciples, the summary of his instructions is that they are to ‘proclaim the kingdom of God’ (Lk 9:2) or to pronounce that ‘the kingdom of God has come near’ (Lk 10:9) From the structure of the first three gospels, it is clear that everything Jesus did – whether teaching, healing, performing signs, receiving the lowly or challenging the authorities – was either an instruction about, or an enactment of, the kingdom of God.

 There can be no doubt that for Jesus, the gospel writers and the early church, the language of the ‘kingdom of God’ held powerful political overtones. The Greek word that we translate as ‘kingdom’ - basileia - is the same word that was used to describe the ‘empire’ of Rome. In the mouth of Jesus and in the ears of early believers and enemies, such language about God’s kingship was a direct challenge to the claimed authority of Caesar. And, just like the Roman Empire, Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God demanded obedience in this world. So already we can see, without having discussed any of the content, that the language of the kingdom of God brings us into direct tension with the established order, a fact which is amply borne out in the life of Jesus.

 In both Matthew and Luke, the generalisation that Jesus was ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God’ is soon followed by a (perhaps the) major set of gospel teaching – the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (ch. 5-7) and the corresponding Sermon on the Plain in Luke (ch.6). It is clear that the writers have placed these teachings here to unpack for the reader in some detail what is meant by ‘the good news of the kingdom’. Immediately what these teachings make clear is that kingdom of God is fundamentally concerned with our actions towards others, and that participating in this kingdom will inevitably come at a cost for us.

 A very quick summary of the Sermon on the Mount illustrates the point. It begins with a definition of the ‘blessed’ state; that is, being in ‘the right place’, the place closest to God and to reality. According to Jesus, this ‘blessed’ state consists of being humbled and humiliated, feeling the pain of the world, forgoing personal gain, showing mercy, yearning for justice, being undivided in purpose, seeking peace and suffering persecution. The purpose of those in this state (those in the kingdom of God) is to be of benefit to rest of the world (‘salt’ and ‘light’). From there, Jesus goes on to discuss, among other things, anger and hostility, sexuality and marriage, keeping your word, suffering oppression, refusing to retaliate, giving freely, love of enemies, prayer and fasting, debts, forgiveness, wealth and possessions, and judging others. If it is not already clear that this teaching requires a radical reappraisal of how we live in this world, Jesus drives the point home by stating that you cannot have two masters – you either follow the teaching of the kingdom or the system of empire. He then finishes the whole teaching by emphasising (twice) that those who are part of this thing are the ones who are doing it. Actions, not ideas, are what count.

 Thus far, we can see that the kingdom of God has two essential components: (i) allegiance to God rather than any earthly authority (or system); and, flowing from this, (ii) the enactment of a whole new social order ‘in which grace and justice are linked’ (John Howard Yoder). Just as in the Old Testament, where Israel is called to be an alternative economic community that demonstrates the character of God (see Manna Matters Nov 2009), Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God reconstitutes the call to form an alternative community, but this time defined entirely by its ethics and practice rather than by national identity. As Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement liked to say, it is a new society in the shell of the old.

 This new social order announced by Jesus necessarily included the economic arrangements that exist between people. How can a new social order have any meaning unless it also takes account of the basic facts that most directly determine peoples’ everyday wellbeing? At its core, Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God calls us to abandon our obedience to the dictates of Mammon (Matt 6:24;Lk 16:13; ‘Mammon’ appears as ‘money’ or ‘wealth’ in various translations). Too often, this challenging teaching has been sidelined in the church by characterising Mammon as merely an unhealthy idolising of wealth. ‘Phew, that’s not me’, is the unspoken reaction. But the term Mammon means much more. It really means the system of money or ‘the economic system’, with the connotation that it is an unjust system. To put it in a more current form, Mammon refers to the ‘economic realities’ which are universally acknowledged as the system within which we must live, and by whose laws we must abide. The power of Mammon is that whether or not you want it or like it, you feel that you have no option but to obey it. This is the true definition of an idol.

 But along comes Jesus saying, ‘Forget the system you know. There is another system, a different way, that you can participate in. The rules in my system are generally the opposite of those in the system you know, but believe it or not, you’ll find that it is actually the place where you will find life. But you cannot live in both systems. Trust me.’

 Let’s be honest, this is a scary proposition. Moving towards the kingdom of God requires abandoning the system whose rules we know and understand, even if we don’t like them. It is even more scary when you factor children into the equation. C.S. Lewis, reflecting on the story of Abraham and Isaac, taught that the god you really believe in is the one to whom you are prepared to entrust your children. This brings us to the crux of our belief: the proclamation of the kingdom of God challenges us to think hard about what things we really believe are actually good for us and our children.

 So at its core, participating in the kingdom of God requires us to let go of all of the received wisdom about how we structure our economic affairs. Within this framework, the gospels specifically address issues of standards of living, economic security, mutual support, debt and credit, giving, hospitality, commerce and much more. These are all issues that will be explored further in future editions of Manna Matters; it will have to be sufficient here to acknowledge that the idea of the kingdom of God drives to the very heart of our economic lives, turning everything upside down.

 There is one more matter we must address: when and where does the kingdom of God take place? In the gospels, Jesus is clearly concerned to stress the nearness of the kingdom of God:

‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matt 10:7);

‘the kingdom of God is among you’ (Lk 17:21).

This language echoes Moses’ summing up of the Torah (instruction in God’s way to live) in Deuteronomy, where he emphasises its attainability: ‘But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it’ (Deut 30:14). Nevertheless, it is also apparent in the gospel story that the full realisation of this kingdom is something that has not happened yet. This is most poignantly put in Jesus’ last meal with the discples: ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.’ (Lk 22:15-16)

 This was always explained to me as a mysterious paradox: a kingdom which is both here, but not yet. However, I have now come to consider that the nature of the kingdom’s presence among us is not mysterious at all, but rather quite straightforward. The key lies in fully grasping the nature of what it means to make God king, and the simple formula lies at the foundation of the way that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done.’ (Matt 6:10)

 The reality of the kingdom of God among us is merely a matter of degrees. The extent of the kingdom’s presence is precisely the extent to which we have made God king (which includes the extent to which we are no longer bound by the dictates of ‘economic reality’), which is simply the extent to which we have enacted God’s will. The greater the extent to which we follow God’s will, and the greater the number of us who do so, then the greater the reality of the kingdom of God among us.

 What does this reality look like? That is no mystery: wherever the least are becoming first, the hungry are being filled, the broken are being healed and the tormented are being freed from their demons; whenever people forsake the lure of wealth, or ignore the pressure to be financially secure for the sake of giving more freely to the world; wherever people are willing to stand against oppression and injustice, even to their own cost; there and then, God’s throne has come to earth.

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