After centuries of subjugation to various empires, the Jews of Jesus' time wanted to know: if God is just, and the world belongs to God, why is the world so unjust? One stream of Jewish tradition answered that question with this mantra: God will overcome, someday. At some point in the future, God would not only clean up the mess but also create a perfect world.

We sometimes mistakenly call that expected Utopia the "end of the world," but for ancient Jews or Christians that would have been impossible. They believed that only God could destroy the world and that, having created it and declared it to be all-good in Genesis 1, he would never annul that creation. (We, of course, can easily imagine the "end of the world" since we ourselves can now do it atomically, biologically, chemically, demographically, or ecologically-and we are only up to the letter E.)

What ancient people waited for with eager faith was an end not to earth or world, but to evil, violence, and oppression. What they expected was not a transfer from earth to heaven, but a transfer of heaven to earth.

For example, here is a Jewish vision of utopian social transformation from around the time of Jesus' birth: "The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together" (Sibylline Oracles 2:319-24). These texts indicate a longing for God's new creation of an ideal world, a perfect world to replace this imperfect one.

Jesus arose from this stream of Jewish tradition--but he also made three rather stunning mutations within it. Jesus did not create an innovation against Judaism but a transformation within Judaism. Here are Jesus'ideas: First, he claimed that the Kingdom of God, a standard term for the Great Divine Clean-Up of Earth, was not just imminent but already here, was not just coming soon but had already started. And that, by the way, was a difficult claim to make. What may have been expected as an instant of blinding divine transformation was now proclaimed to be a process in time, an event with a beginning, a continuation, and an end.

Second, Jesus claimed that in this new understanding of God's Kingdom, people were called to make it happen. They could enter the Kingdom here and now. They should take the Kingdom upon them. Remember, of course, that the coming of the Kingdom meant to do the will of God on earth, according to the Lord's Prayer. And, of course, the use of Kingdom of God (rather than People or Community of God) made it quite clear that the Kingdom/Empire of Rome was being negated. Third, to put it in an aphorism: John had a monopoly but Jesus had a franchise. In both Josephus and the New Testament, John's nickname was the Baptist, the Baptizer. In order to end the Baptism movement, Herod Antipas had only to execute John. On the other hand, Jesus told his companions to go out and do exactly what he was doing. By the time the authorities came for Jesus, the Kingdom movement could no longer be stopped simply by executing Jesus.

So what was Jesus' Kingdom program and what did he and his companions actually do? In the 20s of that first century, Antipas had begun the first steps of Romanizing and urbanizing Lower Galilee by replacing the city of Sepphoris with a new capital at Tiberias. He increased productivity by commercializing not just the land, but the lake; increased his popularity by marrying Herodias, a Hasmonean princess; and hoped, no doubt, to become King of the Jews under the new emperor Tiberius.

Those plans did not impoverish Lower Galilee, of course, but by bringing its economy under the Roman boom, they dislocated peasant life on land and lake, changed the safety-nets of village and kinship, and probably pushed many families off their small farms and into Sepphoris or Tiberias in search of work. This unequal prosperity led to prophetic indictments from both John and Jesus.

Jesus told his companions to heal the sick, to eat with those they healed, and to announce that the Kingdom of God had arrived. Healing is the basic spiritual power. Eating is the basic physical power. That mutual sharing of spiritual and physical power, in a sense, recreated the sharing aspects of peasant life in contrast to the greedy life under Antipas' Romanization process.

Think about those twin aspects for a moment. Those who bring healing and those who furnish eating are not exactly in the same position. They represent, respectively, itinerants and householders. By itinerants, I mean people pushed off family farms or family boats as the New World Order arrived in Lower Galilee. Think, for example, of how readily fishermen followed Jesus. By householders, I mean families who know how easily they could lose their own farms or boats in a changing economy. As itinerants and householders faced one another, the former saw where they had been, and the latter sawwhere they could be. The program of the Kingdom was to join both groups in support and common life.

In Leviticus 25:23 God says that, "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants." Land is life itself and cannot be bought and sold like other commercial commodities. In the gospels and throughout the New Testament there is little said about land and much said about food. But the continuity is clear--land is there for food, and the basis of life is land because it produces food.

Jesus' Kingdom program was not just about politics or economics as distinct from theology. It combined religion, politics, and economics; it was about divine distributive justice; it was about the ownership of this world; it was about a theology of creation.

Used with permission of The Search for Jesus e-course.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus