Obama promised hope and change; with Trump, it’s jobs. What did Jesus promise? There’s no doubt Jesus was running a tough campaign and he must have promised something. Unfortunately, Jesus did not leave a recording, and we have to wait some 40-70 years to read what our four gospels tell us. They sifted and strained the many garbled stories that were told about Jesus to present us with four understandably contradictory accounts.
However, all four repeat one promise 71 times: The Kingdom of God. (Matthew uses Kingdom of Heaven to avoid saying the sacred name.) But what did Jesus mean? No one really explains it. All four gospels were written, I believe, after the tragic destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which ended any hopes of restoring the Kingdom of Israel. Were the evangelists reflecting on their own times, or accurately recording the former times of Jesus? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
The famous Church Fathers, Origen and Eusebius, give us these two interpretations:
▪ Jesus promised himself as the Kingdom of God.
▪ Jesus promised the Christian Church as the Kingdom of God.
And today there’s plenty of disagreement among theologians about its meaning. Most of the time the theologian simply pads his own theological agenda. I would much rather ask: What was going on in the late 20s C.E. in Palestine? What kind of a promise would really connect with those people like the promise of “jobs” connects with angry and unemployed Americans today?
The theologian who answers this question the best, I think, is Dr. John Dominic Crossan. We did our doctoral work together in Rome and Dom went on to write the best-seller: The Historical Jesus. In chapter 12, Kingdom and Wisdom, he describes three categories of people who would live in this Kingdom; three groups that Jesus saw around himself every day:
▪ The Humble: Mt. 18:1: “This one is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” In the 1st century, many children were abandoned and destroyed. Jesus saw this practice among his Roman bosses. Jewish children, however, were protected, but the few who actually lived were the symbol of humility.
▪ The Destitute: Lk.6:20: “Blessed are you Ptokoi because the Kingdom of God is yours.” The Greek word ptokoi means destitute, not poor. In Palestine at that time, poor people still had small farms and a little dignity, but the destitute were forced to beg. This ties in to the following beatitudes: Blessed are the hungry, the sad, the excluded and the insulted; they were all Ptokoi.
▪ The Undesirables. Described in 4 parables: The Kingdom of God is like:
1. A Mustard Seed. Mt. 13:31. An undesirable weed that becomes very desirable.
2. Leaven. Mt. 13:33: Undesirable in its present state that becomes desirable in bread.
3. The Pearl Mt. 13:45: Undesirable until sold.
4. The Treasure: Mt.13:44: The man has to sell everything he owned — and become undesirable — in order to buy it.
There is no doubt that Jesus promised a “Kingdom” for the humble and destitute and undesirable. But what kind of a kingdom would make sense to them? Jesus traveled around the countryside talking to prostitutes and beggars and tax-collectors (the most undesirable of all.) And he called these undesirables blessed or lucky people because they were going to receive his Kingdom.
I can see them shaking their heads: “Us? Blessed? You’re saying we’re lucky people? You’re crazy; we’re miserable.” What kind of a kingdom would make them lucky? How about the end of this miserable world? How about thunderbolts from Yahweh, striking down all the Romans and Pharisees, and setting up a paradise on this Earth where there will be no more pain and suffering? The prophet Daniel had promised this kind of a kingdom several hundred years before, and many of our New Testament writers didn’t hesitate to put this promise on the lips of Jesus. And maybe they were right; maybe that is the promise Jesus gave. He certainly could have done so.
But I don’t think so. I think Jesus promised them a life in a loving community, where the tax-collectors helped the prostitutes and the prostitutes helped the beggars, and everyone shared both the misery and the love. A community of undesirable Jews who could say to the overbearing Romans and the arrogant Pharisees: “It’s okay. We love you, anyway.” A Kingdom of today — not tomorrow — that brings honor and acceptance, peace and happiness, joy and loud cheers — to a neglected and rejected group of people. And I think these beggars bought it. That’s what I think.
But that was the year 29 C.E., and times change. Or do they?
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.